An Urbanizing Camp? Zaatari Syrian Refugee Camp in Jordan
Zaatari UNHCR and Syrian Refugee Affairs Directorate camp lies east of Mafraq and 12 km south of the Syrian border. Opened in July 2012, it has a population of 79,000 displaced Syrians (March 2018) on 5,3 km2, the size of a medium city. The camp is an example of the dilemma faced by the Jordanian government: How to give shelter to Syrian refugees while preventing permanent settlement. Concrete construction is forbidden, except for schools, police stations, and several UN and international NGOs’ warehouses. Cement floors are allowed inside the 14,917 caravans to protect the refugees from mud in wintertime.
More than 460,000 Syrian refugees have transited through the camp. Its maximum population reached 200,000 in April 2013, but has decreased as Syrian refugees left to find job opportunities in Jordanian cities. In July 2014, Jordan initiated a new policy to drive back all Syrians found without proper documents to Zaatari and the Azraq camp, which opened in April 2014. In March 2017, the camp’s population was less than 79,000 refugees. 80% of them are coming from Deraa.
Zaatari has characteristics of an urban setting, with its own governance, economy and identity. It has major paved roads following an established master plan to maximize space utilization while preserving social cohesion. There are three hospitals, three schools, several sports facilities, and 27 community centers. 120 caravans have been transformed into mosques with donor support from Gulf countries. Each day, 3.2 million liters of water are trucked to the camp and sewage and solid waste transported out to Al Kadr landfill, north of Mafraq. In 2016, a wastewater treatment plant has been built, with a capacity of 3,600 m3/day. Three internal water wells have been established, with a combined daily capacity of 3,800 m3. But inhabitants have only 35 liters per person per day, which is under the absolute water scarcity level (of 60 l).
Zaatari has a dynamic entrepreneurial culture, with 1,400 shops and 50 stalls in caravans along the main street (Sham-Elysées, ‘Sham’ being the local term for Syria). In March 2014, retail activity was estimated at US$2 million a month, with profit linked to illegal connections to the power grid and the absence of taxation. Since 2014, caravans are connected to the electrical grid for nine hours of power per day. A solar power plant is planned for 2017 to reduce gas emissions and the cost of electricity, which reaches JD 500,000 per month.
Since the London 2016 donors conference, Syrians can work with permits, and nearly 3,000 refugees leave the camp daily to work in agriculture in the fields around the camp. The next step involves creating employment in the King Hussein Bin Talal Special Economic Zone in Mafraq.
The Jordanian government is not a signatory to the UN 1951 Geneva Convention on Refugees and, as a result, the camp is managed by Jordanian authorities with technical and logistical support provided by the UN. The Syrian Refugee Affairs Department (SRAD) is responsible for the camp’s administrative management and the issuance of temporary and daily entry/exit permits for displaced Syrians.
Zaatari is divided into 12 districts. Representatives from each district serve on a camp committee to help maintain dialogue with SRAD on key issues related to life in the camp, such as services. The UN needs authorization from SRAD for all activities implemented in the camp, such as infrastructure works or the construction of a new school. The camp is de facto and de jure fully managed by the Jordanian government, and Jordanian law is administered in all sectors. For example, UNICEF schools follow the Jordanian curriculum, with regular Jordanian teachers employed in all educational centers.
The UN plans to create an internal governance system with designated leaders for each district, along with self-assigned street leaders, clan sheikhs, and community leaders. The hope is to empower the refugees to return to Syria in dignity.
 Myriam Ababsa is an associate research fellow in Social Geography at the Ifpo in Amman and a consultant. Her work focuses on the impact of public policies on regional and urban development in Jordan and Syria. She questions governance, public participation in housing policies and services delivery.
Photos taken in Zaatari camp by Lajeh researchers can be found here.