From the summer of 2012 through 2014, there were rapid influxes of refugees from Syria into the Zaatari camp in Jordan. The camp’s population spiked in early 2013—from 56,000 in January to a peak of 202,000 just four months later—overwhelming the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and Jordanian government officials who were trying to maintain order. Such runaway growth would have been difficult to manage in an established city in a developed state, much less an ad hoc community of tents in the desert.

Two processes emerged to fill the inevitable governance gap: informal community measures, beginning with self-appointed “street leaders,” and expansion of the formal institutions of the Jordanian government’s Syrian Refugee Affairs Directorate (SRAD) along with the UNHCR. Over 2013, these governance systems developed simultaneously but at times in conflict. It was not until 2014 that determined efforts began to link the systems together through community gatherings, police reforms and opportunities for refugee employment. It is a provisional success of governance “coproduction”—a system that effectively includes input and action from both formal institutions and the residents they serve. [1. For a more extensive academic definition of coproduction, see Elinor Ostrom, “Crossing the Great Divide: Coproduction, Synergy and Development,” World Development 24/6 (1996).] As a result, Zaatari represents an oasis of sorts for Syrians fleeing war, but one whose long-term viability is unclear.

Opening the Governance Gap

The most immediate problem after Zaatari’s chaotic expansion was widespread insecurity. Although many media portrayals were exaggerated, speaking of “mafias” and “anarchy,” the camp was in fact disorderly. Kilian Kleinschmidt, the UNHCR’s camp manager from March 2013 to October 2014, is quoted as describing the level of insecurity in the first few years of Zaatari’s existence as “shocking.” [2. International Business Times, November 1, 2013.] Theft, domestic violence and smuggling were all common.

Exacerbating the insecurity was a failure to meet resident expectations for quality of life. UNHCR standard operating procedures—with individual allotments of liters of water, calories of food and square meters of housing—were simply inadequate, given the diversity of the camp’s demographics. Middle-class refugees expected more than basic needs, especially as their time in the camp stretched out to years, and they required access to cell phones to communicate with their families, as well as Internet, TV or radio for news of Syria, air conditioning, refrigerators and jobs. Refugees from nomadic backgrounds expected less population density and more freedom of movement than the “one fifth of a tent” designated as appropriate living space. This misalignment of service provision and resident expectations led to riots at aid distribution sites, attacks on aid workers and vandalism of UNHCR equipment. Throughout 2013-2014, an average of five aid workers were injured each week, with some aid organizations reducing the scale of their services to minimize exposure to risk. The most basic function of government, security provision, had failed.

A second void was underdeveloped infrastructure. As crisis managers, UNHCR leaders were well equipped to organize the distribution of relief supplies, but not expert in urban planning. The infrastructure was haphazardly constructed and often unsafe. Pedestrians, large industrial vehicles and aid workers’ cars had to move through the same thoroughfares in tight proximity, causing collisions that were sometimes fatal to refugees. Accidents involving children were disproportionately frequent.

There were too few distribution sites for fresh water, leading to slow delivery and inconsistent supply. There was always enough drinking water to keep the refugees alive, but not enough for regular washing, cooking and other activities that allow a quality of life even a notch above basic survival. Additionally, toilets and other sanitation facilities were often far from tents, preventing women and children from safely reaching them at night. And as water demands increased in the summer heat, riots broke out.

Electrical infrastructure also proved insufficient to residents’ expectations, resulting in a ubiquity of illegal connections to the camp’s central grid in order to power TVs, radios, refrigerators, air conditioners, cell phones and other electronics. These shoddy hookups caused regular electrocutions and fires, and cost the UNHCR around $700,000 in stolen electricity. Attempts by camp electricians to remove illicit connections were often met with violent resistance or riots. UNHCR officials point out that refugee camps the world over are not generally “electrified,” yet Syrians in Zaatari not only take it for granted, but they expect an electrical grid improved over the “slipshod” one they themselves created. The gap was emblematic of a failure of a second crucial task of governance—maintaining the commons.

The final difficulty was social in nature. At the camp’s founding there was widespread fear of the unknown among refugees, international NGOs, and UNHCR and SRAD personnel. Many refugees feared authorities, assuming that the oppression they had experienced from security forces in Syria would be duplicated in Jordan. Many camp officials reciprocated the cynicism, spreading rumors of sleeper cells and criminals among the refugee population. No real data was available on crime rates to dispel these misperceptions, and relations between authorities and residents deteriorated further over rumors of violence between the two parties. The social contract had failed in the camp.

The governance gap created a stressful, insecure environment for Syrian residents (especially women and children), camp management personnel and aid workers alike. While the UNHCR and SRAD should be praised for quickly providing basic, life-sustaining services for the refugees from 2012 to 2014, at the same time these institutions failed to meet the quality-of-life needs and expectations of residents. Fortunately, governance gaps have a tendency to be filled like air rushing into a vacuum—in this case, the air came from informal measures taken by the Syrian residents themselves.

From the Bottom Up

The most profound bottom-up response to the governance gap was for Syrian refugees with access to power—gained through a combination of wealth, family influence and connections with influential Jordanians—to become self-appointed “street leaders.” These men—whom UNHCR and foreign aid staff referred to as “Abus,” from the Arabic word for father—ran resource distribution (sometimes illegally), organized street patrols of young men recruited from within their patronage networks, and settled disputes within families and between communities and camp management. By mid-2013, the street leaders had developed a nascent system of informal security and governance, with each claiming responsibility for one or two blocks of the camp, organizationally layered beneath “super” street leaders who coordinated at the district level.

The “Abus” filled the governance gap further by managing makeshift infrastructural improvements to meet resident demands, including electrical connections, insulation of shelters, and a market for food, cleaning supplies, electronics and desalinated water, among other items. The street leaders were not entirely benevolent, however; some took advantage of the governance gap as an opportunity to make profits from smuggling and other crimes. From this activity came the notion that the “Abus” acted more frequently like a “mafia.”

Also influential were the numerous community leaders a step below the “Abus” in terms of authority. These figures—including soccer coaches, college-aged youth mentors, entrepreneurs, and networks of mothers and fathers—provided a semblance of social order at the neighborhood level and help to emotionally overwhelmed parents. Community leaders created a social safety net, escorting children to and from school, helping each other with resource acquisition, serving as grief counselors, settling disputes, and developing a system of norms for appropriate behavior in their neighborhoods.

Without a formal plan or organization, the street leaders and community leaders created a social network that was generally successful in providing informal governance of the camp. While these improvised measures filled the governance gap from the bottom up, they were not a durable solution for the major problems in Zaatari.

From the Top Down

Occurring alongside the grassroots response were the top-down measures taken by the UNHCR and SRAD, focused on expanding their authority in the camp. The immediate steps were simple coercion. In 2013, each week as many as 10,000 refugees entered Jordan. But contemplating the specters of instability in Zaatari, smuggling and transnational terrorism, the Jordanian government essentially closed the border in October 2014, after which the entry rate dropped as low as seven people per day. Jordan’s decision was widely criticized by international humanitarian actors, but it did give the authorities in Zaatari time to catch up with the enormous demand from the refugee population.

Today the border remains largely closed, with patrols every five kilometers supported by US military advisers and equipment. Any vehicle crossing the border—with or without verification that it does not carry civilians—may be hit with an airstrike. This exercise of hard power has not stopped Syrians from entering Jordan, but it has greatly reduced the numbers.

A second contentious tactic was forcible return of camp residents labeled as dangerous criminals to Syria, where some faced the prospect of torture or execution by pro-regime forces. (Jordan is not signatory to the international conventions forbidding refoulement—deportation of refugees to their country of origin—though it does have two national laws banning the practice. These cases were not deemed to fall in the category of refoulement by the Jordanian State Security Court.) It was another severe mechanism for managing population growth.

Meanwhile, the UNHCR hired private security contractors to guard its buildings, equipment and vehicles. SRAD police officers, for their part, remained hidden away in their offices, as they were often too afraid of residents to patrol the streets. By April 2014, specialized units known as the “gendarmerie” and the desert police force were deployed on the camp’s periphery, ready to enter at any moment in vehicles mounted with machine guns. SRAD drew upon these forces to quell riots and deter attacks on aid workers.

By mid-2014, as camp authorities moved from crisis management to long-term planning, they began to pursue a system of coproduction, whereby the top-down and bottom-up measures would meet in the middle to run the camp. This strategic shift to soft power acknowledged that Syrian residents had a role to play in their own governance. First, however, real relationships had to be built between the UNHCR and SRAD leadership and the residents.

The UNHCR stated early on that, despite the best intentions, “Given the vested interests [of street leaders], opposition to the plan, possibly of a violent nature, can be anticipated.” Resistance did indeed come from street leaders who had “shown opposition to UNHCR’s attempts to institutionalize governance and security provision” because they had “long profited from the disorder and built their own power bases.” [3. Jeff Crisp et al, “From Slow Boil to Breaking Point: A Real-Time Evaluation of UNHCR’s Response to the Syrian Refugee Emergency,” UNHCR Policy Development and Evaluation Service, July 2013.] SRAD police and the UNHCR began to identify and detain “bad” street leaders. In response, some of Zaatari’s street leaders conspired to abduct Kilian Kleinschmidt as a show of force. [4. According to a close associate of Kleinschmidt’s working in Jordan. Kleinschmidt will also document this event in a forthcoming book on Zaatari.]

Despite the risks, Kleinschmidt began sleeping inside the camp to demonstrate solidarity with “good” street leaders. The UNHCR leadership began arranging regular meetings with these men, in a dramatic change from previous policy. The cooperative leaders were then leveraged to oust non-cooperative ones. As one representative of the Innovation and Planning Agency, a consultant group that watched the process, told us in 2015, “[Kleinschmidt] gradually neutralized the bad ‘Abus’ with the good ‘Abus’: It wasn’t by force; it was by informal systems. He got more and more of the leaders on his side.”

By mid-2014 the UNHCR began collaborating with street leaders to resolve camp issues as divergent as shelters needing weatherproofing against heavy rain, reckless water truck drivers, electrical infrastructure and aid distribution. By the time Kleinschmidt handed over the UNHCR senior field coordinator role to Hovig Etyemezian on October 31, 2014, meetings with street leaders were routine. An effective system of coproduction of governance had been established.


The most widespread example of effective coproduction is the community gatherings that now occur across the camp. The gatherings began in Districts 3, 7 and 10, and at first were attended by some 20 refugees—a mere .2 percent of each district’s population—but they grew as word of their utility spread. Each week as many as 12 meetings now take place. Those attending engage in lively discussions of such wide-ranging issues as employment, unsafe or inadequate electricity, health services and schools. Refugees and camp management alike praise the meetings for their problem-solving successes.

The meetings are organized by delegated Community Mobilization Working Groups and chaired by UNHCR representatives. The chairs report to UNHCR managers every two weeks, passing resident complaints and suggestions upward. This structure was a compromise with SRAD: The original UNHCR plan was to have community gatherings run wholly by residents, but SRAD voiced concerns about losing sovereign authority in the camp if problem solving were put entirely in Syrians’ hands. The gatherings were thus altered to include the participation of the UNHCR, international NGOs, SRAD and police. The compromise appears to have worked, as resident surveys allude to greatly improved relations with formal governing institutions.

Religious leaders also played a role in filling the governance gap. A coproduced religious court was established to settle disputes. The UNHCR works with Syrian imams in the refugee population to train shari‘a court judges and legal teams in practices that will be deemed officially legitimate by Jordanian authorities and socially and religiously legitimate by camp residents. The religious court has handled thousands of cases. Additionally, imams have been trained by aid organizations to act as behavioral health counselors for congregants, merging Western psychotherapy and Muslim philosophy for remediation of war trauma. Imams were sharing information about camp affairs beginning in 2012, but it was not until 2014 that the UNHCR and SRAD began making deliberate use of mosques as a venue. Officials now visit mosques to post general announcements on whiteboards; the imams deliver sermons to reach the camp’s large illiterate population; there are even puppet shows for children.

The built environment of the camp is also coproduced: Aid organizations, UNHCR and SRAD coordinate with residents to plan and develop infrastructure. A compromise has been found regarding the ad hoc electrical connections, for example. Rather than simply removing them all, as in Zaatari’s founding years, camp management allows some hookups to remain, such as those powering air conditioners or refrigerators in the intense summer heat. When illegal connections are removed, utility workers are often escorted by a community police officer who can explain to residents why the connection must go and discuss alternatives. In some districts, hangers were added to main power lines, allowing refugees to improvise safer connections. Electricians in the camp may also provide guidance on how to tap the grid without creating a hazard.


Another linking mechanism pursued by formal institutions was “legibility,” defined as the ability of camp authorities and residents to understand the camp space using the same terms and concepts. The streets were named in consultation with residents, for example, so that their mental maps would correspond to the charts of the UNHCR and SRAD and so that no street name would spark political controversy. A plan was also launched in May 2015 to add detail to the mapping, including a system of street addresses, to enable faster distribution of resources and police and ambulance responses.

Legibility also focuses on the social landscape of the camp. The UNHCR and SRAD have produced maps overlaid with anthropological data, such as resident region of origin and contact information for corresponding street leaders, allowing for more efficient communication between residents and authorities. Additionally, international NGOs and the UNHCR’s Child Protection and Sexual and Gender-Based Violence sub-working groups created safe spaces for children and women across the camp in July 2014, mapping the distribution of incidents of harassment or assault based on input from refugees. Today, these havens are dispersed across the camp.

A third effort to improve legibility was a universal identification system. In the camp’s inaugural year, SRAD took the incoming refugees’ Syrian documents for safekeeping, but because the documents were not properly catalogued, they were sometimes lost and not immediately replaced with refugee identification papers. In 2013, only 80 to 85 percent of residents had the latter cards, leading to clashes with SRAD. By May 2014, however, camp management had made IDs available to 100 percent of residents. The identification system in 2015 is elaborate enough to distribute digital credit for shopping at the supermarket, an upgrade that has eased resource distribution and further improved resident-authority relations.

Employment and Community Policing

Still another example of effective coproduction is the increased number of refugees who are filling jobs in or around Zaatari. The non-profit International Relief and Development has coordinated the efforts of bilingual and multilingual refugees to help the UNHCR translate informational materials into Arabic, a task that once overwhelmed its capacities. Similarly, the Innovation and Planning Agency located 12 waste disposal experts among the refugees to plan and operate a recycling program, which would not have otherwise existed.

Other new job opportunities, in sectors such as water management and agriculture, give many residents a revenue stream and a sense of purpose. Refugees may work on neighboring farms or find jobs in border towns such as Mafraq, and a Cash for Work program inside the camp enables many residents to work for the multitude of aid organizations operating there. Employment is a win-win for residents and authorities, although the pay in Cash for Work is low and there is some lingering inequality and nepotism.

A final example of effective coproduction can be found in Zaatari’s community policing program. The community police station began operations in June 2014, and officially opened in February 2015. After receiving training in social outreach and verbal de-escalation skills, community police officers also began expanding foot patrols. These Jordanian officers network with Syrian street leaders and other community members to hear complaints and resolve conflicts between families and at schools or food distribution sites. The coproduction approach to security combines the street leaders’ breadth of awareness with the police officers’ depth of authority.

A domestic violence center was also founded in 2014, with a hotline to the police. As a result of these coproduced security measures, resident surveys from 2015 have indicated increased trust in the police, improved perceptions of safety, and a greater willingness to rely on police for responses to emergencies, administrative guidance and legal counsel. The gendarmerie and desert police are no longer regularly called in to maintain order through force.

The Regional Perspective

A look around Zaatari’s vicinity, however, shows that the governance challenge has not been completely met. In border cities such as Mafraq that have large Syrian refugee populations, tensions between the refugees and Jordanians are growing.

Smuggling—of everything from mundane items like clothing and sheep to drugs, weapons and people—remains a major problem. The smugglers are Jordanian and Syrian nationals; many belong to kinship groups that straddle the border. “Many of the residents in the northern border region were smugglers before the Syrian crisis, and they thrive in this new situation,” one aid organization’s safety officer stated in an interview. Beyond the flow of contraband and the price gouging that smuggling allows, problems also arise because “aid workers cannot operate in many areas in Mafraq because of fear of getting caught in the crossfire during raids by security forces on smugglers.”

Thefts in border cities have been on the rise since 2013, resulting in vigilante retaliation against the Syrians blamed for the crimes. Clashes between refugees and Jordanian citizens now occur about once a month in border cities. In June 2015, after a Jordanian in Mafraq murdered a Syrian refugee for alleged theft, the Jordanian’s entire extended family was forced to leave the city for the countryside for fear of retribution. The family is now waiting for a court decision to settle the issue.

The influx of refugees has also sharpened the competition over jobs, housing, water, food and even marriage partners. In Mafraq, there are now many highly skilled Syrians, former military officers, who take jobs that would otherwise go to Jordanians. Even without an official work permit, a Syrian can get hired through family connections, their employment kept covert through payment in cash or online transfer. Jordanians are apt to resent the Syrians for holding illicit employment at the same time that they qualify for refugee services, essentially “double-dipping” while low-income Jordanians are struggling.

Most of Jordan’s border cities were facing a shortage of low- and middle-income housing before the refugees arrived. The increased demand as the population grew means fewer available apartments at higher rents, and some Jordanians are having problems finding housing at all. Adding to the frustration, many international aid organizations focused on housing have explicit mandates to serve the needs of Syrian refugees, legally excluding projects for low-income Jordanians. These mandates create a sense of injustice and exacerbate antipathy between the refugees and their “hosts.”

Water was available around the clock in Mafraq before 2012, but building reservoirs are now only refilled once a week because of a spike in consumption after the refugees’ arrival. All residents, Jordanian and Syrian, are required to reduce their daily water use. There are also consequences for Jordanian agriculture: As greater human consumption pushes up water prices, the cost of irrigating crops and raising livestock will increase significantly, resulting in a proportional hike in local food prices. These major cost increases are a matter of when, not if.

Another long-term danger is that Zaatari’s wastewater is simply pumped into the surrounding desert. The sewage seeps through the soil to the confining layer of the earth and then spreads laterally. The flow through the porous Jordanian desert sand is quick enough that, by sometime in 2016, the wastewater will reach and begin to mix with the northern aquifer that supplies drinking water to Zaatari and Mafraq. Even if the contamination is contained, it is unlikely that the aquifer’s recharge rate will be adequate to meet the northern region’s demand. The only viable alternative would be hugely expensive vehicular or pipeline shipping of fresh water from aquifers in the southwest.

Of final concern are growing conflicts over a human resource: husbands and wives. Because a Syrian woman can gain citizenship, housing and a financial patron through marriage to a Jordanian man, such an “inter-national” marriage may be a highly valued objective (for parents if not also for their daughters). Marrying into a wealthy family (Jordanian, Gulf Arab or other) may enable a young Syrian woman to legally escape the refugee camps and find financial stability in the near term. Marrying outside one’s own community (tribe, nation, socioeconomic stratum and age group, among others) is stigmatized for many families, often creating jealousies and interfamilial tensions. Several cases of interfamilial feuds becoming violent have been reported in Jordan’s border cities.

The friction is not necessarily present everywhere. In the Badia, the rural, arid or semi-arid zone extending northeast from Mafraq, Syrian refugees have integrated relatively smoothly with Jordanian families. The rate of refugee migration to the Badia has been slower than in Zaatari, border areas and major cities. And many rural family ties cross the Jordanian-Syrian boundary, allowing for greater trust between Jordanian hosts and new Syrian arrivals. The Hashemite Fund for Badia Development’s environmental protection program deliberately hires half of its employees from the Syrian population and half from the Jordanian population to break down remaining mutual prejudice.

The Strategic Perspective

Like a real oasis, Zaatari was designed not as a permanent settlement, but as a place of respite in harsh surroundings. As crisis management yields to strategic planning, the question emerges: Where will the refugees go from here?

King ‘Abdallah II has begun to rethink the Syrian refugee challenge as a five-year issue (at least). He set this agenda with upper-level ministers at a summer 2015 gathering. This new perspective has shifted governance concerns from meeting basic needs for food, water and shelter toward creating a sustainable, integrated quality of life for the refugee population. Strategic planning must take account of the UNHCR data point that, worldwide, the average stay in a refugee camp lasts 17 years. And given the apparent durability of the Bashar al-Asad regime, coupled with the fact that most refugees are anti-regime and could very well face persecution upon return, the 17-year average could fall on the short end of the spectrum for Syrians in Jordan.

The historical record gives reason for concern as refugees shift from temporary, “situational” status to longer-term, “state-in-exile” status. Case studies show almost universally that as refugees spend more than five years in residence, the propensity for conflict with the host population and the host government increases. To avert this outcome, the legal status of refugees must be changed, in effect making them “residents” rather than “refugees,” expanding their civil liberties and opportunities and dispelling discontent. In the case of Syrians in Jordan, this legal and attitudinal transition will allow Jordan to empower the refugee population for social and economic gain, rather than simply holding them up as burdens to be borne.

The Future of Zaatari

As the strategic lens comes into focus, both Syrian residents of Zaatari and Jordanian authorities are beginning to replicate what transpired at the Palestinian Baqa‘a camp on the edge of Amman. Baqa‘a went from a temporary arrangement of tents to a functional “city” during the latter half of the twentieth century. Zaatari is already showing signs of this evolution, as tents have been replaced with semi-permanent trailers (“caravans”) and more durable infrastructure is being built. Further, residents are increasingly aware that their lives—and their children’s lives—will likely continue in Jordan, rather than back home in Syria.

As one Syrian living in Jordan wondered, “What will they do? Will they do to us like they did with the Palestinians—make us citizens, but without rights? Or will they give us freedom to own houses, to work and to travel?” This concern is widely expressed, and as it goes unanswered, the appeal of migrating to Europe, legally or otherwise, grows stronger despite the obstacles. More worrisome for both Syrian residents and Jordanian hosts is the memory of Black September 1970, when an actual civil war erupted between Jordanians and Palestinians, who were still largely seen as refugees. The Palestinian “issue” is a constant source of comparison for the expected protracted presence of Syrians who are refugees, and resident, in Jordan.

Although the UNHCR and SRAD have achieved many governance successes, the responsibility for managing refugee issues will increasingly rest with the Jordanian government alone. The UNHCR is “looking for exit strategies” and losing funding and personnel to emerging crises such as Nepal’s. At the same time, donors to aid organizations are losing focus on the Syrian conflict and there are fewer volunteers. Global players such as the United States and the European Union are also turning their attention to other conflicts, refusing to commit to long-term investment in the Syrian refugee crisis.

There is some reason for optimism. In 2014 and 2015, innovative residents and the authorities filled the profound governance gap in Zaatari’s founding years through an adaptive system of coproduction. This glimmer of hope suggests that Zaatari is as close to an oasis in the desert as could be hoped for. From strategic and regional perspectives, however, the future for refugees in Zaatari and across Jordan remains murky. More robust civil protections, economic opportunities and resource management will be needed to prevent conflict between residents and hosts from escalating further. There is an urgent need for consensus on a resilient strategic plan to keep the oasis from going dry.

How to cite this article:

Charles Simpson, Denis Sullivan "Oasis in the Desert?," Middle East Report 278 (Spring 2016).

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