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Zaatari Refugee Camp: A Makeshift City

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A dwelling in Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan (photo by K. Doraï) A dwelling in Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan (photo by K. Doraï)

Unlike Lebanon, which also hosts a large number of refugees, Jordan has opened refugee camps in the North of the country to control the arrival and settlement of refugees. Established in late July 2012, the Zaatari camp, which has nearly 80,000 inhabitants today, is the most famous space of settlement of Syrian refugees. The camp is located in a semi-arid area about ten kilometres southeast of the city of Mafraq in Northern Jordan, near the border with Syria. Originally composed of tents juxtaposed next to each other, the camp has grown dramatically with the increasing number of arrivals of Syrians in late 2012 and early 2013, with up to 200,000 inhabitants registered by UNHCR in April 2013. This figure has decreased with the departures of Syrians to urban areas in Jordan, or returns to Syria.

Zaatari camp appears as a makeshift city where prefabricated, and a few tents are juxtaposed. This area concentrates all the paradoxes of the Syrian presence in Jordan. Humanitarian organizations are omnipresent, symbolizing the vulnerability of an exiled population deprived of resources. A large proportion of Syrian refugees are from rural areas, and therefore more vulnerable. At the same time, refugees were able to develop this space, despite the constraints of humanitarian authority, attempting to reconstruct in exile their ​​social and economic life. Small businesses, and other small income-generating crafts businesses, opened around the camp. The refugees tried, whenever possible, to recreate some form of normal life. Syrian refugees have limited access to the labor market, and those who reside in camps must obtain an authorization to exit it, granted for a limited period.

In a vegetation-free landscape, a city has emerged thanks to the dynamism of its inhabitants. Since the camp was established, an informal economy grew, and got structured in all neighbourhoods. At the entrance of the camp, a shopping street developed, officially called “Souk street,” but referred to as "Champs Elysées" by the inhabitants of the camp. Along the street, all kinds of shops are found: mobile phone sellers, grocery stores, bakeries, small restaurants, or hairdressers. Street vendors circulate in the camp, selling all kinds of products or sandwiches. Adjacent to many facilities founded by NGOs, this shopping street is frequented by many refugees. It has become a central place in the social and economic life of the camp, symbolizing the economic dynamism of refugees. In other parts of the camp, small grocery stores, and hairdressers have set shop. These small businesses provide income to refugees who run them, but also operate as places of sociability for the Syrians. In total, according to UNHCR, nearly 3,000 stalls are operational in Zaatari.

In terms of housing, the camp is not a simple juxtaposition of standardized houses, but recreates forms of housing quite similar to those of southern Syria, or peripheral informal settlements of major Syrian cities. An important place is given in homes to the reception room of the guests (madhafa). People external to the family meet up in this room, which is made up of arranged mattresses, thus rendering it a main meeting place for men—while the women gather in the small courtyards to cook in groups, or chat in smaller rooms.

The camp has thus a dual face: a closed space where the most vulnerable refugees are forced to reside, as well as a city in the making, produced with limited means but which tries to recreate, in exile, a social and economic life.

[This essay builds on ongoing research which is part of the program “LAJEH—Time of Conflicts/Time of Migration: Reflections on the Categories and Genealogy of Migration in the Middle East.” The aim of LAJEH is to deepen knowledge on forced migration in the Middle East, analyzing current refugee flows in their historical and regional contexts. Through a cross-disciplinary, and empirically-driven approach, it analyses the implications of forced migrations on host countries, and the latter's responses. The research project focuses not only on registered refugees but also on the wide range of displaced and migrants groups affected by conflicts and their consequences.] 

 

 

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