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Jordan’s ‘Zaatari’ problem

Apr 19,2014 - Last updated at Apr 19,2014

A recent series of unfortunate incidents in the world’s largest Syrian refugee camp polarised the country, making many debate out loud an issue that was once barely discussed in hushed tones.

On April 6, the Zaatari camp made headlines across the region and around the world due to violent riots that left 29 Jordanian security personnel injured and led to the tragic death of a refugee.

Exactly one week later, the camp was once again in the news when Jordanian authorities unveiled that they uncovered weapons-grade explosive materials in the camp, capable of leaving half-a-kilometre radius of devastation that would have destroyed one-fourth of the camp and several neighbouring houses and farms.

While unnerving, Zaatari’s growing notoriety has raised an even more unnerving and controversial question: Have Syrian refugees become Jordan’s latest national security threat?

Before one can begin to estimate the long-term security impact the influx of 1.3 million refugees and counting is having on Jordan, it is important to discern the true reasons behind this month’s incidents.

Despite the flurry of forged photos depicting “Zaatari martyrs” and the stream of anti-Jordanian rhetoric that poured from pro-Syria Facebook groups and Twitter feeds within seconds of the incident, Jordanian-Syrian relations had little to do with the violence that swept the camp.

Rumours that a four-year-old Syrian girl was tragically struck and killed by a Jordanian Gendarmerie vehicle during a routine patrol in the camp was later exposed as baseless fear mongering, while local camp leaders were swift to denounce what they described as an “insult” to Jordan’s hospitality.

The often wrongly held view that poor conditions and lack of services in the camp have given rise to a tense and lawless atmosphere in Zaatari is another myth with little grounds in reality.

Since its rise from a cluster of tents on the outskirts of Mafraq to Jordan’s fifth largest urban centre, Zaatari has emerged as one of the leading refugee camps in the region, with over 90 per cent of residents living in prefabricated trailers, utilising fully equipped communal kitchens and enjoying a host of educational, health and psychosocial services offered by Jordanian institutions, the UN and the host of local and international aid agencies active in the camp.

Due to Zaatari residents being largely free to leave the camp and even import goods, a rising merchant class has emerged in the camp, with the average convenience store, coffeehouse and barbershop clearing an average of JD300-JD400 a month, according to various studies.

Economic conditions have been so favourable in Zaatari that a growing number of current and former residents are choosing either to stay or even return to the camp after being discouraged by the rising rents and electricity prices in nearby Irbid, Amman and Mafraq.

With over 70 per cent of Zaatari residents said to be taking part in commercial activity, a sizeable majority would think twice about risking their economic lifelines and investments for a heat-of-the-moment display of public defiance.

The role of Jordanian security services in the camp is not to blame.

Since the transfer of the camp’s security and administration from the Jordan Hashemite Charity Organisation to the Interior Ministry, in 2013, the Public Security Department has worked tirelessly to foster relationships with local camp leaders and empower them to take the lead in maintaining security within the camp.

In their “hands-off” approach, Jordanian authorities have allowed “local committees”, groupings of tribal leaders and respected community figures to carry out internal policing and ensure that residents uphold the rule of law, while forces such as the Gendarmerie provide external security. The fact that the dozens of Jordanian Gendarmerie officers chose to stand down rather than confront some 5,000 rioters in order to avoid any further escalation or injuries speaks volume to the approach and its successful track record.

Separate investigations carried out by Jordanian police and the Syrian Tribal Council revealed that the fatalities in this month’s clashes were due to fellow refugee.

For an answer, one needs to look no further than Jordan’s neighbours.

During last year, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and even the Syrian government allegedly provided hundreds of thousands of dollars in funds, support and even arms to various groups and individuals active in Zaatari.

Eschewing nearby cities such as Irbid and Mafraq, whose Syrian populations far outweigh that of Zaatari, Syrian and foreign political groups have set their sights on Zaatari to gain support among the community of exile for one simple reason: a captive audience.

A sizeable presence in the camp of the Syrian National Coalition of the Opposition, the Free Syrian Army, the Syrian National Council and the Syrian Tribal Council has made Zaatari a hotbed for revolutionary, and counterrevolutionary, activity, which at times led to confrontation with security services.

Even the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant has recently established a foothold in the camp and is actively competing with Jabhat Al Nusra to recruit would-be jihadists.

In other words, it is the politics of Zaatari, and not the people, who threaten Jordan’s stability.

Closing the now-infamous camp or dividing Zaatari into heavily patrolled “security zones”, as proposed by MPs last week, is not likely to solve the problem.

Relocating Zaatari residents to towns and villages would only result in embedding politically and militarily active groups and individuals in the local community, while an increased security presence is only bound to increase the potential for further confrontations.

Instead, authorities must dismantle the growing networks of criminal and militant activity from the Arab Gulf to the urban frontlines of Aleppo and the dusty streets of Zaatari.

Authorities should deport those engaging in military or political activity in Zaatari or any other camp, in order to send a strong message to their backers: Politics has no place in a humanitarian relief operation.

Only once politics is removed from the camps can authorities ensure that Jordanians remain hosts, and not hostages, to the Syrian refugee crisis.

And that Syrians remain guests, and not suspects.

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