The £100m ghost camp for refugees

Published by The Mail on Sunday (20th December, 2015)

The huge Azraq refugee camp appears over the horizon like an alien version of a music festival. Thousands of white metal huts are scattered around the rocky landscape and ringed by barbed-wire fences. Closer up, near the guarded entrance, a huge sign reads ‘Thank You’ to Britain, the European Union and ten other nations for providing the £100 million it cost to build and run the place.

This desolate encampment is in the Jordanian desert, 55 miles from the Syrian border. It opened in April last year, intended to be the world’s second-biggest and best refugee camp – an instant city designed to house up to 130,000 Syrians fleeing their nation’s devastating civil war.

In Britain, Ministers assured Parliament that this camp shows taxpayers should have no concerns over Britain’s response to Europe’s worst refugee crisis since the Second World War. Yet their complacent reassurances are wrong. For although millions of Syrians have been displaced by the cruellest of conflicts, the showcase unit holds about 15,000 people – a fraction of the number it was designed to take.

Indeed, Azraq stands as a damning riposte to British claims that such projects stem the flow of refugees to Europe – and raises alarming new doubts over the efficacy of the Government’s lavish aid spending. Britain each year sends £12 billion abroad to hit the target of giving away 0.7 per cent of our national income – some of which has been spent on Azraq.

Furthermore, David Cameron argues that if Britain did not fund such camps in countries around Syria, ‘the numbers attempting the dangerous journey to Europe would be far, far higher’. But the truth is Azraq is so grim that few Syrians wish to stay there. Thousands would rather risk their lives crossing the sea to Europe, while some even prefer a return to their war-torn nation.

And now a big white elephant sits largely empty on the road to Saudi Arabia. So what has gone wrong? For a start, there is the isolation – it’s 60 miles from the Jordanian capital with no other population centres for miles around. Yet it is built for people often fleeing prosperous and well-educated urban communities.

The camp is filled with rows of simple zinc and steel huts. Each cost £1,300 since they are specially made to cope with searing heat in summer and strong winds in winter; last year, there was even snow. Yet two of the four completed ‘villages’ – each intended to host 15,000 refugees – are empty.

As I wandered past bored children jumping in puddles after a storm, it was clear many shelters are not being used even in the villages that are open. Although the camp opened 20 months ago, the village markets, built for 50 shops each, remain empty. There is one supermarket, a long walk from many huts, while the Red Cross hospital has closed already due to budget constraints.

The result is a nine-square-mile site that lacks street life or any real sense of community. Syrians complain of boredom, high supermarket prices, being banned from work, isolation and a lack of freedom.

‘I was brought here after crossing the border,’ said one student, who left Syria after being arrested and tortured by government goons. ‘But this is like being back in jail.’

More than 100 aid agencies helped create this ghost city in the sand. But families said they spent their days stuck inside the stark metal containers, with different generations and genders squashed together in one-room sheds that lack power for fridges and fans.

‘We just sit here all day and there is nothing to do,’ said Abid Ali Hamada, 40, who used all his savings to escape Islamic State’s reign of terror in his home town of Raqqa. ‘We need jobs and want to work to support our families.’ The former farmer also complained of being made to wait two months before he was allowed to take his blind son for urgent treatment in a hospital outside the compound.

Families live on monthly food vouchers worth £19 that they say run out after two weeks, plus four pieces of bread a day. One woman told me children’s shoes cost four times as much in the camp as at outside markets, while toilets and taps for water are communal.

Azraq is operated with Jordan by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), which claims it holds 26,820 registered ‘persons of concern’. But many Syrians have fled, using ‘vacation’ passes to escape.

The UN body that distributes the food vouchers says it issued just 12,364 in October, with some going to people who left after obtaining them to spend outside. A well-placed source told me they estimated the camp’s real population was 11,000 people at most.

Since then the number of food vouchers has risen to 15,300 this month as black-economy work in fields and on building sites dries up during mid-winter, but the numbers are expected to fall back again in the new year.

Yet just weeks ago Foreign Office Minister Tobias Ellwood used the camp to boast in the House of Commons of British benevolence. ‘I am pleased to say that we are seeing how well British money is spent,’ he told MPs after returning from a trip to inspect camps in Jordan. ‘It is clear refugees want to stay in the region.’

But even the UNHCR admits Azraq is a failure, despite decent security. ‘It has not filled, that’s our biggest problem,’ said Paul Stromberg, deputy representative for Jordan. ‘It’s in a harsh climate and we’ve not been able to build the lives there we wanted.’

Stromberg said they created the camp when higher numbers were arriving from Syria. Since then, the flood slowed after Jordan started vetting refugees to stop militants; I spoke to one student who waited 75 days to gain entry, and 12,000 refugees are reported trapped on the border.

Britain has spent £1.1 billion from its soaring foreign-aid budget on the Syrian crisis. Ministers call other European nations ‘minnows’ for failing to match such donations and claim they should help refugees remain in the region rather than offer homes to huge numbers.

Officials defend donations to Azraq, saying they help Jordan cope with an unprecedented crisis as part of a wider strategy. A Government spokesman said: ‘This funding saves lives and is in Britain’s interests – less than five per cent of all Syrians forced from their homes have come to Europe to seek asylum, and without it this number would undoubtedly be far higher.’

But it seems strange to have this mighty new edifice sitting there loathed and largely empty when there is such desperation all around.

Fifty miles away near the Syrian border I met young mother Nahle Barghas, who told her horror story. First her home in Homs was destroyed, forcing her to move four times around the battle-scarred country as she sought a place of safety for her five young children.

She saw savagery and slaughter, with five family members killed by government forces. Little wonder that this weary-looking woman told me she is 30 – ‘but I feel more like 100 after these past years’.

Even after she fled into Jordan, the nightmare continued. Her husband was caught by police without the correct papers and the family was dispatched to Azraq. It was so dispiriting that recently they fled like many more before them, abandoning almost all their few remaining possessions to escape.

‘It was like being in a prison,’ says Nahle. ‘There was no money, no work, no electricity and it is far from anywhere. How are you expected to live a decent life in such a place?’ Now her family lives in fear of being sent back to Syria.

‘The camps are never part of the solution,’ a World Food Programme (WFP) source said. ‘People want as normal a life as possible as close to how they used to live. It is wrong to give so much attention to camps.’

The vast majority of the 633,000 Syrians in Jordan struggle outside in the black economy. But almost a quarter of funding given to the Refugee Response Plan last year went on camps. Meanwhile, small donations to help vulnerable Syrians survive elsewhere in Jordan were slashed, then temporarily suspended in September, due to funding shortfalls.

Britain’s Department for International Development says it cannot break down how much it spent on Azraq. But it has handed £115 million to UNHCR since the start of the Syrian crisis and £227 million to WFP, along with many millions to charities active inside camps.

Some aid chiefs criticise the focus on camps. ‘The conditions are so bad people prefer to live in extreme poverty or risk their lives on boats to Europe,’ one senior official said.

Nigel Pont, Mercy Corps’ regional director for the Middle East, told a House of Commons inquiry last year ‘disproportionate’ sums were spent providing help in camps since it was ‘easier’. One Government Minister even agreed with him.

But when Azraq opened on a site selected by Jordan, UN officials boasted it had been planned carefully after studying shortcomings of other refugee camps and Britain insisted this would ‘enhance the delivery of services’.

Perhaps these aid apostles should listen to Ahmad Mustafa, 44, a man desperate to provide a future for his family and determined not to join the exodus to Europe. He used to be the successful owner of a furniture store in Homs with a big house for his wife and seven children. Now they live in a three-room flat with paint peeling from damp walls in a poor part of Amman.

He spends 14 hours a day, seven days a week in a bakery, paid less than half the wage of a Jordanian as a refugee not officially permitted to work.

Although this proud man has a bullet hole from the war in his stomach, he lives in fear of one thing. ‘If I am caught working I will be sent to Azraq. But I can’t live there. I would even go back to Syria and take my chances rather than stay in that camp,’ he said.

I have visited refugee camps on three continents. They are always chaotic, often unappealing and tend towards unplanned permanence.

But what a damning indictment that a camp backed by British aid, and proclaimed as a brave new model of sanctuary, ends up scaring Syrians more than the bloody carnage of that terrible civil war.

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