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Jordan to host 'world's largest refugee camp'

As violence in Syria continues, the al-Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan is on pace to become the largest in the world.

Last Modified: 16 May 2013 07:07
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Jordan's al-Zaatari refugee camp is currently home to 160,000 Syrian refugees [Dahr Jamail/Al Jazeera]

Amman, Jordan - Al-Zaatari refugee camp near Jordan's northern border with Syria is the second largest refugee camp in the world. On days when violence in Syria worsens, between 2,000-4,000 Syrians flood into Zaatari, and the stories they tell are horrific.

"Things are happening in Syria that our minds couldn't even imagine," 65-year-old Nada Salim Abdullah, who has been in the camp four months, told Al Jazeera. "People were being captured and they were slaughtering them like chickens."

Abdullah, who fled his home in Deraa with his family, spoke of atrocities committed by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad. Other refugees told Al Jazeera of atrocities carried out by opposition forces.

Nearly half a million Syrian refugees have crossed into Jordan since the conflict began, and according to Jordan's interior ministry, the Zaatari camp is now the fifth largest population centre in the country.

Jordan's Hussein Majali (left) and UNHCR's Andrew Harper
(2nd left) said the country needed more help
[Dahr Jamail/Al Jazeera]

If the trend of violence in Syria generating this number of refugees continues, Zaatari will become the largest refugee camp on Earth by the end of the year. Dadaab, near the Somali border in Kenya, is often referred to as currently being the largest, and is estimated to be hosting nearly 500,000 refugees.

Needing help

"We need the UN's assistance, and we need it immediately," Jordanian Minister of Interior Hussein Majali told Al Jazeera at a press conference.

Majali, was speaking alongside UNHCR head Andrew Harper, and had nothing but high praise for the UN's efforts, but said more still needed to be done.

"We could see two million refugees in Jordan by the end of the year," Majali added. "This crisis is affecting Jordan on every level, healthcare, economically, education, all our sectors are being stressed."

Meanwhile, the rate of killing in the Syrian conflict has reached a new high.

According to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an average of 196 people died each day in April, which is an increase from 190 per day in March.

The opposition group said there had been an increase in civilian deaths, as nearly half of the nearly 6,000 people killed last month were civilians.

Meanwhile, the refugee population of Zaatari continues to grow - with new refugees arriving from both outside and inside the camp.

"Sources tell us there are now up to 66 births daily inside Zaatari," Majali added.

Jordan already has a large refugee population. Aside from more than 300,000 Palestinians living in refugee camps here, many Iraqis remain in Jordan as a result of the US-led invasion and occupation of their country.

Saleh al-Kilani said Jordan was desperate for more international
support in the refugee crisis [Dahr Jamail/Al Jazeera]

According to the refugee affairs coordinator for Jordan's ministry of interior, Saleh al-Kilani, his country already hosted 750,000 refugees before the Syrian conflict began, and now has more than 1,250,000.

"53,000 refugees entered here in April alone," Kilani told Al Jazeera. "We also have thousands of what we call double refugees, which are Palestinian refugees who were in Syria who had to come here, in addition to Iraqi refugees in Syria who had to flee here."

Kilani said the refugee crisis is costing the Jordanian government 2,500 Jordanian Dinars (approximately $3,500) per refugee per year, and his government has already spent $826 million on the current crisis.

"We never turn any refugee away, but we've not been fully compensated by the international community for these costs," he added.

While Jordan's policy of welcoming Syrian refugees is commended by the international community, the government here has its critics as well.

Jordan as proxy

"The Jordanian government is under immense pressure from Qatar and Saudi Arabia. This coupled with the economic problems here has pressured Jordan to pursue policies that are in line with the Gulf states, the Americans, and the West," Jordanian writer and political analyst Labib Kamhawi told Al Jazeera.

Kamhawi believes that the Jordanian government has intentionally "overblown" the refugee figures in order to gain sympathy in the West "towards policies aimed to be militarily involved and get rid of Assad".

"The Gulf states want to show that Syrians are being ravaged and killed by their own regime and they had to run away," he said. "And the west was trying to address the human rights emotions to create a case against Assad. Meanwhile, the Jordanian regime has an interest in overblown figures to attract more aid money to Jordan."

With the Syrian conflict in its third year, its implications have been increasingly felt across the region.

Chuck Hagel, US defence secretary, says Washington is deploying up to 200 troops to Jordan with the aim to contain the violence on the Syrian border. He also spoke of the possibility of setting up a buffer zone across the area.

The Jordanian government says that designating a safe corridor in the Syrian province of Daraa would help reduce the growing number of refugees pouring into Jordan. The area could provide shelter and protection for displaced Syrians and a base for the opposition. But some people say it could also be used to launch an international military intervention.

Some analysts are convinced that if the buffer zone had not been Washington's idea, Jordanian officials would not be talking about it.

"It will be part of a wider plan to control Syria, especially after the collapse of the regime, because the US does not make such decisions based on humanitarian needs of Syrians or to protect the Syrians," Lamis Andoni, a writer and analyst, told Al Jazeera. "It wants to make sure that an area that close to Israel is under control."

Kamhawi agrees.

"We have to understand that the first priority for the West and the US is the well-being and security of Israel. Jordan is viewed by the Israelis as an extension of their national security. What happens to and in Jordan is thus seen as a matter of national security for Israel. So the Jordanian government has always held its special relationship with Israel as something sacred, and they will not allow others to influence this. Jordan is keen not to upset Israel."

Kamhawi believes that if Jordan were ever pressured into taking a position, it would never take a position that would jeopardise its relationship with Israel, "even if it was negative for the Syrian people".

For solutions to Jordan's dilemma, he offered several.

"Jordan should not allow any state to use Jordanian land or skies to attack Syria in any way," Kamhawi said, alluding to the recent Israeli air strikes in Syria. "Second, it should not also be part of general policies aimed towards fuelling this civil war in Syria. Third, it should work more positively towards creating a peaceful platform to reach a peaceful settlement for the Syrian crisis, and not leave it like this - draining the country into partitioning it or killing and destroying everything there, which is happening now."

But as things are now, Kamhawi, like many other analysts, doesn't see any of these solutions coming to pass. Kamhawi sees the conflict in Syria as what could be a pre-cursor for a later attack against Iran.

"Why did the Americans want to change Assad? He was a good partner with the Israelis. The Golan Heights, it was quiet for 40 years. But I think that the US could not attack Iran directly, so I think they want to dismantle the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah alliance that is helping Iran, and by doing so they think Iran will be isolated. For every major event that happens in this region, one must always look towards Israel for the reason."

Save the Children runs programmes to help thousands of Syrian
children each day [Dahr Jamail/Al Jazeera]

"So it's a proxy war, in preparation for a bigger war against Iran," he continued. "They [Israel and the West] are reorganising the region. Not to forget the immense discovery of gas in the Mediterranean off the Syrian, Palestinian, and Lebanese coasts. So this area is gaining more strategic importance than anytime before."

Meanwhile, the violence in Syria continues each day, and the refugees continue to flow into Jordan.

Helping children

Most of the world's major refugee NGOs and organisations now operate in the ever-expanding Zaatari camp.

While the crisis is at present overwhelming, one of the few silver linings can be found in some of the programmes run by Save the Children.

"We have classrooms for the kids, and we assist via psycho-social support for kids through the parents," Save the Children's Dima Hunaiti told Al Jazeera. "We help teach the parents how to deal with their children under these traumatic circumstances."

The NGO currently serves roughly 3,300 children daily across their facilities here, and offers children a safe environment to spend time, learn, play, and express their feelings.

However, even Hunaiti would be quick to admit that more needs to be done, given that estimates show that, of the approximately 160,000 total refugees in the camp, at least 60 per cent of them are under the age of 18.

A Syrian girl draws in a Save the Children programme.
The script under the crying eyes reads Syria'
[Dahr Jamail/Al Jazeera]

"We were the first here at the camp," she added. "We hire Syrian refugees to work in the kindergarten, as guards, and in our multi-activity centres. All this is good, yet the camp still needs more water, and better solutions for the latrines and washrooms. These are ongoing issues."

One of the Syrian volunteers, who asked to be referred to as "Maher", told Al Jazeera that he was grateful for the opportunity to work with the NGO.

"I was in a very bad psychological situation before," he said. "But this has helped my mood. But it's difficult to see the kids who are often so tired, because they are always busy hauling water for their families."

And, daily, more families and children are coming into the camp, desperate for assistance and support.

Ongoing suffering

The stories refugees are telling of what was happening in Syria when they fled have many similarities.

"We ran from the random shelling," 39-year-old Ali told Al Jazeera. He and his family, from southern Syria, left their farm when the fighting broke out around them. 

At least 60 percent of Zaatari camp residents are under 18
[Dahr Jamail/Al Jazeera]

"We've been here six months now, and all we want to do is have security and to be able to go back to our homes."

Most refugees were asking for more water, more food, and solutions to the hygiene problems and water-borne disease problems within the camp.

A young girl named Delaa, whose skin was sunburned, politely asked for sun cream. While she would not complain about the aforementioned problems, her understatement about her situation spoke volumes.

When asked why she and her family fled, she replied: "We ran from the shelling on our houses. It was not good. It's not good here either. I just want to sit in my own home in safety and security."

Like most of the refugees Al Jazeera spoke with, Abdullah and his family from Deraa also just wanr to be able to return home.

"We only want peace," he said. "But the whole world now seems involved in this conflict."

Follow Dahr Jamail on Twitter: @Dahrjamail

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Al Jazeera
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