Syrian refugees top 2 million – and Zaatari camp prepares for long haul

As Zaatari refugee camp swells, aid workers are instituting regulations more typical of a permanent settlement to provide stability and safety for Syrians.

Mohammad Hannon/AP
Syrian refugee boys play soccer at Zaatari Syrian refugee camp, in Mafraq, Jordan, Wednesday, Aug. 28. More than 2 million Syrians have fled the country's two-and-a-half year conflict.

They call the simple lane running through Zaatari refugee camp the Champs Elysées, though the camp is a far cry from Paris or any of its comforts. 

But the 120,000 Syrians living here – some for more than a year, others for just a couple of months – have managed to create quite the shopping strip, with slushy machines, wedding dress shops, and color TVs for sale. One particularly enterprising refugee elsewhere in the camp even created his own swimming pool, charging 1 JD ($1.40) for each half-hour of swimming.

The only problem is that an integral part of such entrepreneurial ventures is often goods stolen from elsewhere in the camp and repurposed. As it turns out, a latrine door ripped off its hinges and propped on communal trashcans makes quite a suitable table for one’s shop.

As the United Nations UN refugee agency, UNHCR, announced today that the number of Syrian refugees has reached 2 million, aid workers in Zaatari are scrambling to find innovative solutions for what has become the world’s largest humanitarian crisis – one far beyond the scale originally expected.

According to a UNHCR statement, the the number of Syrian refugees has jumped almost 1.8 million in the last 12 months. This time last year there were about 231,000 refugees. Since opening last summer, Zaatari has become the second-largest refugee camp anywhere in the world, and the fourth largest city in Jordan – nearly the size of Fayetteville, N.C., or Fort Collins, Colo. – despite sitting on a plot of only 2 square miles.

But there has been some progress. Aid workers are trying to channel the creativity and innovation of the Syrians in more positive directions and the refugees are becoming more willing to engage with those trying to help them.

“It’s our role to translate that energy into something positive that can contribute to the wellbeing of the camp," says Iris Blom, deputy camp coordinator for UNHCR.

“The situation has really improved a lot by engaging the community,” Ms. Blom says, adding that she is seeing a “change of mind-set” among the refugees. Now their attitude is more along the lines of, “Maybe it’s good to work together because maybe we won’t be going back [very soon].”

Aid groups have also been working with the Jordanian government to establish local governing councils that would improve the rule of law in the camps, though the potential for a more permanent camp is a delicate one for a country whose natural resources have already been taxed by its hospitality.

Sprawling challenges

Jeff Silverman of Oxfam has a long history of working in refugee camps, from South Sudan to Darfur to Liberia. But he says Zaatari is the most challenging camp he’s ever worked in – and many of his colleagues agree.

It’s a unique mix of cultural and logistical challenges, with an assertive population that is used to a much higher standard of living than your average refugee. 

“There’s no communal sense like you see in Africa,” says Mr. Silverman. “Here it’s just everyone for themselves.”

Syrians have attacked aid workers distributing everything from diapers to the small trailer-like caravans that are preferred above UNHCR’s tents, and created primitive dollies to move them elsewhere in the camp if they don’t like the place they are assigned.

They steal water tanks for their own use, bribe or threaten the drivers of the water trucks that come daily to replenish communal supplies, and try to set up latrines inside their own tents or caravans instead of using the communal washrooms, creating a massive challenge for sanitation efforts since the camp sits atop Jordan’s most important aquifer and all wastewater and sewage is supposed to be trucked out of the camp. And they jury rig their own connection to the camp’s power lines, causing the monthly electricity bill to come in at half a million dollars.

The rule of law consists of self-appointed street leaders and a handful of powerbrokers who tend to operate more like a mafia than a government.

So Oxfam brought Silverman here in January to engage the community more and involve them in the problem-solving exercise of figuring out how tens of thousands of refugees can live in dignity here. UNHCR installed Kilian Tobias Kleinschmidt as camp coordinator two months later. Both have worked hard to engage community leaders, even the troublemakers, and give refugees more of a stake in their life here – not just a tent.

“It takes work to help them understand that we’re not here to tell them what to do,” says Silverman, who stresses the need for greater information sharing between aid workers and the refugees. “They have very good ideas as well.” 

While UNHCR oversees the camp as a whole, day-to-day operations are divvied up between various aid groups, either spatially or by a particular need, like food or water.

In the section of the camp where Oxfam is responsible for water, sanitation, and hygiene, he has made rotating wash committees responsible for cleaning the new bathrooms that Oxfam put in place this year. It's an alternative to paying individuals to do it, creating jealousies and leaving the facilities vulnerable to vandalism and theft by those who don’t have a stake in it.

So far, it’s mostly working, but on a visit earlier this week an older woman rushed up to Silverman to complain that the committee in her area was not doing a good enough job cleaning. She was passionate and in his face.

But he’s learned that that’s just the typical Syrian way of communication.

"I have heard your complaint, and I will bring Farah back to find a solution," he told her through a translator, referring to an engineer who works with Oxfam. But as little boys hung on his arms, he also emphasized the need for community input. "We need to discuss it with all the women who use it," he said.

Controlling the chaos

In the coming months, aid workers hope to roll out a governance plan intended to bring more order to the camp. It would enable Jordanian authorities to establish the rule of law and give refugees, as well as Jordanians in the surrounding community, more of a say in how the camp is run. 

Under the plan, each of the camp’s 12 districts would have something roughly equivalent to a municipal council, with representatives from the Jordanian police as well as humanitarian agencies. Local elections would be held for refugee representatives.

Blom of UNHCR says no such plan has ever been implemented at a refugee camp.

And it’s a delicate process, because as welcoming as Jordan has been, its economy and water resources are already under serious duress. The country has absorbed more than 515,000 Syrian refugees in multiple camps, as well as a long-standing Palestinian refugee population and some Iraqi refugees who haven’t gone home, so it is wary of Zaatari becoming too permanent.

And it is enormously expensive to host that many people for a very long stay. Yet aid groups have struggled to raise funds for Syria, which is somewhat typical in conflict situations as opposed to natural disasters.

After the Haiti earthquake, Oxfam raised $30 million from North Americans in a very short amount of time, says Mike Delaney, director of humanitarian response for Oxfam America. But despite a very proactive approach to fundraising for the Syrian crisis, Oxfam has received only $300,000 in donations from the American public. (Editor's note: The original version of this article overstated the contributions received for Haiti.)

Christa Case Bryant visited Zaatari refugee camp with an Oxfam delegation.

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