The UAE-funded Mrajeeb al-Fhood Syrian refugee camp in Jordan. Can humanitarianism ever upgrade?

February 8, 2015
The UAE-funded Mrajeeb al-Fhood Syrian refugee camp in Jordan. Can humanitarianism ever upgrade?
Estella Carpi
Estella Carpi Non-Resident Fellow in Social Anthropology

20 km north the Jordanian city of Zarqa, the Mrajeeb al-Fhood refugee camp is currently funded and administered by the Emirati Red Crescent (ERC). The camp was constructed in April 2013 to assist the Syrian refugees fleeing the still ongoing conflict. The allocated funds were part of the Dh21.5 billion provided by the UAE for foreign aid in 2013: the greatest amount achieved by any country in 50 years, according to the report released by the Ministry of International Cooperation and Development.

The Mrajeeb al-Fhood camp, less frequently visited by journalists due to its isolated location in the Jordanian desert, is considered a “five star camp”, guaranteeing the best human conditions to refugees. For Syrians fleeing war, upgrading one’s own life means being able to relocate to this camp. It presently accommodates only 4,000 individuals, prioritizing widow women with kids, single women, the elderly, disabled people, or large families. Single men are not allowed in.

The material conditions are indeed far better than those of any other refugee camp I have ever entered. People are provided with an accommodation looking like a white caravan, equipped with bathroom and kitchenette only in case one of the family members suffers from chronic disease or physical disability.

The camp has common kitchens where food is cooked by a specific team of workers. There are also common laundry rooms, where people can do their washing. Common bathrooms are provided, as it would not be feasible to build a toilet in each caravan. No private cooking is allowed, offering to the refugees a fixed range of food items with reasonable room for choice, in addition to dietary requirements.

Unlike other camps, children seem to have been taught how to “behave”, as they clearly prevent themselves from playing with or “bothering” visitors. Apparently, the school dropouts are low-rated, as the three schools present in the camps have higher education standards: there are 25/30 students per class on average, according to a camp dweller mother of 5 children. Much less than the average class size – 60-80 pupils – in the well-known Jordanian Za‘tari refugee camp.

Coordination between the Emirati Red Crescent and the few international actors that also contribute to the daily living of the camp dwellers – i.e. UNICEF and Oxfam – seems to be optimal. Refugees find their life in a perfectly wrapped up package, which primarily satisfies their biological needs.

Thanks to the self-sufficiency of the ERC and the UAE’s will to prioritize the provision of humanitarian aid, the primary needs of the refugees are excellently met; whereas their presence as political beings coming out of war is still denied or stifled, as it is typical of the humanitarian assistance logic. This complies with the conditions that the Jordanian government dictates to the humanitarian agencies present in the country, concerned about security within its national borders. With regards to this, one of the ERC humanitarian operators volunteering in the camp observes: “We tend not to allow gatherings of men, political discussions, and, therefore, not even the entrance of young males in the camp. They’d simply cause problems and we desire to avoid any issue as much as possible”.

The most common criticism that has been addressed to the ERC hitherto is about the small size of the camp and the extreme concentration of resources inside it. Despite the actual intention of expanding the camp, ERC responds that they would not be able to provide the same quality of services to a larger number of people. Quality, once in time, is prioritized over quantity in a “humanitarian crisis”. The ERC philanthropic philosophy seems to be at odds with the UN’s philosophy, which generally has a very ambitious beneficiary outreach. For instance, the distribution of food by the World Food Programme (WFP) last year in the non-bombed Qamishli province in North-East Syria – since it is partially regime-held – is a perfect case in point. In other words, chronic poverty and marginalization generally come to the foreground – and are finally dealt with – as issues that need to be sorted out once a “state of emergency” is officially declared.

The western humanitarian industry usually changes its operative agenda along with catastrophes, while taking the chance of also targeting chronic neglected areas, thanks to the major funding coming for emergencies. On the contrary, ERC seems to differentiate itself, in that it keeps focusing only on the emergency-produced vulnerable, like in the past cases of Yemen, Libya and Kosovo.

In light of these considerations, there is wonder for whether such differences in the outreach policies are ever discussed by the several humanitarian agencies. On one hand, ERC is commonly criticized for targeting only the allegedly most vulnerable among the refugees, and neglecting chronic misery. On the other, the omnipresence of the western humanitarian apparatus loses any sense of realistic manageability and sustainability, by aiming to expand its services at any cost and, too often, with no clear-cut – and even changing – eligibility criteria.

Rather, the most appreciated facet of the ERC philanthropy is their employment of Syrian refugees in in-camp activities meant to serve their community. The casual employees are more often rewarded with material goods that they ask for rather than cash. “If I clean the streets of the camp, I will be rewarded with more potatoes if I ask for more; rice if I ask for rice; or cigarettes. They give me what I ask for”, says an adult camp dweller.

The ERC argues that they have opted for the desert area in which the camp is located in order to preserve the total safety of the camp dwellers and to be able to expand in the near future.The inescapable risk is isolating further the Syrian refugees, increasingly unwanted, from the rest of their “host” society.

The ERC also organises sports, cultural and recreational activities. It conducts workshops on carpentry, ironsmith, and so on. Inside the camp there is also a supermarket, a mosque, medical facilities with a few specialists, barbers, children’s playgrounds, tailors, and media centers: all things that, without a proper social rehabilitation of the refugees’ lives, will remain mere ornaments.

There are fewer and fewer reasons to get out of the camp. However, there is no issue if one of the refugees manages to get out with no legal permission. She/he will not find any living being around before walking a few kilometers.