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Simon Coveney in Jordan: '80,000 live in Zaatari refugee camp. That's the same population as Galway City'

‘Children are growing up in Zaatari refugee camp having never known any other home,’ writes Tánaiste and Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney.

Simon Coveney

THIS WEEK I went to the largest refugee camp in Jordan, the Zaatari camp, which is just a few miles from the country’s border with Syria.

The word ‘camp’ doesn’t nearly describe the sprawling town in the desert that is now home to an 80,000-strong community of Syrians driven from their country by a brutal and ongoing civil war.

That’s a population equivalent to Galway City in one facility.

Camp2

Camp3

As far as refugee camps go, Zaatari is as good as it gets with technology, security, healthcare, education and caravan dwellings that offer those fleeing war a place to be safe and secure.

A €12-million solar power plant has been installed to supply electricity and best-practice technology to protect refugees from robbery and fraud is in operation.

Tech 1 - Solar

In the World Food Program supermarket I saw families doing their weekly shop but at the till no money changed hands. Instead the head of the household had their iris and eye scanned for a moment and the cost of the shopping was taken from their family’s monthly allocation and account.

Coveney WFP

Not only does this eliminate fraud but it also eliminates the UN or WFP needing to use banks as middle men.

Tech 2 - Iris Iris and eye scanning at the camp's supermarket.

However despite these innovations, Zaatari is still a refugee camp and as I toured the vast avenues it was obvious that children were growing up here having never known any other home.

The camp’s 29 schools have 21,400 children enrolled and the health centres see 14,000 patients per week. Each week 80 babies are born in Zaatari and 20% of its households are headed by women who have either been widowed by war or whose husbands remain in Syria.

Many of the residents have suffered loss, trauma or have elderly relatives, who were too weak to travel, remaining in Syria.

I met Abu Yousef, his wife Yasmine and their young family of  two girls and two boys who had fled their home because of fighting. They have been in the camp 5-years and have seen their youngest children born there and two elderly parents die there.

They are an intelligent and proud young couple with a beautiful family who want a better future for their children but who are stuck. Throughout Zaatari there is the laughter and energy of youth but this family’s story is repeated thousands of times.

Family 1

The Kingdom of Jordan offers extraordinary kindness to not only its neighbours fleeing war, but also its neighbour’s children. Jordan has been a centre of calm in the Middle East, but has suffered badly because of war all around it.

Its main trading partner was eliminated in the Iraq war while the ongoing Syrian conflict has delivered the double blow of cutting off another market while shifting a massive humanitarian burden onto Jordan.

The country is in an IMF program that is demanding increased taxes and major reforms and unemployment stands at over 18%. Despite this the government estimates 1.3 million Syrian refugees have been taken in, the majority of whom are living in communities, not camps. Refugees are given healthcare and education throughout the country.

When you add Palestinian and other refugees living in Jordan to the relatively recent arrivals from Syria the figure jumps to nearly three million, or a third of the population.

The generosity of the people of Jordan is truly humbling. And the international community needs to do its utmost to help.

I was able to announce an additional €1.25 million in funding for the refugee (UNHCR) and children (UNICEF) agencies of the UN this week, bringing Irish support for humanitarian work in Jordan to €7.6 million since 2012.

However far more is needed to sustain and maintain what is being provided or, as I was repeatedly told this week, many of these services will close.

The biggest international actors including the United States, which has traditionally been very generous to UN agencies, needs to help Jordan in the months ahead as it seeks to save lives and care for some of the most vulnerable people on our planet.

Simon Coveney is Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs.

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