Refugee crisis management beyond Jordan's camps

Every day around 40 loads of wastewater are brought to this facility from the Za’atari refugee camp. Treatment of this water requires about one-third of the treatment facility’s processing capacity. Photo by: J. Kohler / UNHCR

This is one of two articles sponsored by International Relief and Development. Content was approved by IRD prior to publication. Find out more about IRD.

This spring, more water started flowing to Ramtha in northern Jordan. It’s helping the town meet the vastly increased water needs stemming from the influx of Syrian refugees, who continue to pour across the nearby border.

Ramtha, which had a population of roughly 120,000 before the civil war in Syria began, is now home to more than 80,000 refugees. The city faces a housing crisis, rents have quadrupled, the cost of essential goods has risen and the city’s infrastructure has been strained.

This April, assistance came to the city in the form of water and sanitation. Two water wells were rehabilitated and brought back into operation. They are providing an additional 35 liters per capita to more than 50,000 people every day. The transmission pipeline that collects raw water from Ramtha wells and takes it to the water treatment station was also upgraded. And in the sanitation sector, the Al Akaider Wastewater Treatment Plant was upgraded to allow it to receive sewage by truck from Ramtha and other northern areas, including the huge Za’atari refugee camp.

These projects were implemented by the U.S.-based NGO International Relief and Development in partnership with the U.N. High Commission for Refugees and the Jordan Water Authority. IRD has been working throughout Jordan since 2007 to identify and address the needs of refugees and the communities that have taken them in.

Such assistance has become ever more critical as Jordan’s burgeoning refugee population puts an enormous burden on host communities.

More than 490,000 Syrian refugees — four out of five — are estimated to live in Jordan’s urban areas, and they face inadequate housing, rising rents and lack of access to education. While their needs are in some ways greater than those of refugees living in the camps, they are often scattered in remote areas or blend into the urban landscape and are thus more difficult to identify and register. Consequently, they don’t have the same access to centrally provided services as refugees living in the camps that have sprung up along the Syrian border. And they’ve not received as much attention from the international community.

“IRD’s approach has always been to provide services to vulnerable populations, wherever they may be,” said IRD President and CEO Arthur B. Keys. “In Jordan, that means fanning out across the country to locate refugees, conduct needs assessments and link families to vital services that can return them to the semblance of a normal life as quickly as possible.”

IRD has worked with UNHCR since 2009 to conduct home visits for refugees, identify needs and provide assistance. According to a March 2014 report coauthored by UNHCR and IRD, within the population of urban refugees, most live in rented apartments that few of them can afford. More than half of that housing was found to be substandard. Even more worrying is that significant numbers of children of urban refugees are not in school.

IRD’s outreach services in Jordan began with Iraqi refugees who had been entering the country since 2007 and were living in urban settings rather than camps. The organization developed an assistance program based around outreach to these refugee families and communities. But the influx of Syrian refugees presented new and enormous challenges, and reaching out to such a vulnerable population, with varying needs and spread across the desert kingdom, hasn’t been easy.

Sabah Jadooa, an Iraqi refugee himself, now works as IRD’s program director for refugee outreach in Jordan. He explained the problems faced by Syrians are much greater than those faced by the Iraqis. Syrian refugees, in addition to having much greater health, educational and social needs, have also have had a much harder time integrating into their new communities, he said.

“This great number of Syrians impacting the infrastructure has caused a lot of resentment between the host and refugee communities,” Jadooa said. “It’s hard to get apartments because they are taken by Syrians, and at the markets the price of food has gone up, the price of everything has gone up. And the host community, they felt that they got a bad deal.”

In order to improve its assistance, IRD formed community advisory committees, which included Syrians and Jordanians in equal numbers. These groups help IRD improve its outreach and needs assessments, build rapport between residents and help refugees to better integrate into the community.

“It was through those groups that we really started to penetrate and build cohesion between the refugee community and the host community,” Jadooa pointed out.

In addition to water and sanitation projects — like the well in Ramtha — the program provides cash assistance to eligible families, psychological support for children, vocational training and access to health care through centers run by the Ministry of Health. It also provides 30 percent of non-food assistance to the neediest Jordanians in the form of recreational activities, vocational training and other services.

IRD partners with Jordan’s ministries of water and irrigation, public works and housing, health, education and social development, as well as local community-based organizations. It also works with government institutions and local municipalities to build capacity, identify the needs of resident Jordanians and Syrians, and address those needs.

In Ramtha, for instance, when the mayor identified the need for better sanitation, in addition to improving the water supply, IRD responded by providing trash bins and pest control as well as conducting clean-up campaigns, improving city lighting and bus lighting, constructing gardens and playgrounds, and rehabilitating schools. The organization also helped municipal governments address food-access challenges. For example, in Ramtha, IRD improved the central marketplace and slaughterhouse and helped increase the productivity of local bread bakeries, benefitting more than 150,000 refugee and host community residents. IRD has done similar projects throughout the kingdom.

Sometimes, assistance hits even closer to home. Jadooa likes to tell the story of a Jordanian household that had taken in a Syrian widow and her seven children. The home was so crammed that the situation became unsustainable. IRD helped the family build a second level to the home. In the end, there was enough room for the widow and her children to live separately and even provide space for an additional family of refugees.

IRD’s outreach has been so successful that UNHCR asked the organization to provide assistance in the Za’atari refugee camp, the largest settlement for Syrians in Jordan. IRD’s community health workers, who are Syrian volunteer doctors and nurses, have provided essential health care and public health promotion in the camp.

“They are talking Syrians to Syrians, and they have a very good reputation among the population,” said Uma Kandalayeva, IRD’s country director in Jordan.

That level of trust was critical when the camp faced a potential outbreak of polio and measles because of poor vaccination rates. In part through the outreach and mobilization work of IRD’s community health workers, vaccination rates now exceed 90 percent.

The crisis in Syria continues to put enormous strains on neighboring countries like Jordan. Assistance programs implemented by organizations like IRD are helping to reduce friction between refugees and host communities as well as the likelihood that Syria’s tragedy will become even larger.

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