The worlds of Zaatari and Azraq refugee camps in Jordan
Amman - Since the beginning of the Syrian crisis in 2011, nearly 5 million refugees have fled the country. There are more than 659,000 Syrian refugees registered in Jordan.
The Zaatari camp, which opened in July 2012, is one of the largest refugee camps in the world and fourth largest urban setting in Jordan. It houses more than 100,000 refugees even though it was designed for a maximum of 60,000 people. The camp is administrated by the Jordanian government and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Most refugees are from the Daraa governorate in south-western Syria, the area that was the first to be affected by the conflict. The camp consists of 30,000 shelters and administration buildings, three hospitals, three schools and a market of 3,000 shops and businesses, including restaurants and coffee kiosks, on the so-called Champs-Élysées, which trades with nearby Mafraq, a relatively poor town that also hosts a large Syrian population.
Zaatari was initially divided into 12 districts, with community leaders chosen to represent each district. However, the leadership was linked to criminality and riots and currently, there are no official representatives of the community in the camp. While there are people largely dependent on humanitarian aid, such as lone women, unaccompanied children and the disabled, the camp has been unique in its economic flourishing that allowed many refugees to improve their life in exile.
A market plays a vital role in Arab cultures as it provides a space for social interaction and exchange of information. In the refugee context, it is a crucial factor in recreating a sense of normality for the displaced and traumatised people. Refugee camps often feel like no-man’s land, with an almost eerie feeling of the time that has stopped and life that has ceased.
In Zaatari, however, people have a sense of owning the space, be it through running a small kiosk or living in a container home that is personalised thanks to a beautiful painting done by a local artist, a home that does not look like thousand other shelters. The residents were given a chance to shape their own environment and that serves as a source of pride, dignity and community resilience.
If it were not for the police check at the entrance and the presence of prefabricated container homes, Zaatari would feel like an ordinary, vibrant town, with people moving around frantically on bicycles and taxi system amid street food and loud music. The stamp of “urban coolness” was officially marked on Zaatari during a visit by the rock band U2, which filmed a video there.
With the escalation of violence in Syria, Zaatari quickly became overcrowded. The Jordanian government anticipated further influx of refugees and started planning another camp that was to have shelters and amenities ready prior to Syrians’ arrival.
Azraq refugee camp opened in April 2014 and it hosts approximately 35,000 people, mainly farmers from northern Syria. It is built literally in the middle of a desert, 100km east of Amman, far from any urban area and is surrounded by a barbed wire, which makes it look like a military camp.
Security is very strict and visitors must always be accompanied by a Jordanian police officer. It is safer and more organised but — and perhaps precisely because of that — there is not much life in the camp. It is divided into five villages containing 1,000 family compounds. The set-up’s aim was to facilitate community building but, as the villages are far from each other, the result has been exactly the opposite.
The Syrian Refugee Affairs Directorate (SRAD) — the government agency responsible for camp management in collaboration with UNHCR — has been hesitant to grant work permits to refugees in Azraq and the two market areas with 200 shops — half of them owned by refugees, half run by the host community — seem dead in comparison to the thriving informal economy of Zaatari camp.
Syrians complain that Jordanian shops are difficult to reach, do not sell products they need and the goods are too expensive. Without a functioning refugee-owned market, and with economic activity stifled by authorities, community life in Azraq suffers a lot.
All the streets and shelters in Azraq look alike and it is easy to get lost. The camp seems empty as most people stay indoors. Many residents would like to move to Zaatari but the government does not allow such transfers. Furthermore, refugees who leave Zaatari without permission are punished by being sent to Azraq.
This reinforces Azraq’s reputation as the place nobody wants to live in and illustrates a failed policy of over-regularisation as opposed to flexibility allowed in Zaatari.
The comparison of Zaatari and Azraq refugee camps demonstrates that displaced people need more than just safety and security. Informality in the organically developed Zaatari has created social networks and independence, while its chaotic character reflects the disorder of real life. Orderly Azraq, on the other hand, exposes the artificiality and temporality of refugee encampment.