Syrian refugees in Jordan: Making progress at Azraq camp

By: 
Laurie Lee
Children walking in Azraq camp, Jordan

Nobody wants to take the death boat. Why would they want to be far away from the culture, language and people that they know?

These are the words of Jameel Dababneh, CARE’s team leader at Azraq refugee camp in Jordan – situated in the desert just one and a half hours away from the Syrian border. CARE has worked there since the camp was first set up in 2014. I last visited two years ago, so I was interested to see what – if anything – has changed.

Azraq camp is now full

Two years ago, only about 30,000 Syrians were living in Azraq camp, although it had capacity for over 50,000. We were concerned that Syrians were being held up in the so-called ‘Berm’ no-mans land area between Syria and Jordan. Why weren’t they being allowed into the camp? Today, we heard that at least some of those people had been allowed into Jordan, and Azraq camp was now at its full capacity of 53,000.

We heard that families of seven people were now being asked to share one 4m x 8m shelter. Previously the cut-off point had been six people. So space is running out – although in principle, there are plans for a phase 2 which could double the size of the camp.

Shelters at Azraq refugee camp
A street at Azraq refugee camp

A little bit more freedom to move and work

One of my main concerns two years ago was that the camp felt more like a prison than a home. People couldn’t come and go as they pleased. There were wire fences everywhere.

It felt a little bit better this time. The majority of households are not living behind fences. Up to a third of the people registered in the camp were coming and going on relatively easy-to-get 2-week passes, to either visit family elsewhere in Jordan or to work seasonally.

The biggest concern of refugees I met in Azraq and outside camps on my last visit, was the desire to work and the frustration of not being allowed to. This remained the main concern of most people I met this time. As Jameel told me:

We need to make sure that the conditions here are good and that people can work. Idleness is the worst enemy.

Seven years into the war, people’s mental health is increasingly stressed. People want some kind of normality, and for most adults that means working. However, there has been only slow progress on jobs and work permits. This was a major focus at the London Summit on Syria in February 2016, where the Jordan Government promised one work permit per household for Syrian refugees. Only a few thousand have been issued, and almost all to men.

CARE is supporting creches and training to make it easier for Syrian women to also work in Jordan. This is a large cultural shift for Syrians, where traditionally the men have been the breadwinners. The changing role of women through the necessity to work will have a lasting impact far into the future for the families here, much like it did here in the UK during and after both World Wars.

Some of the women taking the vocational training have said that they feel empowered and positive about how they can contribute to their family financially now and in the future. One woman proudly showed a dress she had made; another a bag she had made by hand.

Clothes made by women at Azraq camp
Jameel showing a display of dresses made by women at the camp

Opening the High Street

Azraq was a very planned, and controlled environment. There are just two main supermarkets serving the camp. Each household receives a monthly allowance of $1 a day per person, to buy food and fuel in the supermarket. It is given on a UN card which they can only use in the camp supermarket. But the supermarket has high transport, energy and staff costs. So the food isn’t cheap. We were told that many families run out of food 20 days into each month, and some resort to eating grass for the last week of the month.

When I was here two years ago, people hoped that a new marketplace might help to improve things. Unlike more organic camps, there were no other shops in Azraq. So a marketplace had been designed. It was just about to open when I was last here.

I was hoping to see a bustling new high street this time. It isn’t quite like that. People aren’t allowed to spend their monthly food allowance in the other shops – which I would like to see changed. And because so few refugees have any other source of income, there is very little other cash in the camp to spend at the new shops, even though they are cheaper with better quality, especially vegetables and fruits. So only a few were open and none looked very busy.

Refugees are only given an allowance for clothes each winter. The rest of the time they have no money for clothes. But CARE’s community centres are a place where they can mend and make their own clothes.

Sign for CARE-UNHCR community centre
 A sign outside one of the the CARE-run community centres at Azraq camp

Solar electricity in the desert

A big concern of people when I came two years ago to Azraq was the lack of electricity. The UN, CARE and other NGOs had to run inefficient generators to produce any electricity to run computers etc. People cooked with gas and had no electrical appliances at all. People had to come to the CARE Community Centre to charge their mobile phones.

Today, half of the camp is now connected to a large solar electricity grid. That’s good progress. But it’s far too slow for the other half of the camp who are still living in darkness – creating safety and protection issues for residents, particularly women and children.

Health

In theory, living in a camp should ensure that refugees have access to necessary health care. In reality, this is still heavily limited by available funding. NGOs in the camp seek to meet the most essential health needs of all refugees. But there’s very little funding to go further than that.

We met a refugee, Abu Khalid, who had been a farmer in Syria. He had held on during the war for as long as possible. But he had eventually become ill, which also made him blind. He therefore decided to move his family in June 2016, hoping to get treatment in Jordan for his lost sight. He has been diagnosed at the local health clinic but corrective treatment requires additional funding and so far this has not been available from any of the NGOs providing health or eye care.

A young girl training in Taekwondo at Azraq camp
A young girl at a Taekwondo session

Education – and just being a child

For children, one of the advantages of living in Azraq camp is that the majority attend school, compared to only about two-thirds of Syrian children living in town and cities in Jordan. There are a lot of Syrian refugees who are trained teachers’ assistants, and the Jordan Government also provides teachers for the camp. We saw Syrian teachers learning (from teachers from the British Council funded by the EU) how to teach English, in order to help their students be able to continue studying to university level.

As I mentioned, mental health is a concern in the camp. CARE has built four community centres in the camp and a sportsground which is well used by children and adults. On my previous visit I was told that the women and girls were only using an inside gym, but now there are Taekwondo lessons for girls and I saw girls running around and playing outside. It gives them some sense of normality in a situation that is far from normal.

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Laurie Lee's picture

Laurie Lee is Chief Executive of CARE International UK – Read his blog posts on our Insights policy and practice website