At a time when we are wondering about the consequences that the pandemic will have on our lives and children’s lives. At a time when the challenge of getting our economy back on its feet is obsessing our fellow citizens and our leaders, in the Zaatari camp in the Jordanian desert, 80,000 Syrian refugees try to survive in appalling conditions.
In 2011, the Arab world dreams of a new world that it will define as Spring as a rebirth, a reinvention, where the people will finally take their destiny into their own hands. Syria has not escaped this desire for emancipation, but it was without counting on Bashar al-Assad’s extreme and fierce determination to keep power against all. It was then the exodus for thousands of Syrians fleeing first to neighbouring countries with Jordan as their first destination. In order to keep a certain control over the migratory flow, the latter set up camps and this is how the Zaatari camp was born, which would be the largest concentration of refugees in the world.
This camp is a territory of just over 5 km² and half of it is made up of children. An average of 80 children are born there every week in one of the three hospitals in the camp. Most of the children who were born there or who arrived there very young have never left. The image of a camp in the collective imagination is that of a few tents pulled and scattered. Refugees in rags and undernourished, but the largest refugee camp in the Middle East has, in 10 years of existence, adopted the appearance of a city, the 4th largest city in Jordan, and the refugees represent 10% of the population.
At its highest rate of occupation in 2013, 200,000 souls survived there in unprecedented lack of privacy. Hospitals, schools and sports fields appeared fairly quickly. There is also a shopping street made up of a dozen or so shops which the refugees ironically called “The Champs-Elysées”. The UN provides monthly financial aid to 470,000 Syrian refugees, including those living in urban areas and in the two refugee camps, that of Zaatari but also that of Azraq (built after that of Zaatari), which at the height of the Syrian war had received up to 54,422 people in 2016, according to the database of the High Commissioner for Refugees.
The bogging down of a war is also an exile that lasts over time. Zaatari has therefore become a new home even if the majority dream of returning to Syria as soon as the security conditions allow. In this agglomeration of prefabricated buildings that block their horizon, many struggle to find work, surviving on meagre humanitarian aid or working illegally. Less than a fifth have a valid work permit. In order for a camp of this size to be managed, a metronomic organisation must be set up. A subdivision into twelve independent districts has therefore been created, each with its own methods of organisation. The management of the districts is entrusted to international NGOs under the authority of the United Nations.
Women, victims of war and traditions
In conflicts, women are doubly or triply victims of the dramatic situations in which their families are plunged. In Zaatari, where they could be useful to the community, they are excluded from employment opportunities, facing social norms that require them to stay at home. The lack of schooling or its precarious abandonment leads to another problem: young girls tend to marry at a younger age, while they are still minors. In Jordan, however, marriage is forbidden before adulthood. However, in the camps, young women are getting married earlier and earlier to prevent the family from having one more mouth to feed. Local NGOs, who take the subject very seriously, try to raise awareness among as many families as possible, reminding them that underage marriages are forbidden. Estimates are 170 underage marriages per month, and this is estimated to have doubled since 2012, according to the Jordanian Department of Justice. This does not include illicit unions that remain secret.
Covid-19 under control ?
On 4 November 2020, a total of 168 cases had been detected in Zaatari. The number of PCR tests carried out was 9,414 (more than 12% of the population). Nevertheless, it is difficult to know the real health situation in terms of the coronavirus pandemic. Washing their hands regularly, disinfecting them, wearing a mask or observing social distancing remains a challenge for the refugees.
People live in precarious conditions. Poverty, depending on the families and their financial capacities, can be relative to extreme. The various NGOs managing the districts have advocated confinement with the difficulties that one can imagine in a place whose primary objective was only to become a temporary or transit place. In the camp, half of them are under 24 years old and 20% are under 5 years old, but the transmission remains important for the most fragile and the medical means are too insufficient.
For 2021, the United Nations estimated, in a report published on December 1, 2020, the humanitarian needs of refugees around the world at 35 billion dollars, to face the pandemic. According to the same report, the number of people in need of humanitarian aid will increase by 40%, the most vulnerable of whom are the victims of hunger, conflicts and forced displacement due to the consequences of climate change and wars.
* Belgian novelist and essayist, latest work published Maternité et Littérature, création et pro-création, Éditions du Cygne, Paris, 2017.