Za’atari refugee camp: The architecture of exile 19.03.15

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  • Za’atari refugee camp

  • People queuing for supplies at a distribution centre in Za’atari

  • A range of goods are traded both formally and informally throughout the camp

  • An aerial view of Za’atari taken in July 2013. The camp stretches for 3km from east to west

  • The “Champs Élysées”, Za’atari’s main shopping street

  • People pick up basic foods at a ration distribution centre

  • Accommodation consists of single-unit metal containers or tents

  • Shoppers exchange food vouchers for bread

  • Incoming refugees wait at the camp’s verification centre

  • The camp now includes two hypermarkets

Za'atari refugee camp is the fifth largest settlement in Jordan. Its Syrian residents have built informal businesses, infrastructure and a new sense of identity. In other words, they have built a city – so shouldn't it be designed more like one? Conner Maher reports

When I first visited Za'atari refugee camp, northern Jordan, in January last year, the snow from one of the greatest storms to hit the Middle East had cleared. But for the refugees living in tents throughout the camp, without heating, the snowfall remained a subject of conversation. With no place to call home, survival was always a looming concern. Home to 85,000 refugees from the ongoing Syrian war (at one point 200,000 people lived there), Za'atari is the second largest refugee camp in the world, and the fifth largest population centre in Jordan.

Over the course of 2014, I travelled to Za'atari numerous times to conduct research on the communication patterns of Syrian refugees in order to draw lessons for planning future refugee camps. But that first visit is still etched in my memory. Arriving at the arching front gate with a group of researchers, we were detained by Jordanian security services to verify our authorisation. It was a strange irony that so much scrutiny was being given to people arriving at a refugee camp, as I assumed that anyone was accepted without question. Then again, the camp was not designed for me.

While waiting at the gate, Za'atari's residents surrounded me, engaged in their own set of daily rhythms. Hired cars rotated in a steady stream of traffic, taking people to and from places unknown. Trucks waited to bring produce and a variety of other goods into the market. Groups of men congregated in small clusters, smoking cigarettes and engaging in conversation. An army of enterprising children with wheelbarrows, willing to port people's luggage for a fee, sat idly by, though with no lack of potential customers. With all this activity, the entrance to Za'atari was similar to any other gateway into a city.

I cleared the remaining checkpoints and soon found myself in the thick of the camp. Although I had researched beforehand, nothing appeared as I had envisioned it. The magnitude of the place struck me. Built in two weeks, and planned with a military layout to increase administrative control, Za'atari seemed impersonal, counter to human-centred design thinking. The semi‑ordered stalls of tents and caravans (prefabricated one-room units) cover the landscape in rigid form.



Conner Maher



Jordi Matas on assignment for UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency

quotes story

Refugee camps exist on average for 17 years, making their reality anything but temporary

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The "Champs Élysées", Za'atari's main shopping street

Despite this uniformity, the camp is beginning to take on its own personality. The bustling market along the main street, drily called the Champs-Élysées, has multiple shops offering anything from a haircut to the latest appliance. Some families are clustering their homes and adding makeshift walls to develop secluded courtyards for privacy and spaces to entertain guests – both important cultural norms that one-room units do not afford. Children have altered the camp in their own ways, for instance by attaching swings to water towers. These elements were outside the camp's initial design, but showed that communities had now formed.

The influx of over 620,000 Syrian refugees to Jordan presents major concerns for national stability. Jordan imports most of its energy needs, and the government provides heavy subsidies for the population's energy consumption in order to maintain stability. In the past, price spikes and increased demand have forced the country to take out loans from the International Monetary Fund that it has struggled to repay. Aid flows are not permanent sources of income and the next global crisis jeopardises both the attention and resources needed for the Syrian humanitarian crisis. At the end of last year, the World Food Programme had to make a further public appeal to resume food distribution because of a lack of funds.

Of even greater concern is the scarcity of water. Since the arrival of Syrian refugees, Jordan has moved from the fourth poorest water nation in the world to the second poorest. While many Jordanians have been extremely accepting of the incoming Syrians, increased food prices and rents, along with competition for jobs, have left a portion of the host population frustrated with the new arrivals. And there are also political concerns. Jordan has the largest ratio of refugees to indigenous population in the world. Previous influxes have led to instability. In the 1970s, for instance, Palestinian refugees even formed an armed opposition to the Hashemite monarchy, leading to a brief civil war.

Given these concerns surrounding refugee communities, the Jordanian government's policy towards the Syrian arrivals is to separate the new population. In a refugee camp, the authorities can limit water consumption, turn off electricity, remove people from the formal economy and quarantine a potentially "dangerous" element. While refugee camps can be seen as a controlling measure, it is not only the Jordanian government who see advantages in this approach, but international aid agencies too. For the latter, the visual impact of clustering this population in one location makes it easier for potential donors to understand the current predicament of Syrian refugees. A camp system also concentrates resources, making it much more efficient to deliver aid.

But efficiency only goes so far. While this typology is specifically designed to be an impermanent settlement, refugee camps exist on average for 17 years, making their reality anything but temporary. It is vital therefore that compassion be incorporated into every stage of planning, no matter how long each camp is expected to exist. Even though many of the refugees in Za'atari have been stripped of their nationality, their livelihoods and their economic and social status, they hold on to their dignity. Even under constraints of time and crisis management, this needs to be recognised in the design of refugee camps.


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An aerial view of Za'atari taken in July 2013. The camp stretches for 3km from east to west

The public bathrooms serve as a prime example. Building sanitation infrastructure at the outset of Za'atari's construction would have been a better long-term solution, but such construction creates a certain level of permanence, contrary to the desires of the host community. The temporary structures provided consist of facilities built so that male and female bathrooms share a wall in the same building, which is not culturally sensitive to the needs of Syrians.

People began meeting their private needs when the supplied services did not. While some public bathrooms remain in use, others have been dismantled and annexed to people's homes, or commandeered with a padlock for private use. To maintain their dignity, many residents have built private bathrooms in their residences, which flush into the rainwater drainage system, rather than using a public place. The result is standing sewage. In response, UNHCR introduced plants to the standing puddles to filter the black water as a resourceful way to mitigate a serious health concern. Such infrastructure shortfalls are not due to the residents, but the resulting conditions perpetuate mischaracterisations of the camp beyond its walls.

In another example, the UN Refugee Agency developed a formal electric system to power streetlights and make people feel safer. Yet this limited infrastructure failed to meet the expectations of many Syrians. Fleeing lives in a middle-class country, electricity was not viewed as an amenity, but as a staple. Naturally, an informal electric infrastructure developed to meet this need. Camp authorities have had to cut electricity on certain days due to skyrocketing costs. How can design find a middle ground?

While alternative energy sources are being developed for Za'atari, how can design assist refugees to meet their energy needs? Finding opportunities for people to develop their own energy sources may address this infrastructure problem and provide a sense of normality to daily life. My research on communication patterns found multiple implications for future refugee-camp design. For instance, planning should seek to integrate natural gathering points in design. Many residents in Za'atari living in districts with poor mobile-phone coverage migrate to areas with better service. The result is that people develop a social relation to spaces where they can use their mobile phones more efficiently. This is not an earth-shattering finding, but catering to natural population flows around communication patterns, and other daily movements, will better fit the needs of the inhabitants.

While the "temporary settlement" may have outgrown its infrastructure, there are also political undertones. Certainly, Za'atari should not be labelled merely an informal settlement. Traditionally, such settlements are on the periphery of urban environments, where they can be largely ignored. Za'atari, on the other hand, is very much in the consciousness of the Jordanian government. What exists is a formal informality, where activity is allowed to continue with the implicit or complicit consent of the authorities, as long as it is under some measure of control. While it may be true that the camp is a dangerous place and should be physically separated for the sake of national stability, true isolation, and thus control, is impossible in the digital age.

In addition, Za'atari should not be seen as a place of innovation for the testing of new ideas, but one in which Syrian entrepreneurs find themselves adapting to a different system of constraints. The baker continues to bake, a former Syrian soldier now owns a mobile phone shop, a business is developed that moves caravans around the camp with custom-made axles. Instead of pursuing Western-led interventions, these new activities should be supported. Syrian refugees should not be made to look hopeless due to their circumstances, but instead should be considered as equals. Treating them with dignity is a basic prerequisite. In these circumstances, the ambition should be to design with dignity, always seeking to understand the context, the parties involved, their interests, and how every stage in the process can give Syrians back control over their daily lives.

This article first appeared in Icon 141: Camps, under the headline “A stake in the ground”. Buy back issues or subscribe to the magazine for more like this


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People queuing for supplies at a distribution centre in Za'atari

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