U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry toured the world’s second-largest refugee camp today, a sprawling Jordanian city of trailers and tents for Syrians whose flight from civil war is straining their host country.
Kerry spoke with refugees and met with the director of the Zaatari camp. The flow of refugees, at times as many as 4,000 a day, is draining Jordan’s water and energy resources, driving up the cost of food and housing for its citizens, and increasing competition for jobs.
“The stories I just heard, the people I just met, underscore the human side of this crisis,” Kerry said as he left the camp that’s home to 115,000 people. The United Nations estimates that almost 500,000 people have crossed into Jordan to escape fighting. The State Department says that number could double by year’s end.
Kerry flew by helicopter into the camp, getting an aerial view of the 16,500 dusty containers that serve as homes, each of which cost $2,500. Many are dotted with satellite dishes. As many as 15 babies are born in the camp every day in the French-run hospital.
Camp director Killian Kleinschmidt of the UN High Commission for Refugees said many Syrians tell him that they feel let down because the international community isn’t doing more to help their country. Kerry heard this for himself in his meetings with refugees in the base camp area of Zaatari, where the UN offices are located.
In a 40-minute session with a half-dozen men and women, visibly angry refugees repeatedly asked Kerry for more support, including establishing buffer zones and a no-fly zone where Syrian military jets couldn’t enter.
A 43-year-old woman in a tan jacket and gray headscarf asked Kerry what the U.S. is waiting for. As a superpower, the U.S. could change the equation in Syria in 30 minutes, the woman said. Like other refugees, she asked not to be named for security reasons.
The refugees complained about Iran’s supply of weapons to Syria, and asked Kerry to stop Lebanese Hezbollah fighters from entering the country in support of President Bashar al-Assad.
When Kerry asked about the Syrian opposition, one man said the regime had received far more support from Iran, Hezbollah and Russia than the international community has provided to the rebels. While the opposition is divided, that isn’t an excuse for inaction, the man said.
While other countries focus on actions by opposition factions, they are overlooking slaughter, rape and other crimes by Assad’s forces, the man said.
Kerry said the U.S. was concerned about Hezbollah and Iran and that it was considering a buffer zone and a no-fly zone. The Obama administration has so far resisted such deeper involvement.
“A lot of different options are under consideration,” Kerry said. “I wish it was very simple.” Kerry invoked the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan where thousands of young Americans had died or lost limbs.
“As you know, we’ve been fighting two wars for 12 years,” he said. “We are trying to help in various ways, including helping Syrian opposition fighters have weapons. We are doing new things. There is consideration of buffer zones and other things, but it is not as simple as it sounds.”
Kleinschmidt told Kerry that each new refugee brings another tale of “rape, murder” and death. Children at the camp draw “horrible” pictures, he said.
The camp is second in population to one in northern Kenya, according to the refugee aid group CARE International. The Zaatari camp has taxis, hospitals, 584 restaurants or food stalls and a commercial district of 3,000 shops, many of them along a street called the Champs-Elysees, after the Parisian boulevard.
At the same time, violence is “enormous,” Kleinschmidt said, with rocks thrown at aid workers, an attempted lynching and fighting among residents, most of whom are from the Syrian area of Dara’a.
The refugees, distrustful of authority, also have “a very disturbed relationship” with the state that translates into hostility for the officials running the camp, Kleinschmidt said. Smuggling and theft are common, from siphoning off extra electricity to one incident in which the camp’s police station disappeared overnight -- its trailer disassembled and spirited away under cover of darkness, Kleinschmidt said.
Seventy percent of the refugees living in Jordan have bypassed camps for the cities, according to Aoife McDonnell, a spokeswoman for UNHCR at the camp. Even so, many come back to the Zaatari camp after leaving, Kleinschmidt said, realizing the quality of the amenities at the camp, including schools, 35 liters of water a day, soccer fields, hospitals, electricity and playgrounds.
Kleinschmidt said he envisions the day when the camp, which costs $1 million a day to run, can stop being “simply a money pit but allows people to contribute and be part of a major initiative” to help Jordan.
Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh, who toured the camp with Kerry, said yesterday that while his country is grateful for international support “we are in need for more.”
“I’m looking forward to the closure of the camp,” he said today. Outside the trailer where he and Kerry were being briefed, a line of newly planted olive trees wilted in the sun.
Iran is increasing support for Assad’s Syrian regime, supplying military equipment and supporting Hezbollah troops who are increasingly involved in heavy front-line fighting, a U.S. State Department official said today.
Syria is also getting help from Russia, which is filling weapons contracts and allowing the regime and individuals to skirt sanctions by using Russian banks, said the official, who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly.
Kerry, on his sixth trip to the Mideast in as many months, has put priority on reviving Israeli-Palestinian talks, even while confronting other regional challenges involving Syria’s civil war, Egypt’s political upheaval and Iran’s nuclear program.
Kerry came to Jordan this week to update the Arab League Peace Initiative committee on his attempts to restart peace talks. The Arab League’s delegation “praised the efforts made by U.S. President Barack Obama and Secretary Kerry, and their commitment to achieve peace,” the group said in a statement.
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