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What is life really like in Zaatari camp and how long should refugees be expected to wait there?


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In last weekend’s Sunday Times, Nigel Lawson lashed out at the emotional response of leading politicians and spiritual leaders to the image of “the sight of a drowned toddler”, thereby causing us to believe it was necessary for the UK to accept more Syrian refugees. He thinks we should not be allowing our heartstrings to be tugged into opening the gates to more refugees, as, if we do, we will only encourage more of them to attempt the perilous journey across the Mediterranean in the hope of a better life in Europe.

Lawson’s remedy is that the refugees should stay put in refugee camps in neighbouring countries to Syria. He cites the example of the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan as a model camp where refugees could sit out the war in their home country. Zaatari, he informs us, was set up with the support of the former international development secretary, Andrew Mitchell MP, utilising the British Aid budget to do so. Lawson points out that Zaatari has markets, sanitation and multiple field hospitals, giving the impression that it is, within reason, a place that a refugee could reasonably endure whilst sitting out the civil war over the border.

Indeed Zaatari has become known as the ‘Hilton’ of refugee camps, and in a recent article in The Telegraph, the impression you initially get of Zaatari, with its pizza delivery service, its café selling shisha and a main high street called Champs-Elysee, is of a makeshift bazaar humming with happy go lucky human activity. But if you read further into the same article, you soon begin to realise that Zaatari is not the holiday camp that Lawson would have you believe. According to the article “there are high cases of sexual violence and rape in the camp. Girls are often married off very young in order to secure a dowry that will help families buy basic amenities”. There are also only 3 schools to cover a population of over 80,000, and less than half school age children are enrolled.

Weather conditions are also harsh in the camp, with sandstorms, intolerable heatwaves in the summer, and freezing rain and snow in winter. Last year there was a riot at the camp, where a Syrian refugee was killed when Jordanian forces used tear gas on stone throwing Syrian refugees.

In a recent report (July 2015) by the UNHCR , it was pointed out that there has been a steady increase of returns to Syrian from the camp (50 – 100 a day) predominantly to the Syrian Governerate of Daraa. Yet according to Al Monitor, Danaa has become the new flashpoint for the Syrian War. In other words, many former refugee inhabitants of Zaatari would sooner risk life and limb returning to Syria than remaining in the camp.

Perhaps over and above the dangers and discomforts of living in Zaatari, there is a bleak sense of no future, especially for children. As stated in the Telegraph article “According to UN estimations, it takes on average 17 years for refugees in protracted crises like this to return home”.

If Dominic Lawson found himself a refugee at Zaatari, I wonder how long it would be before he would invest his life savings to get a place on an overcrowded rubber dingy crossing the Med?

Interested in refugee law? You might like Colin's book, imaginatively called "Refugee Law" and published by Bristol University Press.

Communicating important legal concepts in an approachable way, this is an essential guide for students, lawyers and non-specialists alike.

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Chris McWatters

Chris specialises in family law and areas of cross over with immigration law, having acted for vulnerable migrants in family proceedings. He is a contributor to the latest 10th edition of Macdonald's Immigration Law and Practice.