AZRAQ REFUGEE CAMP, JORDAN — The sprawling Azraq refugee camp east of Amman was designed with the benefit of hindsight.
Before it opened in 2014, most Syrian refugees who arrived in Jordan ended up in chaotic situations, either at the densely packed Zaatari camp or in informal urban arrangements. But the Azraq camp’s ordered design and planned construction promised something better.
Today, Syrian refugees who arrive in Jordan are taken to the camp, where they live in bare-bones homes and receive food and medical care.
“It’s another life,” said Abdullah Ahmad, a 32-year-old who arrived just days ago after fleeing Islamic State-held territory near Aleppo, Syria’s largest city. “We hadn’t even tasted the joys of life before we arrived here.”
Yet some visitors to the camp are likely to be struck by something else. Despite its size, tight security and the obvious amounts of money that have gone into building it, large parts of Azraq are essentially empty. According to the latest United Nations figures, fewer than 20,000 refugees live in the camp, even though it was designed to hold up to 100,000. Of Azraq’s four residential “villages,” just two are occupied. Another planned village has not been constructed yet.
In a way, it’s hindsight that caused the problem.
When Azraq was proposed, it was based on the assumption that the flow of Syrians would continue in the same tumultuous way that created the need for the Zaatari camp.
It did not.
That doesn’t mean fewer Syrians are trying to reach Jordan. While Azraq sits partly empty, tens of thousands of refugees sit on the border in a no man’s land known as “the Berm,” a dusty, desolate patch of land barely inside Jordanian territory.
Jordanian authorities say these people are leaving Islamic State-controlled territory and need stringent security checks before they can enter Jordan.
Hala Shamlawi, spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Jordan, one of the few groups with consistent access to the area, said that there have been several waves of arrivals since September 2013 and that it is unclear how long some have been there. Recent arrivals to Azraq describe having to wait for as long as five months.
Jordan’s refusal to take in these refugees may also be a sign of a broader problem. Long a country that has been willing to accept large numbers of refugees from the Syrian war, Jordan may finally be reaching its limit. Almost 700,000 Syrians are registered as refugees in Jordan, but the government estimates the total number in the country at considerably more than 1 million.
In a country of just 6.5 million, that’s a significant proportion of the population, and many Jordanians are frustrated. They say that refugees push wages down and prices up and that they take up a substantial amount of government spending. And with Turkey and Europe slowly becoming more difficult and risky options for Syrians, there is a worry that letting masses of people through the border will only encourage more Syrians to view Jordan as their best bet.
Children play at the Zaatari camp in Jordan on March 1, 2016. (Photos by Lorenzo Tugnoli for The Washington Post)
Figures released recently by the Jordanian Border Guards with the U.N. refugee agency indicate that the number of refugees on the border had reached 26,000. But aid agencies are reluctant to talk about the situation at the Berm, concerned that their already limited access to the refugees in the area may be curtailed. With few exceptions, journalists are refused entry to the border area, which is technically classified as a military area.
The government had been reluctant to discuss the situation but has become more open. “If you want to take the moral high ground on this issue, we’ll get them all to an air base and we’re more than happy to relocate them to your country,” King Abdullah II said in an interview with the BBC last month.
Nazmieh Azadeen Amoreh, a 57-year-old Syrian, arrived at Azraq from the Berm two weeks ago. When asked how many people are stuck on the border, she repeated, “So many, so many, so many.” She then added her own exaggerated guess: 10 million.
Often the families allowed through include women who are in the late stages of pregnancy.
Franjiah al-Ali, a 33-year-old woman from Idlib, arrived at the camp less than a month ago and gave birth in Azraq two weeks later. She and her family had been stuck at the border for five months, she says, with the Jordanian military repeatedly telling them it was simply following a “procedure.” While her son, Muhammad, is healthy, staff at the hospital where the baby was born say that Ali was dangerously malnourished when she arrived. “They saved my life,” Ali said.
Compared with Zaatari, a bustling yet chaotic camp that is closer to the Syrian border, Azraq can seem lifeless. The camp was built in the middle of a desert, away from Jordanian towns. Syrians who live in Zaatari or outside the camps often set up their own businesses, but Azraq is run in a top-down system — food is generally bought from an on-site supermarket. Security is notably tighter in Azraq than in Zaatari.
Some Syrians eventually flee the camp, deciding to try their luck in cities. A considerable number are granted permits to leave the camp to visit a city. Many do not come back. Andrew Harper, the U.N. refugee agency’s representative to Jordan, said that this in itself may be a security risk that the Jordanian government is not willing to accept. “We may put up fences if that is the issue that allowed refugees to be able to come in,” he said.
But for many new arrivals in the camp, it’s still better than what they escaped. Even in Azraq, Ahmad grimaces when he thinks of his time in Islamic State-controlled territory, where he was ordered to take a course on Islam after he was seen talking to a woman who wasn’t a relative.
Ahmad said he and his family spent four months on the border after their escape from Aleppo. He doesn’t know why he was allowed into Jordan, but he’s glad he was. Now his family, including his wife and five children, is settling into life in Azraq.
“I would like to thank the Jordanian people,” he says. “Long live the king.”