1. Home
  2. Middle East and North Africa
  3. Jordan

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

Share this article
Join the discussion

It was The New Humanitarian’s investigation with the Thomson Reuters Foundation that uncovered sexual abuse by aid workers during the Ebola response in the Democratic Republic of Congo and led the World Health Organization to launch an independent review and reform its practices.

This demonstrates the important impact that our journalism can have. 

But this won’t be the last case of aid worker sex abuse. This also won’t be the last time the aid sector has to ask itself difficult questions about why justice for victims of sexual abuse and exploitation has been sorely lacking. 

We’re already working on our next investigation, but reporting like this takes months, sometimes years, and can’t be done alone.

The support of our readers and donors helps keep our journalism free and accessible for all. Donations mean we can keep holding power in the aid sector accountable, and shine a light on similar abuses. 

Become a member today and support independent journalism

Become a member of The New Humanitarian

Support our journalism and become more involved in our community. Help us deliver informative, accessible, independent journalism that you can trust and provides accountability to the millions of people affected by crises worldwide.