For Syrian Refugees in Jordan, a Harsh Desert Prison

Syrians have streamed into Jordan in the hundreds of thousands, fleeing the civil war. Al-Akhbar investigates one of the camps where they are housed, finding a desert prison and increasing unrest.

Al-Zaatari Refugee Camp – Fadia, a Syrian refugee, sits in front of a tent donated by UNICEF at the Zaatari camp, located 75km northeast of Amman.

Silent tears trickle down her cheeks, as she sings to a baby that is coughing and crying incessantly. She lets out a sigh and says, “I wish I had died before I fled to this desert. Death is better than a life without dignity.”

Fadia’s situation is a reflection of the tragic reality endured by nearly 23,000 Syrians at the Zaatari refugee camp. They entered Jordan illegally, fleeing unlivable conditions in their country, according to Ali Bibi, Director of Cooperation and International Affairs at the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

All the refugees are asking for is to be able to leave the camp for more suitable facilities.The refugees are struggling with the tough conditions in the camp, which now resembles a large prison surrounded by barbed wire and guard posts. No one can enter or leave except with the permission of the security authorities.

The miserable living conditions in Zaatari are not limited to the extreme heat or the blinding dust, there is also the long queues for drinking water, meals, and the cold nights without electricity or blankets.

Building Pressure

Zaatari has become a source of concern for the Jordanian government, with growing complaints that have led to several clashes between the police and the refugees, most recently on August 29. Twenty-eight policemen were injured, and two are in critical condition.

Jordanian Prime Minister Fayez Tarawneh vowed to “deport those behind the unrest back to their countries,” and issued instructions “prohibiting the entry or exit of any individual to the camp without permission from the authorities.”

All the refugees are asking for is to be able to leave the camp for more suitable facilities, or to be returned to the four camps where they were living before the Zaatari camp was recently opened, including three in Ramtha (North Jordan) and one in the Mafraq Governorate (in the northeast of the country).

The Jordanian government has refused to relocate the camp for several reasons, including unpublicized security concerns. The refugees’ demand to leave the Zaatari camp is finding support among many solidarity activists, most notably the Jordanian Commission to Support the Syrian People and the youth association Wa Taawanou, who have called on the UNHCR to “close down the Zaatari camp, and relocate its residents to a more suitable place.”

Despite the fact that Andrew Harper, the head of the UNHCR in Jordan, has expressed his displeasure with the situation in the camp, he asked the solidarity activists “not to be optimistic about the camp closing any time soon, because there is no alternative.”

According to government spokesperson Samih Maaytah, this has prompted 200 refugees to return to their country “voluntarily.”

Security Concerns

The Jordanian government has refused to relocate the camp for several reasons, including unpublicized security concerns. This was hinted at by foreign minister Nasser Judeh on August 30. Speaking before the UN Security Council, Judeh alluded to the possibility of taking restrictive measures against the entry of Syrian refugees to Jordan, given the “serious implications for public order and security.”

Information minister Samih Maaytah said that Jordan has suffered socially, economically and politically from the flow of refugees, but that Jordan had no choice. He also noted that Jordan is now unable to accommodate more refugees, with more than 1,000 refugees crossing the border each day.

Syrian workers are now a common sight in restaurants, boutiques, shopping centers and workshops. According to another Jordanian minister, who declined to be named, “the conditions in the camp have now improved, and we are working on improving them further, but the flow of refugees has begun to increase.” The minister also said that “some have deliberately sought refuge for economic reasons,” accusing “the Free Syrian Army (FSA) of pushing many Syrians to flee the country.”

In his conversation with Al-Akhbar, the government official said that he has confirmed information that “many residents of the camp want to work, like their peers who entered the country with the sponsorship system.”

The minister pointed out that “the refugees in the camp know that Syrian refugees in certain cities have managed to find work illegally, and now earn high wages,” adding that Jordan is a country with limited resources and capabilities, and where unemployment last year reached 12.9 percent.

Syrian refugee Hamdan al-Masri says that he and his Syrian peers “are sick of living in the open and being subjected to the humiliation of aid,” calling on the government to go back on its decision to suspend the sponsorship system for Syrian refugees, issued in July.

“There is obvious discrimination, as many Syrians live in the city of Mafraq and in Ramtha and receive financial aid and in-kind donations, and can work freely,” Masri adds.

Dozens of Syrians can now be seen working not only in Ramtha, Mafraq and Ibid, but also in Amman. Syrian workers are now a common sight in restaurants, boutiques, shopping centers and workshops. But the ministry of labor cannot determine the number of these workers, because they are unregistered, have no work permits, and are distributed across many areas.

Many Jordanian workers are now angry and complain that Syrian laborers have replaced them, “as they are paid less and their financial obligations are limited,” as one worker put it.

While official data indicates that Syrians working without a permit were no more than 2,000 in August, the government admits that this number is incorrect. One official at the labor ministry confirms that these numbers “do not reflect the real figure, as the inspectors of the ministry catch hundreds of Syrian workers daily in the various regions of the kingdom, working without permits.”

New Wave of Refugees

Experts estimate that no less than 80,000 refugees have entered Jordan illegally. The information minister insists, however, that they “do not number more than 30,000,” saying that “Jordan expects more refugees to cross over if security conditions deteriorate further [in Syria].”

Harper also expects a further influx of refugees with the escalation of violence in Syria. According to the UNHCR, “there are now around 70,000 Syrian refugees registered with the UN agency, while several thousand others remain unregistered.”

According to the UNHCR, “there are now around 70,000 Syrian refugees registered with the UN agency.”A key indicator that more refugees are on their way is the fact that the UNHCR has designed the Zaatari camp to accommodate nearly 80,000 refugees, amid expectations that this camp will be filled to capacity by the end of this year.

Here, Bibi explains that the recent increase in the flow of refugees across the Syrian border has prompted his organization to think about establishing new camps that can together accommodate 400,000 residents.

Foreign minister Judeh declared on Tuesday that a new camp for Syrian refugees in Jordan will be opened soon, with support and funding from the United Arab Emirates. He said that “the camp will be opened in the Raba Sarhan region (in northeastern Jordan), to accommodate 15,000 to 20,000 Syrian refugees.”

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Jordanian and Arab Funding

The Syrian refugees have received a lot of support on the popular and official levels, as well as humanitarian aid and relief.

Many Jordanian NGOs have sought to provide financial and in-kind assistance, most notably the Islamic Center group affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafi-leaning al-Kitab Wal Sunna association, the Christian charity Caritas, the association for Medical Aid, the Jaldoun Foundation, and the Hashemite Charity Organization.

Arab Gulf states have also provided a lot of aid. Saudi Arabia donated the biggest share with 250 mobile homes and two convoys carrying food aid. The UAE has donated 200 mobile homes.

Yet all these donations are still short of meeting the needs of the refugees. According to the UNHCR Director of International Affairs, the organization made an appeal in March for donor countries to provide $84 million, but so far, they have only collected $30 million.

Jamal Abdul-Hadi