Birdseye view of a refugee camp in Jordan

A file photo of Za’atari refugee camp from 2015. © UNHCR/Christopher Herwig

While there have been no cases of COVID-19 so far, UNHCR is helping some 120,000 refugees living in region’s largest camps do what they can to mitigate threat.

By Charlie Dunmore and Rima Cherri in Amman, Jordan 


On a sunny afternoon, the usually bustling main shopping thoroughfare of Jordan’s Za’atari camp – the largest refugee camp in the Middle East – is eerily quiet. A handful of people walk briskly past carrying supplies, while most of the hundreds of shops lining what residents ironically refer to as the Champs-Élysées remain shuttered.


Like the rest of the Kingdom’s 10 million population, the nearly 120,000 Syrians living in Za’atari and Jordan’s other main camp in Azraq have been on lockdown since 21 March in response to the threat of COVID-19. But with so many living in such close quarters with access to only basic health and sanitation facilities, many fear what will happen if the virus reaches the camps.

“It is completely quiet. I do not hear voices in my neighborhood anymore. Only silence. The market is different, everything is different,” Ahmad Harb, a 35-year-old refugee from Syria’s southern Dera’a province said by telephone from Za’atari. “People are terrified because it is a new thing that they don’t know much about, and it is a disease that can spread very fast.”

The current situation is a far cry from just a few weeks ago, Harb said, when news first reached the camp of the global spread of a novel human coronavirus. At first, people seemed unconcerned and reluctant to change their normal routines, but awareness sessions and regular SMS updates from UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, have helped to drive the message home.

“They are staying home all day and night.”

“People here weren’t taking things seriously, but after some time they realized that this is not a joke,” Harb explained. “The messages they received from UNHCR made them more aware of how serious the situation is.”

“Most people have stopped going out unless it is absolutely necessary,” he continued. “They are staying at home all day and night. Some have even put signs outside their doors that read ‘visits not allowed.’”

More than three quarters of the world’s 25.9 million refugees live in developing countries with some of the weakest health systems. Worldwide, UNHCR is prioritizing steps to prevent potential outbreaks that would put extraordinary strain on fragile local health-care services and likely result in avoidable suffering and death.

Jordan currently hosts 656,000 registered refugees from the nine-year conflict in neighbouring Syria. The two main camps of Za’atari and Azraq host nearly 80,000 and 40,000 refugees respectively, while the majority of Syrians live in Jordanian host communities around the country, also currently under a nationwide curfew to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

So far there have been no cases of the virus among Syrian refugees either inside or outside the camps. In Za’atari and Azraq, the two main hospitals and networks of health clinics are fully staffed and have introduced additional infection-control measures. Plans are in place to isolate any suspected cases and evacuate them by ambulance to the nearby Mafraq and Zarqa hospitals.

Despite these preparations, UNHCR staff present in the camps still worry about how to protect the vulnerable populations from the disease.

“Sanitation and hygiene levels are not ideal. We’re talking about a refugee camp, and facilities are challenging,” said UNHCR External Relations Officer Mohammad Tahir. “A large portion of the population are children, and it’s hard to make them understand the need for isolation and extra hand washing. My real concern is that this is a very crowded environment, so if we do have cases it will be very hard to contain.”

When the nationwide lockdown was announced, the Jordanian authorities that manage the camp closed Za’atari’s 32 schools, with lessons for the more than 18,000 enrolled students now being broadcast on a television channel used by pupils across the country.

To cater for the extra demand caused by home-schooling and families confined to their shelters all day, UNHCR and the camp authorities have increased the supply of electricity to households from eight to more than 12 hours each day.

The camp is also well supplied with food, with six centres distributing three kilograms of bread per family each day, while supermarkets and small fruit and vegetable stores remain open. Residents have even come up with their own method for maintaining social distancing in food queues, painting red circles on the ground 1.5 metres apart.

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Za’atari’s main shopping street stands largely empty as people stay indoors. © UNHCR/Mohamad al-Taher

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Refugees waiting for bread stand on marks drawn to ensure social-distancing. © UNHCR/Mohamad al-Taher

But the level of preparedness for families during lockdown depends on their financial situation, explained 33-year-old resident Omar Rajab. Those with income from work inside or outside the camp in addition to the assistance all refugees receive were better able to stock up before the lockdown, he said.

“The good thing is that everything is available in the camp. Some people have managed to buy everything they need because their financial situation is better than others,” Rajab said. “The poor are struggling to buy and stock enough of their basic needs. Some are selling less important products they already have at home, like canned food, to buy more of the more urgent food like flour and milk.”

But despite the additional hardship for a population that has already fled conflict and endured years of displacement, the current crisis is also bringing families closer together and spurring acts of generosity among the population.

A group of refugee entrepreneurs in the camp that makes hand-crafted products for sale online and in markets has recently increased production of natural soap, and begun distributing it for free among their neighbours to help encourage hand washing.

For others, the extended period of home confinement has revealed some bright spots.

“To cope with the situation, I created a programme for my children and wife where we spend our day playing games, which includes playing with a ball and asking general knowledge questions in the form of a competition,” Harb said. “I even shared the programme with my friends and neighbours so they can do it with their families too.”

“I am doing new things now like cooking with my children and playing with them more. It is a nice new atmosphere,” his wife Nisreen agreed.

“I have also learned how to bake myself, and now my kids tell me they like the sweets that I do more than the ones we used to get from the shops,” she added.

“We miss our life, even with the struggles and hardships.”

Perhaps the biggest surprise for Harb was the newfound appreciation the lockdown has given him for their previous lives in the camp, despite the many challenges.

“I hope this virus goes away,” he said. “We miss our life, even with the struggles and hardships, we accept them now, we appreciate our lives and the things we used to take for granted, like going to work and the busy market, seeing our neighbours and friends and simply going out. We just miss it.”

Originally published by UNHCR on 02 April 2020

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