Rethinking the refugee camp

A home away from war

The millions fleeing war in Syria have forced aid groups to rethink and radically improve refugee camps

Jordan Pix/Getty Images

Jordan Pix/Getty Images

The van wasn’t built for 26 people, but the Syrians made themselves fit. They walked away from what remained of  their homes in Daraa, paid the driver $250 a head, and squeezed in. “We couldn’t move our legs,” Fatima (who asked her real name not be used) says of herself and her young triplets, who now run in circles around the hem of her dusty skirt.

After one day spent picking up fellow escapees, four days losing and finding Syrian roads, and two days navigating the wadis of Jordan, Fatima’s journey finally came to an end: she had arrived at the gates of the Azraq Refugee Camp, what just might be the best-planned refugee camp in the world.

It only opened in April, but Azraq is already a temporary home to more than 8,000 refugees. The camp is both grim evidence of a brutal war that has displaced at least 9.3 million people, and a paragon of humanitarian coordination: the Jordanian government, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and 20 non-governmental organizations fastidiously carved up a sprawling expanse of desert into discrete villages of small metal structures that, once all built, may eventually shelter up to 130,000 refugees—so far at a cost of US$63.5 million.

For several months, Azraq was just a contingency plan. In the spring of 2013, Jordan’s infamous Zaatari camp was filling up—with refugees from Syria, but also gang violence, rape, child trafficking and destitution. So a new site was identified, partner agencies were selected and living quarters were built. Then, for cost-efficiency reasons, the camp was put on standby. But time is a luxury that humanitarian organizations usually can’t afford, and the unexpected delay gave organizers a rare opportunity to rethink the traditional refugee camp.

“From two to three hours after the first refugees arrived at their shelters, they were already walking through the supermarket,” says Bernadette Castel, head of the UNHCR’s Azraq field office. She explains that Azraq is the first camp in the world that opened with a fully operational grocery store. Refugees pay with food vouchers at the register.

Khalil Mazraawi/AFP/Getty Images

Khalil Mazraawi/AFP/Getty Images

Azraq’s organizers prefer the food vouchers, worth $36 per person per month, to rations. “It helps with a sense of dignity,” explains Meg Sattler of World Vision, one of the agencies working in Azraq. “People come from horrific situations, where they’ve been tortured and their family members killed, and the last thing they want is to show up in a refugee camp and be reliant for everything they need.”

That philosophy of bottom-up empowerment anchors most aspects of the camp, including its physical layout. The village structure means that refugees never have to walk more than a few minutes to access basic services. “We looked at what would be the best places to have the schools, for example,” says Castel. “We knew that a school could not be too close to the market, because it’s too disruptive. Or that the women’s space where they do work on gender-based violence should be closer to the clinic, since gender-based violence is sometimes identified by medical staff. Everybody had a say on how it was done.”

In Azraq’s community centre, refugees gather every day at noon for a town-hall type meeting organized by CARE. The meetings are lively and full; so much so, says CARE’s Marten Mylius, that they set up a day care next door. It’s here that Fatima plays with her children. In the few weeks that she’s been in the camp, Mylius says, she’s become a vocal community leader.

In most refugee camps, Sattler explains, “people are moved en masse away from their communities and just housed according to a map, or ‘Here’s a free shelter, so you go there.’ ” But Azraq groups refugees according to what region of Syria they come from, and people can reserve spaces next door for family members. In Azraq, a group of six shelters makes up a block that shares two bathrooms. This is in stark contrast to Zaatari, where people are forced to dig latrines beside their own shelters to avoid the long, frightening walk to the communal toilets that wrap around the perimeter of the massive camp and reek with filth.

Unlike the tents dotting many refugee camps, Azraq’s shelters are metal, their iron sheets and rods designed to protect residents from desert winds and to be packed up and taken by refugees whenever they can return home. The semi-permanent shelters are another gift that time bestowed upon camp organizers, who could build them from the very beginning rather than erect them gradually. In future humanitarian disasters, organizers may not be so fortunate. “[In Azraq], we applied the same standards we always had. The thing is sometimes you do not have enough time to put them in place,” says Castel.

This is not to say that Azraq is a comfortable place to live. When Fatima speaks of life in Azraq she shakes her head: “Difficult, difficult,” she says, the only words she speaks in English. Her clothes are always dirty because she sleeps on the rocky ground of her shelter, she says, and although World Vision built an indispensable sanitation system in a camp situated in the fourth-most water-scarce country in the world, water is hard for her to carry. In the night, she has to fend off snakes and mice; she has no light to help her, because there’s no funding for electricity. Azraq may be the world’s best-planned refugee camp, but it’s still a refugee camp, after all.

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