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Limon: Refugee Camps Are the Wrong Choice for Syrians

For more than a year the spiraling violence in Syria has continued without pause, forcing many thousands of ordinary people and their children to flee for their lives, seeking refuge in the neighboring countries of Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq.

The refugee crisis is a human catastrophe of immense proportions. Every passing week brings large increases in refugees, and with no prospects for peace, it can only get worse. Before it does, however, the United States and the international community should take a hard look at the way we assist refugees in these situations. Are we really delivering help to desperate Syrian refugees in the best way possible?

Last month, U.S. Committee for Refugees Global Ambassador Jeff Fahey, renowned photographer Sasha Gusov and I traveled to the border of Jordan and Syria to find out. So far, more than 40,000 Syrian refugees have registered with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Jordan, but the real number of those who have sought refuge is closer to 200,000, because many simply do not register with authorities out of fear or distrust. The Jordanian government and its people have responded generously and are to be commended for providing safe haven to those in danger, but there are financial and societal limits to their generosity. My impression during our trip was that those limits were fast approaching.

Dozens of desperate refugees we met recounted their stories of the trauma and flight they endured back home, and of the fear of being caught up in the fighting. Many of the refugees were confused, disheartened and doubtless suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder; most simply want to go home safely.

The Jordanian government responded to the surge of Syrian refugee arrivals with humane and innovative policies. They established transit centers, typically converted apartments or mobile trailers, and a “bailing out” system that enabled refugees to enjoy freedom of movement, and access to health care and the school system.

During our visit, Jordanian government, UNHCR and local and international NGO officials all expressed aversion to establishing a refugee camp for  myriad reasons including political and humanitarian concerns. But off the record they admitted that this “last resort” was the only option if the flow of refugees continues.

Three weeks ago the “last resort” became a reality and a refugee camp of tents in the hot, stifling desert was erected at Za’atari, Jordan, a short distance from the Syrian border.

From all reports the camp is primitive, remote and beset by frequent dust storms. It barely has electricity and all supplies, including water, food and basic medical supplies, must be trucked through the desert to the camp. So far 6,000 refugees have been relocated, but there are plans to expand the camp so that tens of thousands of families could live in tents.

Immediately, the refugees began protesting that the sandstorms, heat and scorpions are jeopardizing the health of babies, children and the elderly. Some said they would rather face the bullets of the Syrian Army than endure the suffering and humiliation of this refugee camp. Why was the establishment of this dangerous camp the only option?

It is important to know that in addition to the newly arriving Syrians, Jordan continues to provide protection to an estimated 250,000 to 450,000 Iraqi refugees, who now have been in exile for so long they constitute a new protracted refugee population.

The Iraqis fled from the war and sectarian violence beginning in 2003, and at the height of the violence it was estimated that almost a million Iraqis were living in Jordan. But they were never put in refugee camps. Instead the U.S. and other nations contributed funds to help Jordan open their schools and health care systems to the refugees. UNHCR began an innovative cash assistance program that helped the most vulnerable refugees pay rent and buy food. Other relief organizations provided specialized services for those traumatized and most needy.

We believe that it is not too late for the international community to build upon the structure that was put in place for the Iraqi refugees. We should support the “bailing out” system, help fund access to health care and schools, provide direct cash assistance for rent and food, and involve and support the local aid and relief organizations that have demonstrated their willingness and capability to respond to the needs of Syrian refugees. We can change course and instead of enlarging the uninhabitable refugee camp, we can invest in expanding the local capacity to assist refugees and their host communities in Jordan.

After 50 years it is clear that living in refugee camps exacts an unconscionable price from refugees. The refugees receive basic food, water and shelter but are deprived of their freedom, the right to work and self-determination.

Currently, more than 8 million refugees have lived in refugees camps worldwide for 10 years or more. We fear that in 2022, we will witness a new generation born in Za’atari refugee camp with no hope and no future. This is “warehousing” of human beings in the making.

Now is the time for the world’s policy makers to evaluate the way we respond to humanitarian and refugee emergencies. We can learn from the plight of Syrian refugees and make the improvements that these refugees desperately need – today.

Lavinia Limon is president and CEO of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants.

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