Mar 5, 2013

As Syrian refu­gee population nears 1 million, relief agencies cannot keep up

By Taylor Luck

MAFRAQ, Jordan — The spread of makeshift aluminum shelters erected by Syrians now outpaces new rows of U.N. canvas tents here in chilly northern Jordan, home to one of the world’s fastest-growing refugee camps. A vast black-market bazaar has sprouted from the desert sand, where enterprising refugees hawk bottled water and other basic necessities that most fellow camp residents can’t afford.

As a mass Syrian emigration spills into neighboring countries, relief organizations acknowledge that they can hardly keep up. The exodus is accelerating so quickly that the tally of need will almost certainly hit a grim milestone this week, when the number of Syrian refugees who have registered with the United Nations — or are on months-long waiting lists to do so — is expected to hit 1 million.

One-third of those desperate migrants have fled since January, the United Nations says, most into Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. Here in northern Jordan, the Zaatari camp has exploded from a modest cluster of 500 tents in August to a refugee metropolis with a population of more than 146,000 — larger than the nearby city of Mafraq and well more than double the camp’s 60,000-person capacity.

Yet aid officials say Syrians fleeing alleged massacres and Damascus’s fresh bombing campaigns are stepping into a growing humanitarian catastrophe, either in overcrowded camps with little to offer or, even more frequently, in urban areas that struggle to support them and where the welcome has worn thin.

The crisis is compounded by a growing funding gap, which U.N. agencies say is forcing cutbacks on basic supplies and shelter.

Although the international community pledged to meet a $1.5 billion U.N. appeal in December for aid to Syrian refugees, the U.N. refu­gee agency says it has yet to receive 20 percent of the promised money. In any case, the requested assistance was set to cover the needs of what was then a regional growth of about 1,500 new refugees per day — a mere quarter of the average number now entering neighboring countries daily.

“We are facing rising needs, dwindling resources and rising numbers at the border each day,” said Andrew Harper, the representative for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Jordan. “This is nothing short of a perfect storm.”

With just 9 percent of its $57 million budget met, the U.N. children’s agency in Jordan is set to scale back sanitation services and education programs, while the World Food Program has reduced daily food rations in Zaatari nearly by half.

U.N. agencies say they may soon be forced to stop distributing tents, blankets and hygienic supplies. Planned camps in Jordan and other countries are likely to lack essentials such as purified drinking water and gravel to prevent water from seeping through tent floors, officials said.

In Zaatari, the resource crunch has sparked fierce competition among refugees. On a recent day, those awarded bread at the camp’s distribution center had lined up in front of the warehouse as early as 4 a.m.

Meanwhile, men in worn sweatshirts and flowing Bedouin cotton robes embarked on what has become known as the “march of shame” to the camp’s mile-long black-market souk after being turned away empty-handed at the bread line.

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