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A new camp in the desert

May 5th, 2014

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Satellite imagery in recent years has uncovered scores of ancient settlements in the Arabian sands of the Middle East, exciting archaeologists and promising to enrich our knowledge of the region’s culture and history.

I wonder what future generations will make of the new “monuments” that are being built today in those same arid regions which are just as visible from space. A new refugee camp has just opened in Jordan to accommodate the never-ending flow of Syrians seeking refuge from the tragic civil war which is slowly but surely tearing their country to pieces.

Even before its official opening last week the Azraq camp, which was jointly set up by the Jordanian government and the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, was already receiving its first new residents. One of them said: “I’m looking forward to falling asleep without hearing the sound of explosions.” While the opening of a camp – Jordan’s third and largest – is no cause for celebration it will at least provide to the new arrivals some much needed respite from their traumatic experiences back home.

Azraq will house up to 130 000 people at full capacity. It already has water and sanitation facilities and an infrastructure to provide services for 30 000 people. Two schools, play areas, and numerous sanitation facilities have also been constructed. One of the two health centres in the camp, a secondary health hospital, has been jointly funded by the EU and the Italian government. People will be treated there – and new babies will be born to a life as refugees with no end yet in sight.

Unlike the now famous Zaatari camp, which I have visited several times and which grew organically over a very short timespan, Azraq has been carefully planned and prepared. Housing units are grouped into communities and have private cooking and cleaning areas.

There are currently more than 588 000 registered refugees in Jordan and the UNHCR estimates that some 300-600 Syrians cross into the country every day. Overall, only 20% of Syrian refugees are estimated to be residing in the camps set up by the government, leaving the remaining 80% living in urban areas in rented accommodation and improvised shelters.

Most of the refugees are from rural Syria and very poor, already displaced several times inside Syria before managing to escape to Jordan. Many have been exposed to sustained violence and have had to flee at a minute’s notice. This new camp will ensure a safe haven for the immediate future until a sustainable peace can be negotiated and Syrians can return home to rebuild their country.

UNHCR chose the location of Azraq, in the barren east of Jordan, partly because it served as a transit camp for displaced Iraqis and Kuwaitis during the first Gulf War. Many of the then refugees made it back home. I know from talking to Syrians that this is exactly what they want to do as soon as it’s safe enough to go back to their country. May Azraq serve them well, but for not too long. May their hopes and dreams be realised.

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