ZAATARI, Jordan — The water has mostly been removed from hundreds of flooded tents and the dirt paths that run between them here in the region’s vastest camp of Syrian refugees. The clotheslines are laden with soggy sweaters and socks, waiting for the sun after a week of harsh wind, rain and snow.
The residents are waiting, too: for the next storm, and the next, that they know will come this winter and also, many fear, for their own demise.
“We were waiting for our deaths so we came out, but we found our second deaths here,” said a man who identified himself as Abu Tarik from the Dhulash family. He said he arrived in the Zaatari refugee camp 10 days ago after intense shelling near his home and farm, which lie across the border in Dara’a, Syria.
“There, we were going to die from the fires,” he said, sitting on a mat surrounded by a dozen family members. “Here we’re going to die from the cold. We don’t want to die in this tent.”
With aid agencies expecting the number of Syrian refugees to reach one million this year, and estimates for the cost of caring for them topping $1 billion, the misery in this struggling six-month-old camp is part of a deepening humanitarian crisis that threatens to destabilize the Middle East further. More than half a million people who have already fled Syria have ended up in camps and villages across Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon, all of which have asked for more international aid. Last week was the worst yet in Zaatari, as scores of tents collapsed under the most severe storm in 20 years. Two babies and a 22-year-old amputee died, all of unrelated causes. Several aid workers were injured when a riot broke out during food distribution.
Life began to return to normal on Friday, but normal in this desert camp of nine square miles crowded with more than 50,000 people is, according to the refugees and even some of those running the place, somewhere between horrible and inhumane.
Barefoot children trod through mud in temperatures not far above freezing. People lined up for hours for pots, utensils and buckets. Women pushed squeegees through the remaining puddles, and washed clothes in plastic tubs with cold water that quickly turned brown.
A young man got a $3 shave and haircut in a corrugated tin shack that a refugee barber had set up four days before. A younger one shinnied up a 30-foot light pole to pirate electricity.
“There’s no silver lining on such harsh conditions,” acknowledged Andrew Harper, the top official of the United Nations refugee agency in Jordan. “It’s just a really, really bad place to be.”
But Mr. Harper said the United Nations and the nonprofit groups helping it run the camp were doing the best with what they had, noting that the agency had appealed for $245 million to absorb Syrians regionwide in 2012 and received $157 million. Jordan, already consumed with an intense financial crisis and a growing protest movement, is scrambling to keep up with the influx. Its task is particularly complex given the delicate balance in its population of six million, which is dominated by Palestinian refugees and their descendants and includes hundreds of thousands who fled the war in Iraq.
Zaatari is only the most visible challenge. Nearly five times as many refugees are living in Jordanian cities and villages, taxing the government’s resources, and competing for scarce jobs.
Anmar Hmoud, who is handling the Syria file for the prime minister, said that refugees could leave Zaatari and Jordan’s handful of smaller camps if a relative or friend could guarantee financial support, but that the government was “exhausting its own resources.” He estimated the cost of military, health, education and other services at $670 million for 2012 and 2013.
“We are a neighbor, and we do our duty, but there is a limit to helping people unless we are helped by others,” he said. “It’s not the Jordanian problem, it is the international community’s problem.”
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