Just over three years ago, the Zaatari refugee camp was established to accommodate the growing number of Syrian refugees who were fleeing to the neighbouring country of Jordan. Located around 70 kilometres from the capital city of Amman and 30 kilometres from the Syrian border, Zaatari occupies a space of some seven square kilometres and currently houses around 80,000 refugees.
Since its inception, Zaatari has attracted an enormous amount of attention from the world’s media, diplomats, and celebrities. Angelina Jolie, John Kerry, Malala, and Prince Charles have all visited the camp. Dozens of articles have been written about it, while the camp features in around 5,000 video clips posted on YouTube.
It is not surprising that Zaatari has become so emblematic of the Syrian conflict, which has forced well over four million people to flee to neighbouring and nearby countries. Amman is easily accessible by air from both Europe and North America, and provides visitors with a range of comfortable hotels and a high level of security. From the capital city, it takes less than two hours on a well-maintained highway to reach the camp. Speedy day-trips to Zaatari have consequently become a standard feature on the itineraries of the many dignitaries who travel to Jordan to get a first-hand look at the country’s refugee emergency.
And few are disappointed. Zaatari provides its many visitors with an iconic refugee experience and ample photo opportunities. Looming out of the surrounding desert and surrounded by a perimeter fence, the camp is visually very striking. Its main entrances and exits are constantly clogged with trucks and Land Cruisers bearing the logos of various UN, NGO, and government agencies. Finding a refugee who speaks a little English poses few problems. And despite the constant flow of visitors–many of them asking exactly the same questions and taking exactly the same pictures–both the Syrians and the aid workers who are attending to their needs remain remarkably hospitable.
A standard narrative has emerged from such visits, epitomized by the opening sentence of a recent Associated Press story: “Only empty desert three years ago, the Middle East’s largest camp for civil war refugees has grown from a town of tents into a bustling city.” Using almost identical language, another journalist writes: “In a stretch of desert in the north of Jordan, a small makeshift city has sprung from the sand. Despite the odds, a new normalcy has taken hold.” According to a third report, “what started out as temporary shelter for those fleeing the Syrian civil war has grown into a fully functioning city.”
In support of such conclusions, journalists and other observers point to a number of the camp’s characteristics. The tents that were originally used to accommodate new arrivals from Syria have been progressively replaced by prefabricated caravans. Refugees have created increasingly elaborate gardens, some of which even feature small fountains. One enterprising refugee family has established a pizza delivery service. And a vibrant marketplace has materialized in the centre of the camp, strung out along a track that has become known as the Champs Elysee.
Most strikingly of all, and as many journalists have noticed, Zataari’s premier shopping venue includes at least three cabin-like structures where wedding dresses can be bought or hired. In the breezy words of Al Arabiya News, “despite living in one of the largest Syrian refugee camps, love is in the air for Zaatari camp’s inhabitants and wedding boutiques are springing up to prepare brides-to-be for their big day.”
The impression given by such reports is not entirely inaccurate. In a very short time, Zaatari has become the fourth largest concentration of people in Jordan. Its infrastructure and amenities have steadily improved. And with the support of the Jordanian authorities and international community, the refugees have succeeded in making the camp a somewhat more comfortable place to live than when it was hurriedly established.
But in other respects, the popular narrative of “the camp that became a city” is a misleading one.
First, the intense focus on Zaatari over the past three years has deflected attention from the fact that the vast majority of Syrian refugees in Jordan–more than 85 percent–are not living in camps, but in urban, suburban, and rural areas scattered across the country. According to the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), a growing number of these refugees are now returning to Syria, not because the war has abated (far from it) but because they have depleted whatever resources they brought with them and because the assistance they receive has been cut due to shortfalls in international funding
Second, recent coverage of Zaatari has tended to give the impression that the Syrian refugees who live in the camp are uniquely resilient and entrepreneurial. Far from it. Indeed, it would be difficult to find a refugee camp anywhere in the world, even in the poorest parts of Africa or Asia, which did not have its own markets, tea shops, churches, mosques, and mobile phone kiosks. While wedding boutiques might not be a particularly common sight in refugee camps, exiled populations throughout the world demonstrate tremendous resourcefulness and are never completely dependent on humanitarian assistance.
Finally, the notion that Zaatari is characterized by a “new normalcy” is a very dangerous one. It is certainly true to say that the camp’s residents are doing whatever they can to make the best of a very difficult situation. But it is not normal to be accommodated behind a barbed wire fence and to be deprived of freedom of movement. It is not normal to live in a situation where the entire population lacks the rights and entitlements of citizens. And it is certainly not normal to wake up each day without knowing when or even if you will ever be able to return to the place that you consider to be your home.