Don Weinreich and Eliza Montgomery recently returned from a field mission trip for the Ennead Lab Rethinking Refugee Camps project. The goal of the mission was to observe and investigate the contrasting stories of two relatively new settlements in Jordan for refugees fleeing from Syria.
Al Za’atari first began taking in refugees two years ago and now has over 140,000 recorded refugees, and most likely many more unregistered persons. Over its lifespan the refugees have modified (and in some cases privatized) most everything that was given to them, from shelter structure, to rigging illegal electricity, to water distribution, to sustaining a vibrant informal market. While responding to the negative consequences of informal unplanned changes, UNHCR has simultaneously been developing a second camp, Azraq, to take in overflow from Al Za’atari as well as to accommodate many more refugees predicted to come from Syria. At Azraq, there was significantly more time to plan and build the infrastructure before refugees came. The camp was planned with close attention to the existing site and strived to provide a more culturally sensitive shelter layout. Although some of the site planners’ desired outcomes were not implemented due to the requirements of the host Jordanian government and the settlement donors, many of the more innovative ideas were executed on site. Azraq currently has about 8,000 refugees who have only been there for 6 weeks. Even within this short time, we already saw a number of shelter and space manipulations. However, at Azraq, the manipulations were anticipated in the planning and therefore did not conflict with it. One example is the Azraq shelter layout that anticipates the construction of compound walls to define an interior courtyard space belonging to extended families occupying multiple shelters.
There is no clear timeframe for the repatriation of these refugees. Until they are able to return home or move on to other places it is inevitable that these refugee settlements will transform more and more into cities. As Ennead Lab team continues to develop and refine tools to assist UNHCR planners, the comparison of these two camp developments will be extremely valuable in learning and calibrating the role of site planning in these rapidly self-growing ‘cities’.