The main supermarket in the world’s largest camp for Syrian refugees is bustling. Za’atari’s 80,000 residents have just received their monthly food aid allowance, and many of them peruse the aisles, comparing the prices of eggs, yoghurt, oil, and meat.
This trip to the Tazweed supermarket — one of two where they can use the 23 Jordanian dinars (around $32) they receive from the World Food Programme (WFP) each month — has become routine, with the camp marking its tenth year of operation this July.
Since it opened shortly after the start of the Syrian war, Za’atari, in north Jordan, has grown from a cluster of irregularly pitched tents for those fleeing violence to what now resembles a small city.
But one key aspect of life has shifted quickly and painfully: Aid money buys significantly less food than it did a year – or even a few months – ago, leading to concerns about rising food security and even child labour.
Jordan, like many countries, has seen considerably higher rates of inflation this year than usual, off the back of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The small country imports 90% of its staple foods, leaving prices susceptible to the global supply chain shocks and price fluctuations the war has triggered.
Inside Za’atari, food prices at the two supermarkets where WFP assistance can be used rose by an average of 22% in just the four months between February and May, according to statistics compiled by aid groups.
Laurene Goublet, deputy country director of the WFP in Jordan, confirmed to The New Humanitarian that food prices for refugees in Jordan have “increased dramatically”. Although this is having a “major effect” on vulnerable populations, money shortages mean WFP is “not in a funding context that can enable an [aid] increase” for refugees in Za’atari and Azraq, Jordan’s two main refugee camps, she added.
For camp residents like Manal Yassin, who strolls Tazweed’s aisles with her 10-year-old daughter clinging to her elbow, that means cutting back on what her family buys and eats.
Yassin grabs a container of labneh, noting that its price has risen two dinars ($2.82) over the past few months, and then points towards a container of vegetable oil, stating that she has seen the price go up about a dinar ($1.41).
The aid she gets from WFP “is not enough”, Yassin says. “You barely start the month and then it’s out.”
Food insecurity rises, donor attention fades
Many camp residents told The New Humanitarian they have reduced portion sizes and cut back on purchasing more expensive items, such as fruit and meat, to cope with the high costs.
Food insecurity in Jordan’s Syrian refugee camps had been rising even before the war in Ukraine began in February. WFP says more than half (58%) of refugee households in the camps are food insecure, compared to 39.5% two years ago.
But as the world’s attention has shifted to other humanitarian crises and donor countries themselves reel under economic hardships, aid agencies in Jordan have struggled to maintain levels of assistance for the country’s 670,000 Syrian refugees.
“A lot of the donor countries are looking inwards,” explained Merissa Khurma, director of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center. She added that this year the Ukraine-Russia conflict has shifted donor countries’ priorities further – the focus is now “completely on refugees fleeing the war in Ukraine”.
WFP’s Goublet noted that her agency had financial problems even before the war. “This year and last year have been more and more difficult,” she said.
Last month, a deficit of $34.5 million forced WFP to reduce food assistance by a third for 353,000 refugees in Jordan’s urban areas. So far, it has continued providing food aid to 120,000 camp residents, but only at the same 23-dinar level it set in 2018.
As limited as it is, aid remains a major source of income for many refugees. After more than a decade of war and exile, savings have been exhausted, and Goublet said debt among refugee households across Jordan has reached the highest level ever recorded.
The Za’atari economy
While the majority — 83% — of Jordan’s Syrian refugees live outside the camps, and are also struggling with rising prices and aid cuts, those in the camps are even more dependent on aid. With strict entry and exit requirements, camp residents are largely cut off from outside job markets, as well as the breadth of food shopping choices offered outside, leaving them extremely sensitive to food price hikes within the camp.
According to a recent WFP survey, the agency’s monthly food assistance now makes up the majority, or 59%, of household income for camp residents. For 13% of households, it is their only source of income.
Refugees in Za’atari can obtain month-long permits to work outside – an important income stream to fuel the camp’s economy. But there has been a notable decline in the number of permits issued and renewed following a November 2020 regulation that requires non-Jordanian permit holders to pay a 16 dinar ($23) monthly fee, which is impossible for many Syrians to afford.
The economy inside the camp has also slowed — by some estimates nearly two thirds of the 3,000 Syrian-run shops on the market street known as “Shams-Elysees” (a combination of the Arabic word for the Levant and Paris’ famous Champs-Élysées), have closed their doors.
The street is still home to small food stores, clothing and appliance shops, places selling wedding dresses, coffee, and shawarma; but vendors say business is slower than usual.
Food prices are actually often lower in these shops than in supermarkets like Tazweed.
Muhammad Munir al-Asi, who runs a small store on the Shams-Elysees that sells food, water, and cleaning supplies, says one reason he can afford to charge less is because UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, doesn’t charge rent for spaces on the street.
Al-Asi points out that prices at supermarkets in Jordan’s capital, Amman, are also cheaper than in Za’atari, but not everyone can leave the camp or get what they need at shops like al-Asi’s. In the camp, “we don’t have a choice”, he says, adding that these days, “people are just eating half a meal”.
‘Cash would be better’
A 15-minute drive from Tazweed supermarket is Safeway, the second supermarket where camp residents can use their WFP food assistance. At Safeway, the lights flicker on and off, as clerks flip the switches to help the iris-scanning technology function properly when it fails to recognises the customers’ biometric data.
Customers check out by scanning their eyes, and the system — which WFP first piloted in 2016 — automatically deducts from their monthly allowance. It can be used at four bakeries in Za’atari, in addition to the two supermarkets.
Many refugees told The New Humanitarian this lack of choice leaves them even more exposed to changing prices, and they would prefer cash.
“The prices are so, so high,” Safeway shopper Muhummad Abdullah says. “If we had cash, it would be better. Then, you could buy from here [supermarket], or from outside the camp, or from the souk [Shams-Elysees].”
Unlike smaller shops, the camp’s supermarkets pay rent – one reason their prices are higher. Moustafa Ibrahim, assistant manager at Za’atari’s Safeway, says the WFP-contracted shop also has less business than a branch in Amman. That means it can’t buy as much in bulk and has to sell some items at slightly higher prices to make a profit.
For example, a package of four one-litre containers of milk sells for 3.25 dinars at the Za’atari Safeway($4.58), versus 2.99 dinars ($4.22) in the Amman Safeway.
WFP's shift to biometrics was meant to provide easier and more secure payments, and to allow the quality of food sold in the camps to be better regulated. Goublet, the WFP country director, said the agency intends to shift to giving residents cash in the camps next year, in phases. But she added that WFP needs to first make sure that shops in the camps can serve the needs of residents at fair prices.
Refugees, aid workers, and experts are concerned that Za’atari residents have been developing a long-term dependence on international aid that donors are now unwilling to sustain – not just from WFP, but from UNHCR and a bevy of other NGOs.
Khurma, from the Wilson Center, has worked on development projects in Za’atari, and believes these sorts of projects should be given priority, with Syrians at the helm. With international aid and attention fading, she told The New Humanitarian change is a must: “Za’atari, as it stands, cannot be sustained without a constant flow of assistance.”
In the meantime, WFP’s Goublet said this year has seen an increase in the number of refugees in Jordan sending children to work, resorting to early marriage, and accepting degrading, high-risk, exploitative, or illegal jobs.
“Za’atari, as it stands, cannot be sustained without a constant flow of assistance.”
Some people, like Yassin in Tazweed supermarket, say their children have started working in the last couple months to help cope with rising costs. “It helps us buy food, to cover the extra costs,” she adds, glancing down at her daughter.
Under the flickering lights of Safeway, 15-year-old Maher Zaitoun stands by a display of chickpea cans, waiting to help carry groceries. He earns about half a dinar ($.71) for each trip back to shoppers’ homes.
Zaitoun should be in the ninth grade, but five months ago dropped out of school to earn extra money to help his family. His father has a herniated disc and can’t work, so the responsibility falls to him — the oldest of eight siblings. “I work for my mom and my dad,” he says. “I work to help [cover the costs] of food and medicine.”
Edited by Annie Slemrod.