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Rioting forces UN staff to abandon Syrian refugee camp in Jordan

The UN evacuated staff from the Za'atari refugee camp twice in the last day. With winter weather bearing down on the roughshod camp, the conditions refugees rioted against will only worsen.  

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UNHCR has been scrambling to raise more funds for housing, while UNICEF, the UN children's agency, is looking for money for clothing, heaters for the school, and an upgrade to the camp's sewer system to prevent flooding when the rain comes.

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"Across the board, we're racing against time before winter comes; which is not necessarily supported by the limited funding," said UNHCR Representative Andrew Harper, in a phone conversation from Geneva last night. The UN has received less than 30 percent of the $250 million it has requested from Jordan. 

No one was injured yesterday, according to the UN, but the clashes were at least the third time serious violence has broken out in the camp. All have seemed to follow a similar trajectory: They begin with the refugees, particularly young men, demanding to be allowed to return to Syria, and escalate into violence when the Jordanian security forces try to control the situation.

UN security procedures require that personnel be withdrawn whenever there is violence, Mr. Bibi says. They returned this morning, only to be withdrawn again later in the day amid warnings that there could be another violent gathering. Jordanian security swarmed the camp as aid staff withdrew. 

"[The World Food Programme] brought us food this morning, but since then we haven’t seen anybody and they still haven’t bought us anything else to eat," says Um Mohammed. "We are just exhausted and totally run down.  No one is helping us. People can not live like this. ... After the dust storm started the riot police were not letting anyone in, and would not receive the boys outside and they started beating the young men.  There isn't even any drinking water, or water in the bathrooms." 

By evening, some staff had returned to the camp and were trying to restore order. Mahmoud Omoush, a representative of the Jordan Hashemite Charity Organization, the local NGO that manages the camp along with UNCHR, said water was finally being brought into the camp, and denied that there were problems with food.

"I do not see any problem for the refugees now," he said, although he admitted that the camp was without power, which a team from JHCO was working to address.

But with tensions rising in the camp, and insufficient funds for expanding and improving shelter and providing adequate food and water, the situation appears to be getting out of control.

"We are getting beaten up by life, getting beaten by the darak, getting beaten by the weather," says one of Um Mohammad's sons. "The other boys that are here with me, they want to go back to Syria tomorrow."

With frequent violence disrupting operations, UNHCR officials are trying to stay the course. They believe the only solution is to continue to upgrade the facilities in Za'atari.

"There has been improvement on a daily basis," said Mr. Bibi. "And once these improvements are gradually felt by the refugees, I think things will calm down. ... But without the international donor support, we cannot reach that objective."

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