MAFRAQ — Anxiously glancing over his left shoulder for the tenth time in less than a minute, Ahmad gazed through the passenger window of the shared taxi destined for Amman.
Momentarily assured that the desert plains of Mafraq were empty of police squadrons, he eased back into his seat and set down the canvas duffel bag containing his sole possessions.
Less than 48 hours after evading Syrian military patrols and clambering over a border fence and into Jordan, the Syrian activist says he once again finds himself on the run, albeit this time from a less hostile threat: a refugee camp.
“I have already been through hell once,” the 24-year-old Damascus resident said defiantly as he tugged the dust-covered bill of his baseball cap down to his eyebrows.
“There is no way I am going back.”
Ahmad is one of dozens of Syrians who have allegedly fled the Zaatari Refugee Camp, amid harsh weather conditions, deteriorating security and an ongoing lack of basic services both residents and relief officials warn threaten to transform the humanitarian hub into a security liability.
Despite pledges by officials to improve “undesirable” living conditions, residents claim that nearly one month since its inauguration, little has changed in Jordan’s first Syrian refugee camp, or as it has become known to most residents “Jordan’s hell”.
Gusts of sand continue to cut through the plastic triage tents, medical aid beyond primary care remains limited and cool water to provide relief from the desert sun is scant.
An ongoing influx of several hundred Syrian refugees per day has forced relief agencies to delay the oft-announced introduction of electricity at the camp, redirecting resources to host new arrivals, leaving thousands of Syrians in the dark.
“Each day they tell us ‘things will get better, things will get better’,’” Um Amar, a 42-year-old Zaatari “veteran” said as she draped her now-dust-covered laundry over her tent ropes to dry.
“Yet each day the conditions are only harder, the list of complaints is longer and hope is less and less.”
Residents say compounding the growing sense of frustration within the camp is an interior ministry policy restricting the movement of refugees within Zaatari, granting only a handful of permits to leave the compounds for “exceptional” cases.
In response to Amman’s “closed camp” policy, Syrian activists and concerned citizens have formed underground “smuggling networks”, assisting the flight of Zaatari residents and housing them in a series of so-called safe houses stretching across the northern region.
Abu Bilal, a 42-year-old Mafraq resident, is one of several Jordanians who say they are exerting their influence, resources and knowledge of the local area to free as many camp residents as possible.
Rather than breaking the law or undermining national security, Abu Bilal says he and his fellow “Syrian smugglers” believe they are upholding a near-sacred tenet that goes beyond any interior ministry regulation: Jordanian hospitality.
“Right now we are placing women, children and the elderly in the desert,” Abu Bilal said as he carefully poured a cup of coffee for the latest illicit Syrian guest to take residence at his villa-turned safe house.
“That is not the Jordanian way.”
While the true extent of the success of the “Zaatari smugglers” is unknown, relief officials within the camp say their operations have left behind a noticeable impact.
Each day, camp administrators say they stumble across several abandoned tents, dozens of meal packages go undelivered or uncollected, while many who register upon their arrival are nowhere to be found the following day.
“In a camp in the desert, it’s difficult to keep tabs on who is coming and who is going,” admitted a source close to the camp administration.
More than missed meals or empty tents, officials say the smuggling operations are leading to a spike in tensions, and even violence within the camp.
The rise in escape attempts prompted Amman last week to increase the number of security forces in and around the camp, sources say, setting the stage for what officials have been calling a series of “showdowns” between authorities and determined would-be escapees.
According to security sources, the showdowns nearly descended into chaos last week when several camp residents rioted over the alleged beating by Jordanian authorities of a Syrian youth caught attempting to flee the facilities.
Although the reported beating was later dismissed as a rumour, officials say the incident highlighted how “fragile” the situation in Zaatari has become.
“We are only here to help, and the Syrians understand this,” said a security source stationed at Zaatari.
“But sometimes it feels like we are all just waiting for a bomb to go off.”
‘Few quick fixes’
Relief authorities say they are accelerating the roll-out of a series of camp upgrades they believe will stem the flight of residents and defuse growing tensions within Zaatari.
This week, the UN and the Jordan Hashemite Charity Organisation (JHCO) are set to push forward with providing electricity for the camp, improve water service delivery, while introducing more recreational spaces for families, they say.
Yet amid the host of infrastructure improvements, relief officials admit no move will have a more direct impact on the lives of Syrian refugees than an upgrade of living quarters.
Camp authorities are set to replace the paper-thin triage tents that dot the campgrounds with furnished trailers, permanent structures designed to better protect families against the desert sun and the winter-like evening condition.
Through the help of outside donors, the JHCO has introduced 40 such trailers, while a Saudi initiative announced last week is set to provide an additional 2,000 trailers by the end of the year.
Yet with a camp population of 10,000 growing by some 700 per day, relief officials admit they are a “long way off” from improving the lives of camp residents.
“What has been announced so far has been a great first step, but the reality is we need thousands and thousands more,” said Andrew Harper, UN Refugee Agency representative in Jordan.
“And we can’t do that until the international community really steps forward and supports refugee host countries.”
Until that day comes, Ahmad warned that he, along with thousands of his countrymen and women, will be more than willing to break the law and even trust of their Jordanian hosts in order to secure a “dignified life”.
“We have lost our homes, we have lost our families, we have lost our livelihoods,” Ahmad said as the taxi rolled into an Amman bus station, marking the next stage in the Syrian’s increasingly uncertain journey.
“But we have not lost the will to live in dignity.”