In 2012, UNHCR built the Zaatari camp in just two weeks in order to accommodate a massive influx of refugees, and it quickly became overpopulated, expanding rapidly to meet housing, healthcare, food distribution and security needs.
Last week the Jordanian government and the U.N. opened the $63.5 million Azraq refugee camp. Designed to accommodate 130,000 Syrian refugees, it could become the second-largest camp in the world. After complaints from residents and donors alike over the crude tents originally erected at Zaatari and winters that saw shortages of essentials like blankets, officials say Azraq's design and management is mindful of lessons learned and will employ a "village" concept with decentralized services and facilities.
Here, UNHCR’S external relations officer Andy Needham and Andrew Boscoe, Oxfam's Zaatari program manager and interim Jordan country director, weigh in on the need for a new camp.
Syria Deeply: How great was the need for a new camp?
Andrew Boscoe: Azraq has been under discussion for a very long time. UNHCR and other actors spent a long time looking for a site. The Jordanian government said to use Azraq, but most organizations were opposed to the site at first because it's very isolated, it's out in the desert and not near a major town. So it's harder for refugees and aid [to get there].
But the government said it was there or nowhere, so UNHCR agreed to it. There's a need for a new camp, definitely, because we're at capacity, somewhere around 100,000 residents. There's been a big increase in the population numbers over the last two or three months, and as you drive or walk around, you can see it's filled up.
The opening of Azraq has been announced three or four times [and not happened], but I think now the fact that Zaatari is at capacity has put pressure on the government to open it.
Syria Deeply: How do international organizations feel about the camp's location?
Boscoe: Azraq isn't in the best location, partly it's because it's an out of the way site. It's way out in the desert. Zaatari is very close to Mafraq [a city of nearly 60,000], and there is quite a lot of trade [between the city and the camp] even though there's not supposed to be.
Syria Deeply: How many new arrivals have you seen since the opening of the camp last week?
Andy Needham: We had a soft opening of the camp last Wednesday, and up till Thursday of last week new arrivals were continuing to go through Zaatari. As of Friday we began to accept all new arrivals, and are so far hosting 1,133 refugees. Over 50 percent are children, which is similar to what we are seeing at Zaatari.
We have had requests for families here to be reunified with family members in Zaatari here in Azraq, so we have decided to take in refugees that are already in the country to reunite families.
Syria Deeply: What lessons from Zaatari have you applied to the design of Azraq?
Needham: The government made the land available in Azraq last March, so over a year’s worth of planning, development and construction has gone into the refugee camp, which is an unusual set of circumstances in refugee response.
The Azraq camp was designed to look and function like a real city, as opposed to an emergency camp. There are paved roads that connect to villages that are divided into slots where the shelters are located.