October 16, 2012

Zaatari Refugee Camp in, Northern Jordan

Author: Kevin Appleby, Director of Migration Policy

The delegation visited Zaatari refugee camp in northern Jordan, where about 35,000 Syrian refugees reside.   Jordan opened the camp in June due to the rising tide of refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria.   Refugees are crossing Jordan's northern border, many fleeing gunfire from Syrian government forces.  The Jordanian army intercepts them, provides them with food and water, and then transports them to the camp, about 30 Kms from Syria.  Jordanian officials have generally received high marks for receiving the refugees, which have totaled as many as 2000 a day, but have confiscated their documents, leaving them vulnerable if they return to Syria.  Many of the men bring their families to the camp and then return to Syria to fight with the resistance.  Stories from the refugees detail the horror of the conflict:  families being ambushed at the border and women describing the death of their husbands.  One woman with children had been shot in the jaw; others spoke of the deaths of their husbands and brothers.  One male refugee told the delegation he knew he had to leave with his family when he witnessed the murder and mutilation of his friend, a journalist attempting to chronicle the conflict.

UNHCR did report a number of unaccompanied children ages 15 to 17, but they do not remain in the camp and have refused any offers for foster care placement.  They are on the move in local communities and could be returning to Syria to fight with the resistance.

The camp itself sits in an area prone to dust storms.  Dust and dirt hamper the health of the refugees, particularly the children.  About 750 pregnant women live in these conditions as well.  Needs include food, water, and clothes--particularly shoes, as the refugees have walked for miles to reach the border.  The delegation visited a school in the camp operated by UNICEF and others, which lacked school supplies and water for the kids.  The children welcomed the delegation by chanting anti-regime slogans.  Recent protests by the camp residents have led to increased security and a surrounding fence, but tensions remain high.

The Jordanian people have welcomed many of the Syrian refugees into their communities, but concern with the rising number, estimated unofficially as 150,000 in the country, is growing, as the Jordanian economy is mired in a recession.  There are concerns that the conflict in Syria will become a protracted one, with Jordan being unable to care for the refugees long-term.  The US has given $100 million to Jordan to date, but more will be needed.  The international community has yet to give their share, as Europe is economically depressed and the Gulf Arab States have yet to contribute sufficient funding.

In a meeting with a high ranking official of the Jordanian government, the delegation learned that another camp will be built near Zarqa, just north of Amman.  It is unclear if residents of Zaatari camp will be transferred there or urban refugees without documentation will be sent there.  The Jordanians feel that they are doing more than their fair share, but may have to consider limiting the refugee flow if current circumstances continue.

Agencies of the Catholic Church are doing their share.  Both Caritas Jordan and the International Catholic Migration Commission provide services to Syrian refugees in the region, including the distribution of blankets, hygiene kits, and school supplies for children.  In conjunction with local parishes, Caritas operates school instruction in the afternoons for Syrian children, after Jordanian kids are done for the day.

It is clear to the delegation that the situation in Jordan is unsustainable over the long term, unless there is more support from the international community.    UNHCR has resettled only a few emergency Syrian cases, but there are many vulnerable cases that require attention.  Registration of the refugees, required for them to receive basic services, is back logged, due to lack of adequate UNHCR staffing.