The Zaatari refugee camp

Parastou Hassouri has written for the blog before. She has been living in Cairo since 2005, has worked in the field of international refugee law and specializes in issues of gender and migration. This is a detailed (and really engrossing) acccount of her experience working in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, where hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees currently reside. 

In March, the United Refugee Agency (UNHCR) announced that the number of displaced Syrians had reached one million (the real number is surely higher as many Syrians leaving for other Arab countries do not necessarily register as refugees). The UN’s announcement was accompanied by a plea for funding: Only one third of the funds needed had been received. Meanwhile, a number of non-governmental organizations concerned with the Syrian refugee crisis have issued reports, some focusing on the plight of children and women, detailing the urgency of the humanitarian crisis.

Having devoted a good deal of my professional career to refugee law, and yet never having worked in a refugee camp in the midst of an ongoing refugee crisis, I decided to respond to a call put forth by the UNHCR, and spend some time working at the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. I only spent three months in Zaatari (November 2012 to February 2013) and what follows are my thoughts based on this limited time period and reflects only my experiences and opinions, and not those of the UNHCR.

First, a bit of background: The Zaatari refugee camp is about 70 kilometers north of Amman, near the town of Mafraq and approximately 30 kilometers from the Syrian border. The camp was officially opened at the end of July, 2012, as the numbers of Syrians coming to Jordan were rising. Prior to Zaatari’s opening, Syrians were housed in the Beshabsheh housing complex, near the town of Ramtha in northern Jordan. Once Zaatari opened, all Beshabsheh residents were transferred to Zaatari camp.

During the time I was in Jordan, two other sites hosting Syrian refugees, also near Ramtha, were King Abdallah Park (a flat, gravelly open space containing prefabricated single room units and shared kitchen and bathroom facilities), and Cyber City (a six-story, simple concrete building, dormitory style, with shared kitchen and bathrooms at the end of each hallway). Both of these facilities were much smaller (each held about 1,000 refugees), and at least half of the Cyber City residents were Palestinians who had fled Syria.

During my time in Jordan, there was talk that an additional camp was going to open east of the town of Zarqa. That camp has not opened yet. As for why Jordan decided to use camps to host Syrian refugees when they had not really done so for Iraqis, most people told me that it had to do with numbers and the fact that Jordan simply couldn’t afford to absorb more refugees. As long as refugees are in camps, the brunt of the expenditure is born by the international community.

When I arrived at Zaatari, the number of residents was estimated to be around 40,000. By the time I left Zaatari, the number had climbed to well over 75,000. The number of refugees in the camp, as of early March, had doubled again, to over 140,000. Of course the exact number of people in the camp on any given day was unknowable. Every day, some people would leave Zaatari: some would leave for other parts of Jordan, some would return to Syria (many only to return again).

Before coming to Zaatari, I had read quite a bit of the anti-refugee camp literature. The term used to refer to the practice is “human warehousing.” One objection (of many) to refugee camps is that they restrict freedom of movement. And yes, technically, once in the camp, Syrians were not allowed to leave the camp (except with permission, or if “bailed out” by a Jordanian). But in reality, there was a good deal of movement in and out of the camp.

Many would ask me if Syrians _had_ to live in a refugee camp in Jordan. The camp was actually set up for people who entered Jordan “illegally.” It is a bit confusing since Syrians do not need visas to enter Jordan. So, the term “illegal” doesn’t have so much to do with their presence in Jordan as it has to do with their manner of leaving Syria -- “illegally,” without the exit visas from government. The term used in Arabic is “tahreeb”. These persons have been escorted to the border by the Free Syrian Army (FSA), and crossed the border on foot. Once in Jordanian territory they are met by the Jordanian army and taken to the Mafraq Screening Center where names are recorded, IDs are checked and taken, and the persons and their luggage are searched before the International Organization of Migration (IOM) transports them by bus to Zaatari camp, where they arrive starting between midnight and dawn (although by the time I left Zaatari, when daily arrivals were in excess of 2,000 refugees a day, the buses were coming at all hours). 

At the border, anyone holding a military ID is separated and sent to a different camp called Al-Rajhi camp. These individuals, who are presumably Syrian Armed Forces (SAF) deserters, are separated from the rest of the camp population, even if they have come with their families (so, the wife and children would be sent to Zaatari and the husband to Al-Rajhi). I was told that this was to preserve the “civilian nature” of the camp. More likely, it was to prevent any security incidents at the camp, since there are many Free Syrian Army (FSA) members at Zaatari. I was not able to understand how the presence of FSA in the camp was tolerated and did not threaten the “civilian nature” (especially given concerns about recruitment activity in the camp) when SAF were ostensibly excluded.

One problematic practice at the border was the fact that Jordanian authorities would turn away anyone without ID. The practice was so widespread and prevalent that apparently FSA even informed people of this before they crossed the border. Under international refugee law, the lack of ID should not preclude individuals from obtaining protection (consider that the circumstances under which refugees flee may at times prevent them from accessing IDs or other documentation prior to their flight). Nonetheless, the Jordanians were pretty steadfast on this and only made exceptions for minors. There were also reports of young single men being turned away. The authorities relied on broad “security reasons” for turning away single men. This very quickly led some men to “attach” themselves to families in order to enter (a fact we would learn later when interviewing new arrivals at the camp).

As for the camp itself, well, it was much like what you would expect a refugee camp to be. It is situated in a stretch of desert that was flattened and graveled, with one main paved road running the length of the camp, and rows upon rows of tents and prefabricated containers to either side of the paved road. People with far more experience than I have would tell me that it was a nice camp. One UNHCR photographer called it the “Hilton” of refugee camps (this only made me shudder to think what other camps are like).

Zaatari residents mostly resided in tents. The tents were “winterized” -- which as far as I could tell meant that they were covered in a tarp-like material meant to water proof it. An enclosed aluminum-type portal -- everyone called it a “zinko” -- was placed a the entry of tents (creating a vestibule of sorts) so that heaters could be placed there (so the heaters wouldn’t be taken directly inside the tent and the chances of fire could be reduced).

Of course even with winterization, the tents could not keep water out during the heavy rainstorms of January, which was one of the wettest months Jordanians could remember. And many Zaatari residents decided to use the zinko to make little kiosks on the main street of the camp, from which they sold everything from fruits and vegetables to saaj bread, falafel sandwiches, `awameh and other sweets, clothing, used mobile phones, and much, much more. As a result, heaters were used in tents, and there was the occasional tent fire which would result in injuries, and in a couple of cases fatalities.

A recent photo essay featured Syrian refugees showing the one item they were sure to bring with them when they fled their homes. Though undoubtedly many refugees have left Syria uncertain of when they would return, a good number of the refugees at Zaatari would make the trip back home to bring back provisions, or would call relatives who were on the way to bring them things. How else did the market at Zaatari sell items that my Jordanian colleagues swore were brands that did not exist in Jordan? On a number of occasions when I worked the night shift at the camp and saw people getting off the bus, I noticed them carrying large bushels with olives, makdous (pickled eggplant stuffed with walnuts), and other food items they insisted were superior to the Jordanian variety.

Some refugees were housed in pre-fabricated structures (called “caravans”) at the camp. At one point the Saudis donated about 1,500 of them. Allocating the caravans to the refugees became something of a nightmare. Some caravans were allocated to residents based on their length of residence at the camp - those who arrived earlier prioritized over later arrivals. Some were designated for “vulnerable” families (a term you come to hate after working in a refugee camp, because who is more or less vulnerable in situations like these?). So, “vulnerable” families came to be those with members who had serious medical conditions, very elderly persons, female-headed households where a mother has multiple children and no other relatives in the camp. Each day someone tried to make a case that they were more vulnerable than their neighbor who had been allocated a caravan.

The camp has shared bathrooms and shared kitchens, and watering holes. The World Food Program distributes dry foods on a bi-weekly basis (aside from a “welcome” meal refugees receive upon arrival). UNICEF runs the schools (the Bahrainis have also set up a nice school). And, there are some medical facilities – a French hospital, a Moroccan, a Saudi, a Jordanian-Italian one and a Jordanian clinic. And a number of UN agencies and other NGO’s operate in the camp.

As I mentioned before, movement in and out of Zaatari was a lot more fluid than what was technically allowed. Yes, there is a main entrance with Jordanian police regulating who gets in and out (there are visitation days for families who have relatives inside the camp to visit them. It is important to bear in mind that the majority of the Syrian refugees in Jordan live outside the camp. The total number of Syrians registered with the UNHCR, as of late March, was over 320,000 – a number that still does not represent all Syrians residing in Jordan. However, people were fleeing the camp every day. The real tragedy was that each day we also dealt with people seeking “re-admission” to the camp, because they could not cope outside the camp: Jordan is quite expensive for Syrians and assistance is even more limited outside the camps. Also, some Syrians who had entered Jordan “legally” and were authorized to live outside would seek admission to the camp because they could not survive in urban centers like Amman or Zarqaa or Ramtha.

Otherwise, the only “legal” way to leave the camp is either to be “bailed out” by a Jordanian (it’s a somewhat bureaucratic process, but not too cumbersome as a few thousand Syrians have been bailed out), or to officially put in a request to return to Syria. In both cases, whether seeking a “bailout” or “return,” to Syria, the process is overseen by the Jordanian authorities, and not the UNHCR. Unfortunately, the “bail out” process lent itself to exploitation. Although the majority of people were bailed out by friends or relatives, there were also those who discovered they were expected to work for little pay in exchange for a bailout. Or, in some cases, the “bailout” system became a way for men to try to marry Syrian wives.

As for returns to Syria, it was interesting to me just how fluid the situation at the border was. The UNHCR’s official position was that they do not encourage or facilitate return. But almost every day, a busload or two of Syrians would return to Syria. Some were going back to get more provisions or money. Some were going to retrieve a family member left behind. Some were going to attend funerals of relatives back home, or even sometimes for more joyous occasions like weddings. Some returned, saying camp conditions were difficult and they’d rather die in their homeland, but with their dignity intact. Some of the people who returned to Syria came back after finding their homes had been destroyed, or upon hostilities flaring up again in their area.

Some of those returning were men intent upon joining the fight, over the pleas of their anxious mothers and wives. Instructed by international organizations concerned about the issue of child soldiers, the Jordanian authorities were supposed to forbid any unaccompanied boys under the age of eighteen to ride on a Syria-bound bus. Many young boys would spend hours arguing with the authorities, trying to convince them they were older. In their eyes I saw their determination to avenge the death of an older brother. Sometimes I succeeded in talking them out of making the trip, only to learn three days later that they had somehow managed to get on a bus. The first few times this happened, I spent days worrying about what might have happened to these boys once back in Syria. But over the weeks, amidst all the other concerns and tragedies of the camp, my concerns about these young men became just one more thing over which I felt I had no control.

When I was in the camp, the majority of the camp residents were originally form the Dara`a governorate. There were also some people from Homs and surrounding areas and from Damascus and its suburbs. By and large, the people who were in the camp were those with no recourse but to live in a refugee camp. I noticed a marked difference between the residents who hailed from Dara`a and those coming from Damascus or Homs. The population from Dara`a was primarily rural, most having completed a few years of schooling (especially the women), and poor. The camp really highlighted for me the gap between urban and rural areas of Syria and also led me to see why Dara`a was the province where the uprising first took hold.

A significant portion of the camp (easily a third) consisted of female-headed households. Some had been sent by their husbands, who were staying behind in Syria to tend to their work or homes, or were actively fighting. Some of the women were widows, and some had husbands who had disappeared.

I was also taken aback by what large families they had, and how young women were when they got married. It was astounding how many women I met who, by the time they were in their 30’s, had already given birth to upwards of 7 or 8 children (and looked like they were much, much older). It was devastating to meet widows who were only 19.

The early marriage issue is one with which the UNCHR was and I imagine still is grappling. Under Jordanian (and international) law, girls under 18 should not be married. However, it was proving difficult, if not impossible to prevent early marriages in the camp, which were mostly being arranged through Sheikhs who just wrote out marriage “contracts” on a piece of paper. Most girls were married between the ages of 14 and 16. Once in a while, I would talk to families thinking about marrying their daughters, and when I advised them to wait until she was at least eighteen, they would look at me like I was insane. When I asked girls how they felt, they would just look at the ground, or say they would do what their parents thought best. I once spoke to a 19-year old who had been engaged in Syria and whose engagement was broken off when her fiancé (also her cousin) decided to join the FSA. She didn’t want to risk the possibility of widowhood. I was speaking to her because her family had initially arranged for her to be “bailed out” of the camp through marriage to a Jordanian man. They then decided against the bailing out after learning that the man in question was much older than they had initially imagined and already married and with children and expected his new bride to live with his first wife. I sat the whole family down and explained the importance of being vigilant, that some men would take advantage of the desperation of some refugee women and make such arrangements, that just because she was 19 and with a broken engagement, she shouldn’t “settle” for just any marriage.

But the problem is that with all the stories circulating about women being forced into prostitution and survival sex, lots of parents do see marriage as the most viable way to keep their daughters safe (and honorable).

The truth is that for the time being, with the refugee crisis ongoing and with new people arriving at the camp every day, the UNHCR and all other agencies involved in the camp are very much in “logistics” mode. They are dealing with registration, with distribution, with just making sure that people can survive. The luxury to develop programs, to think about income-generation projects for women (and men for that matter) is not there.

My biggest frustration at Zaatari was the amount of time I devoted each and every day (and I went to the camp six days a week, leaving Amman at 7:00 a.m. and returning to Amman at 7:00 p.m. or later) to dealing with logistical and bureaucratic issues driven by concerns about fraud, itself caused by the scarcity of resources. Basically, each family (or in the case of persons who are alone each individual) receives a ration card upon registration with the UNHCR which entitles them to the services in the camp (food rations, medical care, etc.). A lot of time is spent monitoring the ration card, dealing with people who fled the camp (maybe gave their ration card to a relative inside the camp) and are now returning and asking for a new card, or who returned to Syria and then came back to Jordan, again, seeking a new card.

It is common for media reports about Zaatari (or any refugee camp for that matter) to depict the refugees as hapless victims and the UN and international organizations there as the heartless bureaucrats for whom this is just another humanitarian catastrophe. And no question, there is a lot of suffering in the camp and UN agencies could be doing a better job. But these accounts also fail to consider the agency of the refugees themselves and the fact that there are those who try to manipulate the system. My thought on this was that when you place people in a position of total dependency, they are of course going to manipulate the system, the one area in life where they can exercise control. But, I also understood the UNHCR’s concerns. Resources are limited and ration card fraud harms everyone in the camp because some people end up taking the shares of others.

Most of the time, I found myself hating the fact that this was the way things had to be. I hated the fact that people who didn’t have much to begin with, lost what they had, now had to be reduced to trying to manipulate the system so they could get an extra bag of lentils or oil that they then tried to sell so they could buy fresh fruits and vegetables in the market. I hated the fact that I suddenly would find myself intervening between an aid worker and a refugee who were arguing over blankets. I hated the fact that I knew that if she got that extra blanket, there would not be enough for the new arrivals.

One day, one NGO that distributed diapers found that some people had broken into their storage facility and stolen a large quantity of them. For some reason, they decided to collectively punish all the refugees in the camp by halting diaper distribution for a few days. Imagine this in a camp full of children, where children were also being born every day. And then imagine sitting and listening to a Syrian woman crying in your office saying: “We expect Bashar to behave like a dog, but how could one refugee steal from another refugee?”

And I think for me this woman’s question epitomized the depth of the tragedy of Syria. It is tragic that tens of thousands of Syrians have lost their lives, their homes, their livelihoods. It is tragic that whole neighborhoods have been reduced to rubble, including neighborhoods and markets and buildings that were hundreds of years old. It is tragic that there is no easy political resolution to the conflict. It is also tragic that a million plus Syrians have become refugees and that some of them, in the desperation of exile, have turned against one another. And the more protracted this exile becomes, the more desperate, the more difficult becomes rebuilding the peace and harmony of what was once Syria.