Reconciling tradition with reality: Jordan and the new UNHCR refugee camp policy

By Mustafa Abid

By the end of 2014, the UNHCR expects there to be over 1.4 million Syrian refugees in Jordan. The addition of 1.4 million new persons, despite attempts by international agencies to balance their arrival with increased aid, put tremendous strain on Jordan. Any Jordanian or Palestinian will immediately tell you about the difficulties of finding low wage work when Syrian refugees, wage-vulnerable, will snap up all cheap labor through extra low wages. Any Jordanian or Palestinian will tell you of the interminable wait-times plaguing Ministry of Health hospitals like Al-Bashir, where some patients wait as long as four months for treatment.

Yet no consensus currently exists regarding how these waves of refugees should be accommodated. By U.N. admission, along with many others, the current solution of refugee camps simply doesn’t produce adequate results. A recent U.N. report notes that “UNHCR ’s experience has been that camps can have significant negative impacts over the longer term for all concerned”, and proceeds to list the dangers posed to camp residents due to criminality and violence in the camps, as well as the dependency camps create. This dependency on aid could incentivize refugees to stay in host nation camps instead of pursuing repatriation, and risks the entire premise on which refugee interventions are based: the eventual return of refugees to their homes.

The poor conditions of the camps have precipitated a movement of refugees out of the camps, and into urbanized settings, but in the process encounter other risks. Globally, only 1/3 of refugees actually live in refugee camps, while the remainder reside in host nation urban centers. This applies to Jordan, directly: of 1.4 million refugees, in Jordan the U.N. considers over 600,000 to be ‘at risk’, and 83% of this ‘at risk’ population are urbanized refugees. The Jordanian government simply cannot keep up with the impact this informal population shift is having, nor can Jordanians themselves, as evidenced by the numerous price and service availability issues plaguing the Kingdom. Jordan needs a policy that addresses this urbanization with tangible responses. Whether in Jordan or across the world, refugees increasingly choose to settle in an urban environment, instead of camps, and this trend fuels the above-mentioned social impacts, and brings into question the efficacy of the traditional reliance on a camp-based model for refugee response.

In response to these changing realities, the U.N. announced and detailed a complete re-envisioning of its approach to refugee crises. The announcement comes after years of articles, research and policy memos from both the U.N. and outside observers that recognized, urged and demonstrated the efficacy of non-camp refugee solutions, even as others cautioned against too swiftly pursuing the approach. A field once sorely under-researched, refugee economics and resilience receives increasing attention, and has since the early 2000’s. With qualitative and quantitative data in hand, experts both for and against self-reliance policies for refugees have been able to make their case.

A variety of different papers and articles have argued over the years for the necessity of more effective assistance models, arguing that the benefits of reducing aid and instead facilitating the economic empowerment of refugees would be immense. Uganda, the center of a major effort to legalize refugee work and movement, became the source of contemporary research that may have spurred on the U.N. policy shift. Papers like Refugee Economies, Rethinking Popular Assumptions, by Alexander Betts et. Al, may have played an extremely influential role in the UN’s decision. The authors argue, through qualitative interviews of over 1500 households in Uganda, against five myths of refugee economics, namely that refugees are isolate, burden the economy, homogenous economically, technologically illiterate and dependent. They claim that instead of endangering host nations, the de-camping of refugee influxes could provide human capital, new markets and new producers to host economies. Their research indicates that often, refugees desire financial resources more than tangible aid items, because the financial resources give them the freedom to acquire what they need and invest in business opportunities; it comes as no surprise then that massive illicit markets for refugee aid supplies sprung up as refugees across the world sought to liquidize U.N. provided assets to create their own investment capital. Betts et. Al argue that the most efficacious solution to protracted refugee crises is not to build a new camp, but to utilize existing economic and social service structures as a framework, targeting refugee aid as development money and expertise for the entire country to help integrate refugees into the economy. This would include more financial aid to refugees and a reduction in tangible materials aid. Their belief is that through such market-driven aid, sustainable improvements to refugee economic agency can be achieved. Reflecting on the situation in Jordan, when significant investment has already been dedicated to the creation of camps like Zaatari, a strategy that utilizes this investment and the infrastructure it created by incentivizing the population to remain in the local could help reduce strain on native urban infrastructure. For such a camp-to-city policy to be effective though, future camps in refugee host nations would need to be placed in areas capable of supporting a population, with access to water and other basic resources.

In many ways, Betts’s argument rings true with the situation at hand. With so many refugees already urbanizing, despite the presence of camps, U.N. policy does need to shift in a direction that recognizes and attempts to work within the framework of this reality, as opposed to working around or against it. Unfortunately, no one solution could provide such clean results. In an article from 2006, long before the Syrian crises erupted, researchers took issue with the wholesale endorsement of self-reliance policy, and warned that it did not provide a silver-bullet to the protracted refugee crises. They based this warning off of research findings demonstrating that self reliance efforts do not take into account current social and political power structures, and how these power structures would constrain refugees from actually achieving economic agency. Instead, they would see a diminishment of U.N. aid as the expectancy for self-reliance increased, and a decrease in overall resources as they remained unable to fill that resource gap with self-earned income due to social and political constraints. The author warns that as a result, aggressive self-reliance policies may result in greater suffering for refugees. The U.N. data already points to a refugee population in Jordan that relies heavily on NGO and government aid for daily needs. Transitioning refugees off of this aid structure would require a commitment to job creation and support, especially when considering the persistent physical and mental medical needs impeding many refugees from full-time work.

In addition to the potential risk these policy solutions may actually pose to refugees, they do not speak to their impact on host-nations by moving refugees out of camp infrastructure and into host infrastructure. In a camp environment, education and healthcare services can be carefully planned and administrated based on the needs of the refugees. In contrast, attempting to access native healthcare and education resources, each public infrastructure center will need to re-evaluate its operation to meet refugee needs, and will need to cope with the direct competition between refugees and natives for services. If resources from camps were re-directed to the highest need urban centers, some of these gaps could be plugged, but the loss of organizational ability, in getting to set up a novel healthcare or education system to meet refugee needs, instead of attempting to alter or maximize existing ones, stands as a serious drawback to an urbanized approach to refugee systems.

Considering the policy impacts on the Jordanian refugee situation requires great hesitation. First and foremost, it is unlikely that the Jordanian government will implement many, if any of the tenants of this new U.N. policy, considering its commitment to building refugee camps like Zaatari far away from the metropolis of Amman. Yet, in light of the high percentage of refugees residing in urban areas, perhaps Amman will look to its history, in which the eventual economic incorporation of Palestinian refugees created a new, productive pool of human capital, and wonder if the same should not be done for the Syrians.

A second alternative exists, as a hybrid between self reliance and camp assistance, an alternative Jordan (unintentionally) also has experience with: turn the current refugee camps into their own cities. A perfect example of this is the Baqa’a refugee camp just outside of Amman. Originally built in 1967 to meet the needs of over 26,000 Palestinian refugees, tents were quickly replaced by prefabbed shelters to cope with the Jordanian winter, and slowly residents began modifying and improving these shelters, turning Baqa’a into a city. A drive through Baqa’a demonstrates this reality, with commerce and residential life proceeding like many developing world cities. Unfortunately, the organic transformation of the camp into a city provided few windows for NGO or government intervention to build adequate infrastructure or services to maintain the area, which now struggles with numerous growing-paints issues.

Following this model, Jordan could allow the U.N. and other relief organizations to keep managing the camps, but legalize work in them, and start laying down permanent elements to the city. By legalizing a free market economy, the government may help to reduce the vast crime networks that are currently preying on supplies the U.N. is providing to the camps. The U.N. would need to create incentives to keep refugees in Zaatari and out of Amman, Irbid and other cities, but if done carefully, could turn these camps into economic hubs instead of vacuums of international charity money that could instead be used for economic development. Alternatively, urbanization of existing camps, if handled poorly, could produce another Baqa’a, facing falling education and public services quality, quickly becoming a poverty trap for its residents.

Image Source: Daily Mail UK

3 thoughts on “Reconciling tradition with reality: Jordan and the new UNHCR refugee camp policy”

  1. Excellent endeavor. Please coordinate with Robby Hooker ’69 for contact info with the Tampa Bay Times which has had an excellent international focus from the days of Wilbur Landry. Please also coordinate with the Levin College of Law at the University of Florida, the International Graduate Law program, with which I had the opportunity to participate in 1971, the University of Miami (Coral Gables, Florida, 1983) international law program and the Stetson College international law program at the Gulfport, Florida campus (2001). My junior high school class had to endure my 1961 review of Eugenio Paccelli effort as papal nuncio to coopt the German Central Party on behalf of the Nazis while his brother Ferdinando as a vatican lawyer did the same on behalf of Mussolini and the irish roman catholic priest Conklin(sp?) attempted the same with his radio program in the Midwest in the late 1930s. We have a novelist alumna, Patricia Cornwell, whose uncle authoritatively chronicled these moments in his own name, David Cornwell rather than his nom d’plum John Le Clair. I noted to the Russian UN mission our continuing lobby for corrupt roman catholic elites, urging the support of the filthy Saigon vichy French rc regime, a point I made to Toby Westmorland’s (’69) dad as well as my junior high class including the Imelda Marcos, Madame Chang Kai Chek, and Madame Nhu, the Dragon Ladies identfied by William Lloyd Shearer in “The Nation of Sheep.” The half hour with the Russian mission stressed the Right Sector Nazi hijack of the Maidan Square effort and the continuing efforts by Kiev to brow beat the Donbas which could prosper as an autonomous region with both Russian and EU attention. President Obama’s first reaction, who were the folks issuing directives to the Crimean autonomous democratic area. Later, the nazi-right sector nexus became clear but the Biden types had again screwed us up. So also with the neocon garbage Assad: what next? Answer: Whabbi proxy ISIS, ISIL…Will the opportunity to distance the Saud dynasty from the Whabbi for 1200 year catch up with the superb placement by Charlemagne of his throne in Aix la Chappel apart from the altar, founding the western quintessence.LHHIII

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