The Last Refugee Camp

Could the world's go-to strategy of warehousing the displaced finally be changing? 

Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

MAFRAQ, Jordan — Nearly every evening, the road at the northern edge of the Zaatari refugee camp is crowded with people waiting for buses that will take them home — home being Syria. Sometimes, there are dozens waiting to board; at other times, there are hundreds. They have many reasons for leaving, but the dust and squalor of camp life loom large on the list. Refugees waiting here say they fled Syria when their homes or neighborhoods were bombed, but, after trying to live in Zaatari, they are eager to go back.

"Even camels couldn’t manage the night here," one man says. "We’re respectable people. We should be treated like people, not like camels."

Put simply, refugee camps as we know them are a terrible idea. When masses of people flee across a border, camps often seem like the necessary response. They make it easier to count refugees and give them emergency shelter, food, and medical care, and they soothe the security and economic worries of a host country. That’s why, since mid-2012, the government of Jordan and the United Nations’ refugee agency, UNHCR, have settled roughly 120,000 Syrians in Zaatari and placed thousands more in smaller camps and holding centers around the country. Turkey has placed some 200,000 people in government-run camps. Iraq, too, has resorted to camps.

Yet years of research — along with the stories of people like those waiting to leave Zaatari — show that camps are at best problematic, and at worst dehumanizing and dangerous. Refugees in camps face health risks like malnutrition and epidemics. Camps are often breeding grounds for violence. They can be overtaken by criminal gangs or spark riots; in conflict situations, they can become militarized. "If you want to find an excuse for family breakdown, for increases in family violence, gender-based violence, or extremism, then keep working to stick people in camps," says Dawn Chatty, director of the Refugee Studies Center at Oxford University. 

Camps are supposed to be temporary, but all too often, refugees end up spending years, even generations in a kind of limbo. "If it is true that camps save lives in the emergency phase, it is also true that, as the years go by, they progressively waste these same lives," a UNHCR executive committee wrote in 2004.

Surely there’s a better way.

Over the years, attempts have been made to find a superior means of assisting refugees, but, in general, they have foundered. This is due largely to the bargaining and gamesmanship that go on among international donors who provide aid, organizations like UNHCR that distribute it, and governments of host countries where refugees have fled.

Yet today, in Jordan, UNHCR, donors, and, to some extent, the government are trying to do things differently. There are two basic strategies being tried and debated: avoid camps entirely, or make them more like real cities, connected to the country’s urban landscape. If either of these ideas takes hold and produces success stories, it could change the lives of thousands of Syrian refugees — and, potentially, the lives of future populations forced to flee their homes.

Idea 1: Get rid of camps

One strategy that is gaining currency, and that has prompted a major change in UNHCR policy, is to let refugees live in existing cities.

Typically, refugee settlements that take root in cities are informal and receive little protection. Yet many refugees say they prefer the autonomy and opportunities that such situations offer. Host governments, meanwhile, tend to be wary of "urban refugees" because they use local services like roads, water, electricity, and schools, and they look for work in local markets. The primary cost of supporting them thus falls on the government that has opened its borders. The U.N. and foreign powers may promise to help, but accepting that promise is a gamble: It means trusting that a country won’t be left providing services to refugees when the world’s attention moves on to new disasters.

In developing nations with limited budgets, these concerns are very real. Add to this the fact that it’s politically toxic for a government to be seen helping refugees when its own people are facing economic hardships, and there is a strong incentive for a state to make refugees someone else’s problem. So camps, for which the international community is usually responsible, are built. "Camps have been a means whereby refugee hosting countries are kind of able to hold donor states to account and put a gun to their head," says Jeff Crisp, a longtime head of UNHCR’s evaluation and research department and one of the world’s leading researchers on long-term refugee crises. "Once you go down the urban route, they lose that leverage."

For years, Crisp adds, UNHCR policy was also hostile to urban refugees because of the problems they’ve caused with local governments. This began to change during the last Middle East refugee crisis, from 2007-2010, when hundreds of thousands of Iraqis went to Jordan and Syria. It was called a "stealth" crisis because the refugees arrived slowly and typically through regular border crossings. For a long time, few realized that many of the Iraqis were not going to go back home. By the time this realization did happen, it was already too late for camps.

Humanitarian organizations scrambled to cope with a situation they weren’t accustomed to. Crisp explains that, in cities, refugees are "scattered throughout, they’re in different communities. You can meet some refugees, but you can never be quite sure whether you’re getting to the most vulnerable or not." Meanwhile, the governments of Syria and Jordan claimed that the Iraqis represented a huge economic burden (a claim some economists regarded with skepticism).

In the end, all sides settled for a development-based solution. This wasn’t what the international community calls "local integration," whereby refugees get full rights and legal status, perhaps even citizenship, in the country to which they have fled. Rather, it was a provisional fix: The host nations continued to accommodate refugees outside of camps and offer them limited access to public services, in exchange for international development assistance. This included hundreds of millions of dollars for schools, hospitals, water companies, and other institutions.

There were some positive results. Crisp recalls asking school officials in Damascus how Syrian parents reacted to the influx of Iraqi refugee children. "At first they were very concerned," he says. "But then, the international community started supporting the Syrian education system… and the Syrian parents were saying, ‘Oh, it’s good we that got the refugees, it’s actually improving the quality of the schools.’"

In Jordan, the solution was more controversial. The international aid provided was substantial, but some researchers (including this author) have argued that much of it went toward development projects that had little to do with Iraqi refugees. Meanwhile, some in the Jordanian government still claim their country was never fully compensated for taking in the Iraqis.

Despite mixed reactions, the project overall was seen as more successful than previous efforts to assist urban refugees. It helped that donors showed renewed interest in such refugees because expanding local services, it turns out, can be cheaper than building camps from the ground up and sustaining them. As a result, the Iraqi refugee crisis helped prompt a major shift in position by UNHCR: In 2009, Crisp was asked to write a new policy on urban refugees, which affirmed their right to live in cities as well as UNHCR’s commitment to aiding both the refugees and their host nations.

Thanks to the recent experience with Iraqi refugees and UNHCR’s new stance, when Syrians began quietly trickling into Jordan in 2011, the government did not immediately insist that camps be built. Instead, the military took in newly arrived refugees, gave them tea and a hot meal, and brought them to holding centers in the northern town of Ramtha. All it took to get them released was a Jordanian citizen acting as a guarantor of their whereabouts — a process called "getting bailed out." Tens of thousands of bailed-out refugees soon took up residence in Jordanian cities, and the government offered them access to schools and free care in public hospitals.

Today, Jordan hosts at least half a million Syrian refugees in its cities, perhaps more. The country has requested long-term development aid, acknowledging that Syrians may remain in the country for years; some aid has already appeared, and more is being discussed.

But this bargain is under strain: Jordan has received far less money than what it says it needs to expanding its infrastructure to accommodate the Syrians, and it is determined not to let aid become a back door for "local integration." "We want the international community to support and enhance the capacity of Jordan to temporarily absorb those people… based on the premise and the assumption that, once things settle down in Syria, those people should go back," says Ibrahim Saif, Jordan’s minister of planning. 

If Jordan’s concerns can be worked out and the current bargain maintained, or even expanded upon, Jordan could set a strong precedent for how to accept and take care of urban refugees. If not, Syrians living in Jordan’s cities could see their freedoms diminish significantly.

Idea 2: Build real cities

Even as it continues to host urban refugees, Jordan has also constructed a camp. UNHCR officials say Jordan began to insist on a contingency plan as Syria’s war worsened and the number of refugees mounted. On July 31, 2012, Zaatari opened, and some now say it was a prescient move: By 2013, more than 50,000 new refugees were arriving in Jordan every month, sometimes more than 4,000 in a single night. But already, the camp is in dire need of change.

Zaatari is still home to only a fraction of the refugees in Jordan — fewer than one in five — and some Syrians continue to be "bailed out" to live in cities. Yet the camp’s costs represent an enormous portion of UNHCR’s overall budget for Jordan: The 4.1 million liters of water Zaatari uses every day, for instance, has to be brought in by tankers, at a cost of around $4 million a year, according to UNICEF water specialist Kitka Goyol. Wastewater has to be trucked 35 kilometers to the nearest treatment plant, at a cost of $2-3 million a year.

Despite all the spending, Zaatari’s conditions are troubling. Decrepit communal bathrooms often don’t work, so families try to build their own — but sewage leaks into the streets. Even after millions of dollars have been spent on weatherproof caravans, thousands of families still live in tents, vulnerable to raging dust storms, heat, cold, and flooding. The camp’s inhabitants complain bitterly about the long lines they must stand in for basic household goods or medical care that they feel is inadequate. And, if Zaatari endures — as is likely — research on camps shows that these conditions will only get worse. 

Kilian Kleinschmidt, who manages Zaatari for UNHCR, knows the situation isn’t tenable, and he hopes to change it. His position is informed by experience: Kleinschmidt started working with refugees in 1992 as a UNHCR field officer in the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya. Two decades later, his son began working in Kakuma. "[He was] fixing the same water systems that I had set up, which are still managed the same way as they were managed 21 years ago," Kleinschmidt says.

He is determined that the same thing will not happen in Jordan. In his view, camps must develop into sustainable, city-like systems, connected to the urban fabric and economy of a host country.

Refugees themselves have tried to turn Zaatari into something approximating normal life, expanding their UNHCR-provided tents and trailers, and building shops and restaurants along the camp’s main streets. Yet much of the economic activity that refugees have generated goes into black markets rather than the Jordanian economy, and this feeds the growth of criminal gangs. Jordanian smugglers buy aid-issued food and goods from refugees and carry them out of the camp, undercutting local markets. Local bosses also control the trade in stolen electricity, hijacked water tankers, and scrap metal and construction materials.

This sort of "vandalism" and "theft," in Kleinschmidt’s words, represents a "total clash of understanding [about] what this place should look like." That clash has played out in refugees holding demonstrations and rioting, or even threatening or attacking aid workers.

Since his arrival in March, Kleinschmidt has been trying to ameliorate these problems. His first goal was to get refugees and aid agencies to talk to each other, to reduce the number of disputes and violent incidents between them. That, by and large, appears to be happening. The more ambitious — and controversial — goal now is to build sustainable systems in the camp that can run with less external aid. Eventually, Kleinschmidt says, Zaatari, which already holds Jordan’s fourth largest concentration of people, should be connected to the country’s official economy, becoming a driver of trade and industry.

The primary examples of what needs to change, Kleinschmidt explains, have to do with water, sanitation, and electricity. For roughly the same cost as trucking in water for one year, for instance, aid agencies could build a regular, municipal-style water system for the camp. Then, they could add water meters, which would measure consumption. Large consumers like shopkeepers could then be asked to pay for water service. Later, inhabitants with income could also pay for their water, while the U.N. could keep subsidizing it for the most vulnerable families. Similar models could be used for sewage and electricity.

Public transportation, road improvements, and housing upgrades are also on Kleinschmidt’s to-do list. And legalizing and regulating trade into and out of Zaatari, he says, would allow the camp to contribute more to Jordan’s economy. In the long run, Kleinschmidt believes these changes could benefit both refugees and the Jordanian communities around the camp. "We are building up something that will become one of the most innovative, most modern refugee camps in the world," Kleinschmidt says.

Jordan has accepted some limited moves toward making Zaatari meet Kleinschmidt’s vision, and donors are looking for funds to support the changes. For example, Goyol from UNICEF says that agency has come up with about $3 million to start upgrading the water distribution system. In addition, Jordan’s water ministry has asked donors to fund containerized sewage treatment units for the camp. Goyol estimates those units could pay for themselves within a year by reducing the cost of removing waste.  

These plans are still in the early stages, and there are challenges. Turnover of refugees creates a problem for setting up infrastructure and building community, and it’s hard to get donors to fork over money for development projects with day-to-day costs of maintaining the camp already being so high. Jordan, too, balks at change that carries the specter of permanence, in no small part because many local people are frustrated by the refugees’ presence.

Thus, the dual efforts to host refugees in Jordan’s cities and make Zaatari more like a real city face uphill battles. For these efforts to succeed, donors will have to see the value of long-term investments in the infrastructure and services of Jordan broadly and Zaatari specifically. Skeptical Jordanian officials will also have to be convinced that the international community is serious about helping them, while not trying to stick their country with permanent immigrants.

These are not small tasks. But the refugee programs and the people running them in Jordan today are some of the most progressive in recent memory. And, with Syrian refugees likely to be a presence in Jordan and other countries for many years, changing how this crisis is handled now could set an important — and vastly improved — example for the future.

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