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Middle East

Syrian refugees face tough winter in Jordan's overflowing camps

media Syrian refugees search for their belongings at a burnt tent at the Al Zaatari … Reuters/Ali Jarekji

Over 700,000 people have fled Syria for neighbouring countries since the uprising against Bashar al-Assad's regime began in March 2011. Jordan's original refugee camp is overflowing and conditions are tough this winter. 

UN sources state that almost 150,000 people have registered to receive assistance in Jordan, while the pro-Jordanian government Petra news service puts the total at 300,000.

An increase in refugees over the spring and summer led the Jordanian government to open the Zaatari camp close to the Syrian border. As of 5 February, the camp held 76,000 people, with numbers expected to rise so much that Jordan has now opened an “overflow” camp close to the town of Zurqa.

In the middle of one of the paths between the rows of tents in Zaatari, a young boy covers over the wire he’s just set up to steal electricity from the streetlamps inside the camp.

The situation inside Zaatari has visibly improved since it was opened in late July, when the camp was little more than a collection of tents on a dusty plane.

Now the tents are slowly being replaced by cabins and there are more facilities. But progress is slow.

One resident, who wishes to remain anonymous, explains why many of the residents have resorted to stealing electricity:

“What else can we do?" he asks. "If there’s no electricity where we’re living then we have to take action. Everyone in the camp is doing it.”

Despite the improvements, the refugees may not be able to overcome the weather. Temperatures drop close to zero at night, and Zaatari was recently afflicted by flooding that damaged around 500 of the tents and left many refugees without protection from the elements.

“These caravans from the Saudis, they’ve said it’ll take two months to have them ready," Mohammed Halid Zeit tells RFI. "But by the time winter will be over here! My daughter is very sick, and I reported it a month ago, but nothing has been done.”

Blankets and heaters are being distributed, but the refugees say that there is no system for distribution and that first-come-first serve often means that those with the sharpest elbows get all the goods.

Abu Halid says that he has waited 10 days for blankets for him and his family.

“There were so many people there that some people went and started queuing the night before," he points out. "They would go at 10pm and sleep in the queue. We spent a week trying to get blankets and then gave up.”

Eventually one of the Jordanian contractors who had been building in the camp brought him some blankets, as he’d seen him make the journey to queue for provisions so many times.

Like many of the refugees, Abu Halid is setting up a shop to sell small goods to other people in the camp. Among the falafel stands and stalls selling fruits and vegetables or small provisions like washing powder, his will sell sweets and other treats for the many children in the camp.

Where he will get his stock?

“Normally from outside, sometimes from inside," he explains. "If they know someone at the main gate, they find a way to get permission to come inside the camp and sell supplies to us. But these people are taking advantage of us as Syrians, because there is a big mark-up on the goods.”

Feelings among the refugees in the camp are mixed. Some are angry at their perceived mistreatment by the Jordanian authorities, while others are simply happy to have escaped.

Yet most speak of feeling stuck, on the border that separates a country they hope to return to afrom another they are unable to feel at home in.

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