AL MAFRAQ, Jordan, 9 July 2012 – Funnels of dust race like miniature tornadoes at this former airfield near the town of Al Mafraq, in Jordan’s north.Report by David Youngmeyer
Here, staff members of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and UNICEF cluster on a weather-beaten road, discussing in urgent tones how to make this barren land into a tented site able to accommodate up to 150,000 displaced Syrians.
From the desert will arise a large-scale emergency centre of tents, safe water sources, toilets, food distribution points, health facilities, safe spaces for children and emergency schools. Za’atari, as it will be known, is expected to extend nearly 9 square km, with about 3.5 square km occupied by displaced families.
“UNICEF and partners are in a race against time to get the tented site operational,” said UNICEF Representative in Jordan Dominique Hyde, pointing out that the number of displaced Syrians crossing the border has increased dramatically in the past week.
Bursting at the seams
Over 30,000 Syrians refugees have fled to Jordan, and more are arriving by the day. In the past week alone, over 3,300 Syrian refugees fled to Jordan. As a result, existing transit facilities in nearby Ramtha are bursting at the seams.
The Bashabshe transit facility, for example, where Syrian refugees are first registered in Jordan, has a capacity of around 500 people, but it consistently accommodates over 2,000. Arrivals sometimes top 2,500.
At Bashabshe, people are everywhere. The four 3-storey accommodation buildings are overcrowded, with as many as three families sharing a single room and some even setting up camp on the rooftops. Outside, tarpaulins have been thrown up to protect children and adults from the searing sun. The on-site doctor sees up to 200 cases a day.
Among the new arrivals at Bashabshe was a family of six. Lama* explained how her husband and four children, all between ages 3 and 10, arrived three days ago after months of being displaced inside Syria.
“There was lots of shooting in our area. My sister-in-law and niece were killed, and my brother, his daughter and son were injured. We decided to leave after that to get away from the violence,” she said. During their escape, they were fired at and her husband was shot in the leg.
They had been internally displaced since their home in western Syria was destroyed about seven months ago. “We lived together with other families. It was crowded, and we were hungry and thirsty.”
Lama said the children’s behaviour has changed for the worse. “They saw people who had been killed, and it has affected them. They are withdrawn and don’t talk much. Sometimes they are aggressive.”
The two older children were unable to attend school for the past year. Even when the school was open, it was often too dangerous for them to venture outside.
Scaling-up humanitarian response
UNICEF provides essential water and sanitation services at Bashabshe and two other transit facilities at Ramtha, so far reaching nearly 9,000 displaced Syrians. These services are complemented with water conservation and hygiene awareness sessions. More than 6,500 vulnerable Syrian children and their families have been reached with psychosocial activities, with numbers continuing to grow. Around 3,000 baby hygiene kits will be distributed over the next several weeks.
Lama and her family will be leaving Bashabshe soon to join relatives in another part of Jordan. But for many others, the new Za’atari tented site will become a temporary refuge. UNICEF is working with partners to ready the site for the tens of thousands of people expected arrive shortly.
Already, close to 100,000 Syrians are registered as refugees in Jordan and three others countries in the region – Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq. Around half are children and young people.
“UNICEF is urgently scaling-up its humanitarian response and requires US$7.5 million out of the US$14.8 million requested for Jordan to meet the emergency needs of the growing number of displaced Syrian children and young people,” said Ms. Hyde.
*Names changed to protect identities