VICTORIA PRENTIS MP VISITS ZA’ATARI REFUGEE CAMP IN JORDAN

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Victoria Prentis MP is currently in Jordan with Huw Merriman MP on a trip organised by Save the Children, one of the many major international charities operating in the country. The MPs are visiting refugee camps in Jordan and will also have meetings with local officials and representatives of aid agencies. Victoria is hoping to gain a greater understanding of the crisis in Syria, its impact on neighbouring countries, and the effect of the response of the international community.

Life in Za’atari Refugee Camp: Wednesday 21 September

Today I visited Za’atari Refugee Camp which, with almost 80,000 Syrian refugees, is the second largest refugee camp in the world. The camp is just 15 km from the Syrian border.

The people in the camp are kept safe and fed, and to a certain extent educated by the global Syrian aid programme, of which the UK Government has contributed over £1 billion. Over half the refugees are children.

Our first visit was to the food distribution centre where residents collect bread and food vouchers. The vouchers can be exchanged in the food markets inside the camp. A food debit card has been introduced to automate the service and ensure that only food is accessed. This ensures that aid is directly going where it is intended. Water is collected by each household having been delivered to the camp in water trucks. Many of the refugees have been here for four years now. There are no new arrivals. They live in ‘caravans’ which are small metal mobile homes. Many of them have built their own compounds around their areas, and rigged up showers. There are 24 schools onsite and large hospital and worship facilities. 

The food distribution is impressive and humane. People now queue for well under half an hour day, and the system is calm with clearly enough for all. I questioned the head of the system about another area of Jordan, known as the Berm, where almost as many refugees as in Za’atari are existing in a sort of no mans land on the boarder between Jordan and Syria, stuck between two armies. Until 23 June these volunteers were able to deliver food to them as well, though not in such a well organised fashion. This was food distribution from the back of trucks. On that day, following a serious terrorist incident which left 13 Jordanian soldiers dead, the JORDANIANS closed the boarder, and these refugees, mainly children, have been left with no further aid. All of the volunteers were visible worried about them. The situation could not be more different from the residents of Za’atari.  

Next we headed off to our first school visit. In the courtyard we met a group of 18 to 25 year old women who were learning about negotiation and conflict resolution, with much laughter and shouting. Their education has been severely affected by the war.  In the classrooms, we met a class of 11 to 13 year olds who were engaged in the ‘heart’ programme, which encourages the, to speak about their experiences of war and loss and a class of under 7 year olds who were being taught new words and the alphabet.

Our next visit in the camp was to a kindergarten, where many of the children were using paints and clay on only their second day of school. Their mothers were in an adjoining room and were being shown a video concerning violence in the home and at school.

Meeting with the mothers gave Huw and I an opportunity to discuss the difficulties of life in the camp. The electricity shuts down at 7.30pm and does not come back on until 3.30am. This, allayed to the lack of clubs in the evening, causes young people to lack any activity or stimulation away from the streets.   The camp is very hot in winter and cold in summer and no refrigeration means that small batches of food must be cooked daily.

The mothers held concerns about the extent of the education programme. The kindergarten is fantastic but they were concerned that their children could lack a good education throughout their school years. Thanks to Save the Children, these opportunities to learn should exist.

Huw and I explained what we did as MPs in Parliament.  Huw spent the time discussing migration to Europe with them; almost all had a relative or friend who had made the journey.  I was told harrowing stories of domestic abuts, divorce and separation from children.  The people who stay in camps such as Za’atari are some of the most vulnerable; they could in the main not make a life for themselves outside without significant help.

With the volunteers, we discussed the work opportunities for residents of Camp Za’atiri. Residents are prohibited from leaving and returning to the camp unless permission is obtained.   Even we as guests, had to jump through  hoops for our permission to enter.  This would clearly be impossible to negotiate on a daily basis.  This means that it is almost impossible for the residents to work.  The Jordanian authorities have issued 200,000 working visas for Syrian migrants to work in textiles, agriculture and construction (industries in which Jordanians are reluctant to work). Children are better placed to slip in and out of the camp and are employed in these industries, sometimes overnight and sometimes for weeks on end. Child-labour is illegal in Jordan but employment of children from the camps is a worry. This is a nuanced issue. As adult residents find it difficult to work, the children may be the only members of the family able to bring in wages.

Before leaving for Amman, we were able to climb to a vantage point to get an idea of the scale of the camp. It is a vast sea of makeshift homes. Residents are bustling by and happy to see visitors. The camp was built to a design plan meaning that the infrastructure for sewage and waste was put in place at the outset. It has now grown to cover 8 square kilometres since it was officially opened four years ago.

The people in the camp are safe and well nourished.  It is clean, calm and peaceful. I’m proud that UK government aid, and many individual donations to organisations like save the children makes this possible. Refugees are displaced for an average of 17 years. What the future holds for the people of Za’atari should be of concern to us all.

Victoria Prentis MP (21 September 2016)

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Za’atari refugee camp, Jordan.

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Huw Merriman MP and Victoria in the camp.

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Victoria and Huw Merriman MP meet schoolgirls in the refugee camp.