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How (not) to build a refugee camp in the desert

Syrian refugees in Zaatari Camp in Jordan
Syrian refugees in Zaatari Camp in Jordan (Sep 2012) (Areej Abu Qudairi/IRIN)

When the Jordanian government went about setting up Za’atari camp on its northern frontier for up to 100,000 Syrian refugees, it had limited experience.

“I don’t think anyone in Jordan has set up a camp of this size in the middle of the desert before,” Panos Moumtzis, the UN Refugee Agency’s regional coordinator for Syrian refugees, recently told IRIN.

Someone came up with the idea of bulldozing the area to rid it of large rocks, unaware of the fact that sand has a crust that keeps it from being picked up by the wind.

“Now, the slightest wind [creates a sandstorm],” Moumtzis said, noting that 150 children are taken to hospital every day for respiratory problems. “That was a mistake.”

Refugees at the camp have protested violently over the conditions there. Lesson learned: “Setting up a camp in the desert has its own impossible challenges,” said Moumtzis. Now UNHCR is laying gravel on 9sqkm to keep the sand under control.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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