A year on, 'model' camp for Syrian refugees has mixed record

AP News
Posted: May 01, 2015 3:40 AM
A year on, 'model' camp for Syrian refugees has mixed record

AZRAQ REFUGEE CAMP, Jordan (AP) — A year after opening, a camp in Jordan billed as an improved model for sheltering Syrian refugees has a mixed record: Azraq offers safety and a sense of order, with its close to 10,000 prefab shelters arranged in tidy rows, but refugees say life is tough because of lack of electricity, jobs and freedom of movement.

The camp's problems are partly due to growing funding shortfalls as the international community grapples with a snowballing Syria crisis that has already displaced nearly half the country's population, including close to 4 million who fled to Jordan and other neighboring states. Geography compounds Azraq's troubles — it covers 15 square kilometers (six square miles) of a remote desert plain, exposed to sand storms, scorpions and scorching heat.

The camp is still two-thirds empty, and some of the close to 18,000 people here dream of leaving. "There is daily suffering, every hour, every minute, there is suffering," said refugee Shawkat Haroun, 40, who plans to return to his hometown of Daraa in the coming months.

Azraq's defenders say the camp plays an important role by offering space to absorb more refugees at a time when Jordan's towns and cities are overwhelmed by the influx — more than 80 percent of close to 630,000 Syrians in Jordan live outside camps. Azraq provides "a way for Jordanians to keep borders open and bring Syrians into Jordan and host them in camps," said Carlo Gherardi of the Norwegian Refugee Council, one of the aid groups in Azraq.

On Thursday, aid agencies marked Azraq's anniversary by opening a multi-sports compound, a women's gym and a computer room to brighten dull days inside the camp, where many are condemned to inactivity.

At the sports center, funded by the International Olympic Committee, refugees can play football, basketball and volleyball, take up taekwondo or boxing — and even learn tennis. The compound replaces dirt pitches and "kills idleness," said chief coach Mufleh Khawaldeh.

On Wednesday, two of the camp's eight football teams tried out the new hard-surface pitch to practice for an inauguration tournament. Teenage girls in headscarves swarmed Khawaldeh to sign up for taekwondo.

Azraq was meant to correct mistakes made in Zaatari, Jordan's first massive refugee camp, which was hastily set up by the U.N. refugee agency in 2012 to take in a surge of refugees — sometimes thousands a day — as Syria's civil war intensified. At the time, aid groups had to pitch tents quickly to shelter new arrivals, and Zaatari mushroomed into a somewhat chaotic, but also lively shantytown of tens of thousands of people.

There was more time to plan Azraq, which from the start featured paved streets and sturdy shelters rather than tents. The 260-square-foot (24-square-meter) shacks, which look like tiny houses with their pointed roofs, are arranged in separate clusters called "villages," an attempt to create a sense of community in the vast compound. Everything is numbered, from streets to villages, blocks and shacks.

After its opening in April 2014, Azraq became the primary destination in Jordan for new refugees from Syria, with room for roughly 50,000 now — or five to six per shelter — and the potential to more than double its capacity.

By February, Azraq had only 4,500 residents, in part because of border bottlenecks and a slower stream of refugees. But the camp's population has more than tripled in the past two months, with an increase in new arrivals from Syria and from urban areas in Jordan, where refugees find it increasingly difficult to pay for rent and food, and where cash-strapped aid agencies have been forced to cut back.

In Azraq, refugees are given the basics for survival: sleeping mats, blankets, hygiene kits, water containers, gas cookers and solar lanterns. Each refugee gets 20 Jordanian dinars ($28) a month for food they buy at a large supermarket, their only shopping choice.

The lack of electricity overshadows every part of life.

Refugees have to make frequent trips to the supermarket, with those in outlying shacks forced to walk several kilometers in the harsh sun, because they have no refrigerators and can't store perishables. They can't run fans to cool their stuffy shelters, each of which has just one tiny window. After dark, there's little to do except take walks or visit relatives.

"We will try to leave the camp and go to a place where there is electricity," said refugee Siham Hamish, 43, as she pulled a makeshift trolley with water containers to her shack. "The shelters are very hot. It's difficult to sleep."

Roberta Montevecchi, who runs the camp for the U.N. refugee agency, said work is to begin this year on a $17 million solar energy-based electricity project. The technical plans are ready, but only $4.5 million in funds have been secured, she said, adding that she hopes to provide at least street lighting in the first phase.

Funding gaps are increasingly hampering aid agencies as donors juggle competing demands from humanitarian crises across the world. Aid groups asked for $4.5 billion for 2015 to ease the refugee crisis in host countries Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey and Egypt, but have received less than 20 percent, U.N. officials said.

Putting refugees to work could ease the burden, but they face restrictions in host countries with high domestic unemployment, such as Jordan.

In Azraq, which residents cannot leave without special permits, aid agencies have given paid jobs to about 1,000 refugees, out of a potential workforce of 9,000. The opening of dozens of market stalls, meant to create more refugee jobs and enliven the camp, has been stalled by bureaucratic wrangling with Jordanian authorities.

The Norwegian Refugee Council employs about 100 refugees to help repair the shelters. Refugees are also turning 400 used bicycles donated by the city of Amsterdam into rickshaws to fill an urgent need for public transport.

Such improvements can ease daily life, but some say they miss making their own decisions. "It's a prison with civilian life," said Haroun, the refugee from Daraa.

Aid officials say Azraq isn't meant to be a long-term solution, but as Syria's civil war drags on, it may have to be. Montevecchi said that if shortcomings can be addressed, "then it's ideal, as much as a refugee camp can be ideal until they are able to go back."

But Kilian Kleinschmidt, the former camp director of Zaatari, said Azraq is little more than a "holding facility."

"Some lessons learned in Zaatari were applied to Azraq," he said. "But one of the conclusions (for Azraq) was not to promote decision-making and the creativity of people."