Jordan's newest refugee camp is a game changer, but the hardship isn't over yet
The significance of this new camp cannot be understated. It has the space to house 25,000 refugees and the infrastructural capacity to accommodate 50,000, but has been designed so that it can comfortably expand to host up to 130,000 people.
This vast, makeshift metropolis has been modelled on a town: it has decentralised services to allay overcrowding, and children’s playgrounds. Azraq’s shelters are more robustly built than those of other camps, and are arranged in ‘blocks’, each with its own sanitation facilities – a layout which is hoped to allow extended families and local communities to continue living in close proximity.
As refugee camps go, the paved roads, clean water and clinics available at Azraq mark it out as a site of welcome solace for Syrians. It is hoped that these measures will not only work to provide a sense of stability, but will also prevent Azraq falling victim to security fears. The Jordanians and the UNHCR have clearly taken advantage of hindsight: the Zaatari refugee camp 80km north of Azraq has come to house over 140,000 refugees, but the urgency of the situation and lack of time to plan the camp’s expansion and management has meant that it has been blighted by crime and clashes with the Jordanian security forces.
In many respects, then, Azraq ought to be welcomed. Evidently, Jordan is striving to make life as comfortable as possible for Syrian refugees. But the opening of a refugee camp of this scale is significant in a number of other ways. Its design and construction point towards long-term commitment and permanency, a forecast that mirrors the deterioration of the situation in Syria. For now, at least, it seems that no respite is in sight, and that refugees will continue to come in their thousands – something which could have numerous detrimental consequences for Jordan.
It is unsurprising that such high numbers of Syrians are choosing to flee to Jordan. It is a spacious and generally stable country, but the strain is beginning to show. Over 600,000 Syrians are now registered as refugees, and last year Zaatari became the country’s fourth most populous settlement. These are staggering truths, which emphasise not only the scale and urgency of the Syrian crisis, but also the immensity of the pressure it is placing on the Jordanian state.
International aid is proving slow to materialise, and providing assistance to incoming refugees is taking up around 2% of the national GDP. Vital public services such as healthcare, education and water are coming under increasing strain as they attempt to absorb Syrians – who continue to arrive at a rate of around 600 a day. For a country with relatively slow economic development and a noted scarcity of natural resources, this is no small cost.
Moreover, society is becoming increasingly fragmented and hostile to refugees. Before the Syrian crisis, Jordan was already home to around 2 million displaced Palestinians, a minority which faced government discrimination and social isolation. Palestinian refugees are generally the poorest members of society and an object of contempt for many Jordanians, who see their country as being overrun in the absence of an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. Adding several hundred thousand Syrians into the mix, then, does not appear to be a recipe for success.
Jordan is an anomaly among the Arab nations in that nationalistic sentiments – as opposed to pan-Islamism – dominate the political scene, meaning that large influxes of foreign refugees holds the potential to cause considerable disquiet. Increased demand on public services, and the rocketing prices this will bring about, will only act to heighten these tensions.
Whilst Azraq displays Jordan’s commitment to assisting Syrians, the increase in refugee flows that it will catalyse could become problematic. The state is insufficiently equipped to comfortably absorb such huge numbers, and the society’s track record suggests that further tensions could be afoot. Jordan is heaving under the strain of the demand, and the slightest evidence of violence, disease or scarce resources could prove enough to tip the balance.
This is not to say that it should shut its doors in the faces of Syrians, or divert its attentions away from the crisis. Rather, it is to suggest that planning and monitoring of the refugee situation should be undertaken with upmost care, and that affluent nations ought to divert further aid in Jordan’s direction as a matter of priority. With increased funding, and the continued presence of humanitarian organisations, Jordan will be infinitely better placed to attend to new arrivals in a way which will not be self-detrimental.
While the opening of Azraq suggests that peace remains elusive in Syria, it should not be allowed to be a precursor to increased strain in Jordan, whose stability is of fundamental importance in easing the refugee crisis. Careful steps should be taken to ensure that both Jordan and the UNHCR receive the support necessary to allow Azraq to act as a peaceful and secure home to some of the world’s most vulnerable refugees.
By Rebecca Mavin