AZRAQ, Jordan: On a rocky patch of wind-swept desert 80 kilometers east of the Jordanian capital Amman, teams of construction engineers are hard at work erecting metal shelters.
Welcome to Azraq, possibly the most planned refugee camp in the world.
The 15-square-kilometer site has been under construction since April, affording the U.N. Refugee Agency – which is used to setting up camps in a matter of weeks rather than months – the rare luxury of time.
No one is quite sure when Azraq camp will open, but already there are schools, playgrounds, child-friendly spaces, food warehouses, an arrival and registration area, health posts and a fully equipped hospital.
Instead of tents, specially designed metal-frame shelters are being arranged in small family clusters close to latrines and washing facilities.
Many see Azraq as an opportunity for U.N. agencies to correct some of the mistakes made at the now notorious Zaatari camp, which was opened in a rush last summer to respond to a sudden influx of refugees and is now home to some 120,000 people. It has struggled ever since due to overcrowding, poor sanitation, vandalism and crime.
“We had 10 days to establish Zaatari and we had one hand tied behind our back due to lack of funding,” explained Andrew Harper, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees representative in Jordan.
“We responded I think as well as we could, given that we had up to 3,000 people arriving a day,” he said.
“But with Azraq, we have had the opportunity to put in place the best practices that we know and that should have been put in place at Zaatari, had we had the time and resources to do so.”
The site was briefly used in the early 1990s as a resettlement camp for third-country nationals fleeing Kuwait and Iraq during the First Gulf War; UNHCR engineers have used satellite images of the old camp to help them design the new facility.
Central to Azraq’s planning has been a focus on fostering communities within the camp to help refugees feel a sense of ownership over the facilities there.
Bernadette Castel, the senior UNHCR field coordinator for Azraq Camp, said: “I think the most important change is that the services are going to be decentralized from the beginning.
“What you had at Zaatari was that services were all in one place on one side of the camp ... Here we are developing separate villages. So the idea is that the refugees in each village will have their own community services.”
In addition to improving access, aid workers hope that people who feel more ownership will be less likely to vandalize the playground next to their house, for example, or to steal from someone in their village if they are known by name by the community police officer.
Each village – expected to house 8,000-15,000 people – will be separated into lots where there will be 12 separate shelters sharing two water, sanitation and hygiene stations, one for men and one for women.
Aid workers believe bathrooms will be kept cleaner and more intact if they are more private and shared by families. Shorter distances to the latrines will also prevent the protection concerns that existed in Zaatari over women and girls having to travel long distances to access bathrooms, especially at night.
“A lot of this camp has been based on what refugees experienced in Zaatari themselves, so we are trying to take on those direct lessons,” Castel said.
One of the big challenges for refugees living in Zaatari, as well as for aid agencies working there, is its desert location and inclement weather, either scorching hot or freezing cold.
However, Azraq is located in the middle of the desert, some 20 kilometers away from the nearest town of the same name, and its climate is as forbidding, if not worse, due to a propensity for strong winds that create daily sand tornadoes.
“At times it has actually been hard to do our site work,” one aid worker complained, “so it’s hard to imagine how it will be living here for a long period of time.”
After all the desert-related struggles of Zaatari – including sand-triggered respiratory infections and difficulties in providing water – why would authorities and aid workers even consider building again in the desert?
Feda Gharaibeh, director of the Humanitarian Relief Coordination Unit at Jordan’s Planning and International Cooperation Ministry, which allocated the site, said there was no other choice.
“This is Jordan. Most of our land is desert. There is no perfect place for a camp. You must also remember that there have been people living in villages in Mafraq [governorate] and Zaatari [town] for many years and surviving the same weather conditions as Zaatari [camp].”
The innovative metal shelters are meant to better protect refugees from the harsh conditions at Azraq than the tents initially used in Zaatari. They are six meters long and 4.5 meters wide with raised ceilings high enough for people to stand comfortably and a double-clad steel tube frame to offer winter insulation as well as protection from the heat and winds.
“There are wind speeds here of up to 60 or 70 km per hour, so you can’t use tents; they wouldn’t last very long,” said Zakariya Amayreh, a Jordanian project officer with the Norwegian Refugee Council, which is leading the shelter installation at Azraq.
“That is why we have designed these shelters. It is the first time they have been used in the world and they are a unique design especially for Azraq.”
With an individual price tag of around 1,450 Jordanian dinars ($2,050), the shelters are significantly more expensive than tents, which cost up to $850 each including delivery, but they are expected to last much longer than tents, which usually need replacing every six to 12 months.
The shelters can be easily removed and transported back to Syria by the refugees, should there be an opportunity to go back.
Just over 200 shelters have been erected so far and the plan is to put up 5,000 in the first phase of the camp, catering for up to 50,000 people across four villages.
But for all the building that is going on, and the 600 UNHCR staff that are ready to be relocated there as soon as it opens, one key component is missing: the refugees.
The site was slated to open in July, but has been pushed back indefinitely. In recent weeks, some non-governmental organizations have withdrawn workers from the site, moving them back to Zaatari or to other urban-focused projects. Donors are beginning to wonder what is happening to their investment.
UNHCR’s Harper said it was up to the government to decide when the camp would be used, but added: “It is hard to justify opening Azraq when [Jordan is] only receiving 300 or so people a day.”
Gharaibeh from the Planning Ministry said the government was waiting for a UNHCR survey at Zaatari to know the exact number of people living there. The count is expected to be completed by the end of October.
“It’s very expensive to open a camp and to introduce all the facilities, with food, water, electricity, etc., so we try our best to utilize Zaatari camp to the utmost and then start to move people to Azraq,” she said. “If we receive a sudden influx, then people will be moved to Azraq camp, so it’s mainly for emergency.”
Asked if the camp may not open at all, she said: “It is not clear yet.”
“It’s very expensive to run a camp.”