The ongoing refugee crisis has left more refugees than ever living in host communities and refugee camps for long periods of time. While host communities and refugee camps are supposed to be temporary situations ending in either resettlement or repatriation, nationalistic rhetoric and expanding crises have made refugee camps especially more permanent places. However, for refugees spending years in camps, rows of UNHCR tents, ration distribution centers, and understaffed schools are not acceptable. Individuals fleeing persecution, conflict, and environmental destruction deserve to still have their rights preserved by the international community. Refugee camps in their current situation cannot accommodate the needs of refugees and provide them with a higher quality of life.
Ongoing situations of displacement like those witnessed in the Dadaab Refugee Camp in Kenya show the way that temporary refugee camps as long term situations harm refugees and create conflict with host nations. It is difficult for refugee camps, which often are underfunded by the international community and undesired by host nations to remain temporary while improving the lives of refugees. The limitations on camps though have not stopped passionate organizations and individuals from creating change though. One site of these changes is at the Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan.
Zaatari was established in 2012 to accommodate Syrian refugees in Jordan. It is located less than 10 miles away from the Syrian border, and currently houses 78,000 Syrian refugees. If Zaatari were a city, it would be the fourth largest city in Jordan. In fact, in 2013 at its peak population Zaatari was so large that it housed over 200,000 refugees and Jordan was forced to build another neighboring camp. The Jordanian government, like many long-term host countries, is increasingly wary about the cost and the permanency of the Zaatari camp considering that Jordan is already host to several other long-term refugee populations. Despite the continuing situation in Syria preventing repatriation, Jordan is increasingly unwilling to continue to resettle refugees in local host communities, and like other countries faces problems will illegal smuggling of Syrian refugees in host communities and across their borders. Zaatari itself faces problems with funding failures, the hesitancy of the Jordanian government, and other setbacks which has forced the camp to rethink the operations of the refugee camp.
In the last few years, Zaatari has undertaken incredible development projects like installing solar panels to provide residents with 14 hours of electricity per day, which makes this refugee camp more environmentally sustainable than some countries. Zaatari is also abandoning some of the key identifiers of a refugee camp like food distribution centers. The camp has replaced the WFP food distribution program with a system that places small monetary sums on meal cards that refugees can spend at the Champs-Elysees marketplace. The marketplace, another innovation, replaced some of the typical black-market operations of refugee camps with restaurants, clothing stores, and real grocery stores operated by refugees and local Jordanians. In combination with the meal cards, this arrangement grants refugees more freedom over their food choices and lives than rations.
Additionally, the marketplace provides employment and entrepreneurship opportunities to refugees in recognition that life does not stop and skills do not cease to be needed once someone becomes a refugee. Refugees can also be employed by NGOs and the UN through the cash-for-work program to work in administrative or manual jobs in the camp. This initiative was further enhanced by a job fair hosted in 2017.Refugees in Zaatari also have the opportunity as children to attend established schools, which have an unofficial Girl Scouts organization and a soccer league supported by NGOs.
Camp morale and development were further aided by residents of the camp who started their own magazine, which they regularly publish about issues related to Zaatari. There is also an attempt to make the Zaatari a more beautiful home by painting shelters and homes. All of these programs serve to make the camp more community centered. The provision of basic social services, particularly for children, can also help them adapt useful skills for the future and handle past trauma. Additionally, the US was previously funding a Women’s clinic in Zaatari to provide support groups for women living in the camp.
Zaatari, like any refugee camp, is not perfect, and was created by awful situations, but innovations that attempt to provide much needed services for refugees and build community in Zaatari can improve the lives of refugees. Refugees in the camp still face issues of sexual assault and require additional security. Additionally, many educational programs are still underfunded, leaving many children without hope of future skill development. However, a camp willing to undergo development in recognition that that Zaatari is a city for refugees for as long as it takes to stabilize Syria is in a more promising situation for solving these issues than other camps.
Refugees are not going to disappear, nor are they being repatriated or resettled fast enough to prevent many from spending long periods of their lives, possibly their entire lives inside of refugee camps. The international community needs to continue funding and focusing on the refugee crisis to ensure camps capitalize on the skills of refugees in the camp and maximize their quality of life while building long term skills and realistic goals for refugees. This does require additional funding and new program development, but refugees deserve more than temporary encampments of tents and distributed rations, and the international community needs another option.