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Jordan to house Syrian refugees deep in desert

A new camp for Syrian refugees is opening in a remote part of Jordan's desert after long delay. Aid organizations criticize the location, but say the facility could offer better conditions than Jordan's Zaatari camp.

Buses stand ready at the border between Syria and Jordan - the first refugees are set to reach the camp at Azraq on Monday (28.04.2014). By mid-week, the Jordanian government will officially open its new refugee camp, intended above all to alleviate the troubling situation at the Zaatari camp. In early April, a young Syrian was shot dead there when Jordanian security forces

suppressed an uprising.

In recent years, residents have repeatedly protested - sometimes violently - against what they call poor living conditions. Zaatari, with its nearly 100,000 residents, is considered the world's second-largest refugee camp. The UN administrator there described it as the most challenging facility of its kind in the world. Starting now, new refugees will be placed there only in exceptional cases.

The new center for refugees is expected to address some of the shortfalls of the last camp, due primarily to the fact that the 20 aid organizations cooperating with the UN's refugee office (UNHCR) had time to prepare for the incoming residents.

Violence at the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan

Violent clashes erupted at the Zaatari camp this month

The Azraq facility could already have been opened last fall. But Jordan's government initially decided against this, saying the influx of refugees seemed to be dying down. That trend proved short-lived.

"Normally, the refugees are there first, and then we build a camp for them," said Steffen Horstmeier of the aid organization World Vision. "In Azraq, it's the other way around. Here, we were able to think through the camp and then build it."

Village-like structure

Azraq doesn't have any tents, which are often used elsewhere as an initial emergency solution. The refugees here will move into huts made of corrugated metal. World Vision was responsible for installing the toilets and showers in the camp, which is divided into a series of smaller villages set to house 15,000 people each. Two of these residential areas are finished, and two more could be added in a few months to bring the total capacity to 60,000.

"The upper limit is probably around 100,000," estimated Horstmeier, who heads the World Vision office in Jordan's capital, Amman.

Thanks to the camp's structure of individual villages separated from each other by several hundred meters, the aid organizations aim to avoid uprisings such as those seen in Zaatari.

"Hopefully, the result will be smaller communities where people aren't just sitting on top of each other and where tensions won't arise so easily," Horstmeier said.

Steffen Horstmeier of World Vision in an Azraq dwelling

Steffen Horstmeier of World Vision in an Azraq dwelling

Remote, hot, stormy

There's plenty of space to expand the Azraq facility, since it lies in the middle of the Jordanian desert. Many refugee organizations have criticized the choice of location as too remote - 30 kilometers (19 miles) away from the next village and 50 kilometers from the next larger city. The only human habitation in the direct vicinity is a military camp.

The Jordanian government stipulated the site. Temperatures there currently stand at around 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit). In the summer, that number can quickly climb to 45 degrees, including sand storms that have proven capable of making brick houses collapse.

"The site is definitely not ideal," Steffen Horstmeier said. "We've tried to make the best of it."

German aid group Syrienhilfe criticizes camps like the one at Azraq for failing to provide refugees with the opportunities they need. The small association's volunteers have used their own network to assist Syrian refugees since 2012.

"Of course, anything helps," said Syrienhilfe chair Karsten Malige, a land surveyor. "But particularly in the large camps, although people are given a home, they're not given any hope."

A playground in the Azraq refugee camp

The Azraq camp also includes a playground for children

Malige said the refugees have no way to support themselves and pursue jobs, which he calls "a discouraging move and a degradation."

Few prospects

Refugees in Jordan are not allowed to work. But many violate that law in order to earn a living. Around 80 percent of the Syrian refugees in Jordan do not live in camps, but rather in cities or towns. They find shelter in a range of places, from cellars to apartments with inflated prices.

"Jordan's government is afraid that refugees from Syria are suddenly going to storm the labor market," said World Vision's Steffen Horstmeier, adding that the Jordanian health and school systems are already overburdened. Refugees now make up one-tenth of the total population. "Jordan is going to need support for a very long time," Horstmeier added.

It's a similar story to other countries in the region. In total, the UNHCR has registered 2.7 million Syrian refugees abroad - with

more than a million in Syria's small neighbor Lebanon alone

. Turkey has taken in around 700,000 Syrians, while Iraq and Egypt now host 300,000.

However, Syrians have also increasingly been returning to their home country, said Karsten Malige of Syrienhilfe, explaining: "For financial reasons, but also because of a lack of prospects. That's in spite of the battles taking place there and despite the danger to their lives."

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