By Larissa Pelham
Welcome to Azraq. Jordan’s soon-to-be largest refugee camp is in its final stages of being built. The new camp will provide vital life-saving assistance and protection to an initial 51,000 refugees. The site could be expanded to support 130,000 refugees in total if needed. From the sky, it must look like the Las Vegas of the east, plopped down in the middle of the desert, fading out to the bland, parched horizon. But, that’s where the similarity ends. Desolate, shrubless, treeless, birdless, the entire landmass is surrounded by chicken wire fencing and barbed wire. There is the main entrance; a ‘reception area’ for visitors and the departing; a service route; an entrance for the managers and staff; and an emergency exit. Corrugated iron structures stretch as far as the eye can see: two rows of 12-16 huts maybe 6 feet apart set out like dominoes, with two smaller structures at port and starboard, repeated over and over again, and clustered into villages housing 10,000 – 15,000 people
There are football pitches and volleyball spaces and playgrounds. There are water points and disabled-access toilets. There are clinics, hospitals and schools, supermarkets, market places and a police station. In each village there are substantial cement-floored community spaces (which CARE will be running). The roads glisten black with freshly-laid tarmac. The street signs and lampposts, mosques and post offices are coming soon. It looks like town planning 101.
Currently, this is a ghost town. Evidence that it’s yet to be filled rather than been long abandoned is its spotless cleanliness and the workers still on site, erecting structures, connecting up sceptic tanks, and testing boreholes. The wind blows through – creating a cooling breeze in the shadow of the community centre compounds and a break from the relentless Jordanian late winter sun.
A brave new world?
Over a year in the making, this is the best-planned camp for displaced people that has ever been constructed, complete with the most widespread and varied provision of services and facilities and where the soon to be residents will live in corrugated iron ‘homes’ with windows
The look of this place is jaw-dropping. Its current empty and silent state makes more acute the vision of busloads of refugees who will soon arrive and receive a basic package of mattresses, blankets, a solar lamp, buckets and cooking equipment. They will be doctors and teachers and plumbers and graphic designers and computer programmers and housewives and bank managers and musicians and café baristas–- urbanites, just like many of us reading this. They will mostly journey from city life to a 13 by 17 foot space in the desert.
While life’s routines will spring up pretty quickly, job opportunities will be limited (mostly volunteer roles supporting camp services). It probably won’t be long before houses are decorated, children have painted the walls of the schools, the roads are named (Zaatari camp’s main commercial street is already caustically known as the ‘Champs-Elysee’) and markets are thriving with traders from the local town of Azraq 35 km away.
The community centres that CARE will be running will provide a positive space for the community to meet. There will be a consultation area where the most vulnerable refugees will receive referrals to the care and other specialised services they need. The centres can in fact be used for anything that’s needed – for social gatherings, for therapeutic support, for workshops, for prayer, for training and information dissemination.
While there is a ‘meet and greet’ space for visitors, refugee protection means they will not be free to leave. The perimeter fences will be constantly patrolled by the military and the facilities guarded by private security services. It is hard to imagine anything positive in the faces of families arriving here – at best, maybe relief that they are now the responsibility of the international community and have a right to be kept safe.
And they will arrive here not knowing how long they will be here for – decades if other Jordanian refugee camps and the collapse of the Geneva talks are anything to go by. For the children there are playmates and schools and volleyball courts, but what of the adults?
To keep the clinics and schools and supermarkets and latrine and water services running requires labour, which will be abundant in the camps. But it is also abundant in the nearby Jordanian town of only 10,000 people, where people equally are in search for employment. For every Syrian employed and earning an income, it might be a job lost for a Jordanian. And leaving either group without employment opportunities can be a spring for disaster. Outside the UNHCR/Government camp coordination meeting, there are already a group of local Azraqis, waiting to enquire about employment prospects. It is not surprising that nearby Azraq town, a settlement since the Stone Age and now dwarfed by a camp of immigrants, is looking to its new giant neighbour for opportunities.
The best we can do?
Standing here looking across this super-sized camp, it’s very hard to believe that this can be the most humane option. It is inescapable that one of the biggest camps in the world has also been built in such a hostile environment. But what is a better solution? This is probably the most efficient way to provide assistance and to ensure the basic needs of 100s of 1000s can be met. It contains the problem even if it doesn’t resolve it.
The Jordanian government can now share the burden of this new wave of refugees with the international community, as its already overwhelmed services struggle to cope. After giving access to Palestinian refugees and then Iraqis, how much can we expect it to keep its doors open – and many Jordanians are in need themselves. The abhorrent truth of the matter is that enormous refugee camps, like Azraq, are perhaps the best of the inadequate alternatives. As one colleague sagely remarked, sentiment is unhelpful – we are service providers, these are our clients, and the job in hand is delivering the best service possible for those in the camps. But while pragmatism must rule the working day, in the quiet moments, I never want to look at a scene like this and be anything other than dismayed.
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