Protracted Refugee Situations-A Reflection
On Thursday morning, I visited Baqa’a refugee camp with ARDD-Legal Aid. The camp, run by UNRWA,houses approximately 100,000 Palestinian refugees andis a mere ten miles outside of Amman. Its landscape is nothing like Zaatari refugee camp, the sprawling camp near the Syrian border filled with thousands of tents. Baqa’a is made up of small, compact concrete structures; in many ways, it resembles the narrow congested streets of downtown Amman. There are no guards at the entrance and there are no tents. Yet this does not mean Baqa’a is without challenges. Even as an outsider, it is clear Baqa’a struggles enormously with poverty: trash litters the streets and some of the buildings appear as if they are falling apart.There is limited greenery or open spaces; the whole area has a claustrophobic feel. As the leader of AmalAssociation, a women’s organization in the camp, explained, “we can help some problems. But many people are simply just facing poverty, and that is difficult to overcome.” Perhaps the biggest differences between Baqa’a and Zaatari is that it is clear the Baqa’a settlement is permanent, which makes the issues of poverty more desperate. Palestinians have been living in the camp since 1967, following the Six Day War with Israel. Interestingly enough, today there are even Syrian and Iraqi refugees coming to live in the camp. In all likelihood, Baqa’a will remain for years to come because it is unclear if its residents will ever be able to return to their homes in Palestine. In many senses, it is no longer a refugee camp, but instead a small town, except for the fact that its inhabitants are living in a home away from home, at least in the near future.
Baqa’a is a sharp reminder of what is to come if the conflicts in the region do not subside soon. The Jordanian government is aware of this fact and this is probably one of the reasons why it has been attempting to keep the Syrian refugees in Azraq and Zaatari refugee camps and is imposing stricter entrance requirements for Syrian and Iraqi refugees; this cuold easily become a repeat of the Palestinian situation, in which large numbers of Palestinians remain essentially “stuck” in Jordan. We have been told stories about Syrian families in Zaatari who attempted to make a prefab structure in Zaatari and which have been promptly destroyed by camp officials. Jordan is afraid of a repeat of the Palestinian situation, all too aware that decades later, there is no solution for the displaced Palestinians that would allow them to return home and until that solution is reached, the Palestinians who came to Jordan for refuge are staying for the long term.
Jordan remains in a precarious position. The neighboring countries of Iraq and Syria are embroiled in deep, violent conflicts with no end in sight. Threat of instability comes from both within and outside its borders, and influxes of refugees has the potential to disrupt Jordan’s stability. Jordan is a relatively a small country with a population of about ten million, and the arrival of hundreds of thousands of refugees has put enormous strain on the country, in terms of limited resources, high unemployment rate and rising prices. Western countries, such as those in Europe, are unwilling to share an equal burden of safeguarding refugees, such as Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon are doing. This has been exemplified by their policies and methods of preventing refugees and asylum seekers from reaching their shores or detaining them for extended periods of time in detention centers. While these countries support Jordan through financial and humanitarian assistance, but it is not an adequate substitute to accepting refugees into their borders. The reality is Iraqis and Syrians are looking for alternatives to living in Jordan because life is very difficult, in terms of restrictions and expenses. Simply put, living in Jordan in the long term is generally unsustainable, which forces many to live in poor conditions. This is probably may be why some Syrians and Iraqis are coming to Baqa’a; it may be one of the few ways to continue living in Jordan on a long term basis.
ARDD-Legal Aid also explained that while the Israeli/Palestinian conflict captures the attention hearts and minds worldwide, there is little investment and development in the Palestinian camps. These camps are largely forgotten while the newer camps, such as Zaatari, receive the majority of humanitarian and financial assistance. The lack of investment and developmental assistance in the camp is part of the reason the Palestinians living in this camp is likely part of the reason why poverty continues to be a big issue in Baqa’a. The harsh reality is that a Baqa’a like settlement probably the destiny for the Syrian refugees. As time goes on, Zaatari has gone on to resemble less of a camp and more of a city. For example, now within the camp there are small businesses, delivery services, and even court systems. With about 80,000 inhabitants (according to UNHCR’s estimates) there is no way the second largest refugee camp in the world will simply evaporate, even if the conflict were to end tomorrow. By the time the conflict is over, which will be years if not decades, Zaatari will have developed more into a permanent settlement, probably something similar to Dadaab in Kenya. Or it may even come to resemble Baqa’a. Certainly the issue of return will be exacerbated by the fact the majority of Syrian refugees are living outside Zaatari and Azraq, as urban refugees in Amman and small towns across the country. Will assistance to Zaatari eventually vanish once it begins to become even more permanent and the conflict drags on? If so, creating another Baqa’a-like situation would be unwelcome and tragic outcome. However, ARDD-Legal Aid and other local organizations are hoping to prevent a repeat of Baqa’a through capacity building and empowerment of Syrian refugees so they are not only prepared to return to Syria, but so they are also prepared to live in Jordan in the long term and to advocate for themselves when assistance comes to a halt, should the need to stay arise. I am hopeful that local NGOs like ARDD-Legal Aid will be play an important role in improving the outlook for Syrian refugees in Jordan.
A blog post by ARDD-Legal Aid intern Nali Gillespie.