Zaatari: a Camp and not a City


By Jeff Crisp, published initially on the blog of Refugees International

Just over three years ago, the Zaatari refugee camp was established to accommodate the growing number of Syrian refugees who were fleeing to the neighbouring country of Jordan. Located around 70 kilometres from the capital city of Amman and 30 kilometres from the Syrian border, Zaatari occupies a space of some seven square kilometres and currently houses around 80,000 refugees.
Since its inception, Zaatari has attracted an enormous amount of attention from the world’s media, diplomats, and celebrities. Angelina Jolie, John Kerry, Malala, and Prince Charles have all visited the camp. Dozens of articles have been written about it, while the camp features in around 5,000 video clips posted on YouTube.

It is not surprising that Zaatari has become so emblematic of the Syrian conflict, which has forced well over four million people to flee to neighbouring and nearby countries. Amman is easily accessible by air from both Europe and North America, and provides visitors with a range of comfortable hotels and a high level of security. From the capital city, it takes less than two hours on a well-maintained highway to reach the camp. Speedy day-trips to Zaatari have consequently become a standard feature on the itineraries of the many dignitaries who travel to Jordan to get a first-hand look at the country’s refugee emergency.

And few are disappointed. Zaatari provides its many visitors with an iconic refugee experience and ample photo opportunities. Looming out of the surrounding desert and surrounded by a perimeter fence, the camp is visually very striking. Its main entrances and exits are constantly clogged with trucks and Land Cruisers bearing the logos of various UN, NGO, and government agencies. Finding a refugee who speaks a little English poses few problems. And despite the constant flow of visitors–many of them asking exactly the same questions and taking exactly the same pictures–both the Syrians and the aid workers who are attending to their needs remain remarkably hospitable.

A standard narrative has emerged from such visits, epitomized by the opening sentence of a recent Associated Press story: “Only empty desert three years ago, the Middle East’s largest camp for civil war refugees has grown from a town of tents into a bustling city.” Using almost identical language, another journalist writes: “In a stretch of desert in the north of Jordan, a small makeshift city has sprung from the sand. Despite the odds, a new normalcy has taken hold.” According to a third report, “what started out as temporary shelter for those fleeing the Syrian civil war has grown into a fully functioning city.”

In support of such conclusions, journalists and other observers point to a number of the camp’s characteristics. The tents that were originally used to accommodate new arrivals from Syria have been progressively replaced by prefabricated caravans. Refugees have created increasingly elaborate gardens, some of which even feature small fountains. One enterprising refugee family has established a pizza delivery service. And a vibrant marketplace has materialized in the centre of the camp, strung out along a track that has become known as the Champs Elysee.

Most strikingly of all, and as many journalists have noticed, Zataari’s premier shopping venue includes at least three cabin-like structures where wedding dresses can be bought or hired. In the breezy words of Al Arabiya News, “despite living in one of the largest Syrian refugee camps, love is in the air for Zaatari camp’s inhabitants and wedding boutiques are springing up to prepare brides-to-be for their big day.”
The impression given by such reports is not entirely inaccurate. In a very short time, Zaatari has become the fourth largest concentration of people in Jordan. Its infrastructure and amenities have steadily improved. And with the support of the Jordanian authorities and international community, the refugees have succeeded in making the camp a somewhat more comfortable place to live than when it was hurriedly established.

But in other respects, the popular narrative of “the camp that became a city” is a misleading one.

First, the intense focus on Zaatari over the past three years has deflected attention from the fact that the vast majority of Syrian refugees in Jordan–more than 85 percent–are not living in camps, but in urban, suburban, and rural areas scattered across the country. According to the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), a growing number of these refugees are now returning to Syria, not because the war has abated (far from it) but because they have depleted whatever resources they brought with them and because the assistance they receive has been cut due to shortfalls in international funding.

Second, recent coverage of Zaatari has tended to give the impression that the Syrian refugees who live in the camp are uniquely resilient and entrepreneurial. Far from it. Indeed, it would be difficult to find a refugee camp anywhere in the world, even in the poorest parts of Africa or Asia, which did not have its own markets, tea shops, churches, mosques, and mobile phone kiosks. While wedding boutiques might not be a particularly common sight in refugee camps, exiled populations throughout the world demonstrate tremendous resourcefulness and are never completely dependent on humanitarian assistance.

Finally, the notion that Zaatari is characterized by a “new normalcy” is a very dangerous one. It is certainly true to say that the camp’s residents are doing whatever they can to make the best of a very difficult situation. But it is not normal to be accommodated behind a barbed wire fence and to be deprived of freedom of movement. It is not normal to live in a situation where the entire population lacks the rights and entitlements of citizens. And it is certainly not normal to wake up each day without knowing when or even if you will ever be able to return to the place that you consider to be your home.

By Jeff Crisp, published initially on the blog of Refugees International on 9.10.15

  • Kilian Kleinschmidt says:

    Zatari – tindouf – kakuma – dadaab – the big names representing millions of refugees living in small and big what is still labelled “camps”….and yes these camps have become cities whether we want it or not; whether governments want it or not and whether Aid Agencies want it or not – they have evolved once the emergency life saving phase was over and became urban centers as per the definition that a city is: “A center of population, commerce, and culture; a town of significant size and importance”.

    Jeff is right to say that the inhabitants have limited rights and are kept in many cases as de facto detainees s second or third class citizens. But he is wrong to say that in consequence these camps can not be cities…and will not be. There is little or no difference to many urban slums and informal settlements of the world, which are full of refugees fleeing poverty, climate change, slavery and total lack of absence of human rights in their areas of origin. It doesn’t matter whether they have come across a border – they all are are as desperate and dispossessed as those having the luck to be considered a refugees. Nobody will however challenge the urban character of slums, favelas and other types of informal settlements. Everyone will agree that such areas are to be upgraded and developed. So what is wrong in treating refugee camps the same ?

    I would strongly argue that any space which has the characteristics of an urban centre needs to be treated as such regardless of status and situation of the inhabitants. This is indeed a call to apply urban strategies to such spaces rather than treating them as special zones with unsustainable governance systems, no cost effective infrastructure and service delivery. It is the duty of UNHCR and the aid agencies managing such spaces to advocate and promote the mainstreaming into local systems, support the transition to sustainable infrastructure instead of hasty withdrawal and suspension of programmes once the money runs out. Too may are the examples where this happened and refugees were left on their own.The Afghan camps in Pakistan are one of such examples; all have developed into villages and towns but without any support once the agencies left following the withdrawal of the Sowjet forces from Afghanistan.

    Yes – most refugees do not live in camps – they are living within the mostly poor local population in usually precarious conditions. Again this calls for strengthening the capacities and infrastructure of the municipalities receiving such additional populations. As part of a sensible global response to desperate migration and refugee movements which are pushing the majority of the worlds population into urban centers, we must enhance and transfer the knowhow and best practice in urban management we have acquired. Over the next 3 decades an additional 25 %of the worlds population will move to urban centers in mostly desperate conditions – into urban centers many of which are poorly managed.

    Kilian Kleinschmidt

    Kilian Kleinschmidt is an international networker, humanitarian and refugee expert with over 25 years experience in a wide range of countries, emergencies and refugee camps as United Nations official, Aid worker and Diplomat. He is the founder and Chairman of the Startup Innovation and Planning Agency (IPA) which aims at connecting the millions of poor and dispossessed with the idle and under-utilised resources and modern technologies of the 21st century through its project SWITxBOARD He is part of a number initiatives and Projects which aim at global connectivity through better use of globalisation. He advises the Austrian Ministry of Interior on Refugee issues.

    He most recently became known as the “Mayor of Zatari”when he managed on behalf of UNHCR the refugee camp of Za’atari in Northern Jordan from 2013-2014. Za’atari has become a symbol for new and innovative approaches in refugee and humanitarian management under his leadership. He is now chal-lenging the Humanitarian Aid Sector through a range of new and unorthodox partnerships, technologies. and financing. His work on emerging cities and urbanisation of refugee camps is widely recognised. Team building and leadership in Crisis situations are a focus of his work. Previous senior roles included Deputy Humanitarian Coordinator for Somalia, Deputy Special Envoy for Assistance to Pakistan, Acting Director for Communities and Minorities in the UN administration in Kosovo, Executive Secretary for the Migration and Refugee Initiative (MARRI) in the Stability Pact for South Eastern Europe and many field based functions with UNHCR, UNDP and WFP. He worked extensively in Africa, South Eastern Europe, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

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