• View on Migration: A rare chance to plan a refugee camp

    Imogen Mathers


Speed read

  • Emergency shelter for refugees usually consists of rapidly pitched tents

  • But UNHCR had a year to design the Azraq camp for Syrian refugees

  • It consulted existing refugees to come up with a layout based around ‘villages’

Last month saw the opening of a refugee camp in Jordan for Syrians escaping the violence in their country. Azraq camp, which lies in the Jordanian desert 100 kilometres east of the capital, Amman, could one day host up to 130,000 refugees. Amid the media coverage accompanying the camp’s opening, I noticed that research and refugee feedback seemed to have played an unprecedentedly important role in its design and development. [1] 
Bernadette Castel-Hollingsworth is head of the Azraq field office for UNHCR (the UN refugee agency), which runs the camp alongside the Jordanian authorities, with support from other humanitarian agencies. She tells me that — unusually for a refugee camp — Azraq was a year in the planning, which allowed plenty of time to research how best to design it.
Castel-Hollingsworth says that Jordan and UNHCR began planning the camp a year ago, as another refugee camp in Jordan, called Zaatari, started to become overwhelmed with refugees.

Because of a temporary drop in refugee numbers last May, development of the Azraq site was delayed until new influxes of Syrians called for more space and housing. The camp finally opened on 30 April this year.

Emergency responses and rapidly evolving humanitarian crises usually mean that “UNHCR has no choice but to pitch tents”, says Castel-Hollingsworth. “We rarely have the luxury of the time we have had here to plan the camp, to think and to consult refugees and our partners.”

With Azraq, the planning phase enabled the agency to “use the lessons learned in Zaatari, but also in all the rest of the world’s camps, to make the best site design possible”, she says. A lot of people put a lot of thought into the process, she adds.

The length and extent of multiple agency participation in this research phase is unprecedented in UNHCR’s history, says Castel-Hollingsworth.
An important aspect of the research, she says, was gathering feedback from Zaatari refugees on how they thought the new camp could best meet new refugees’ desires. Due to these surveys, Azraq is designed using a “community-based approach”, enabling families and communities to live together in ‘villages’ of 10-15,000 refugees, each with decentralised services including schools, playgrounds, clinics, and centres for women and girls. 
Refugee feedback also drove the design of the camp’s shelters, which are built to withstand harsh environmental conditions, such as high temperatures and strong winds, says Castel-Hollingsworth. “We invited refugees to test prototypes, to grade the shelters, and to tell us what features could be improved — it’s based on this feedback that we have arrived at the final design.”
The hope is that this unprecedented focus on research and planning will make Azraq “the most habitable place possible for the refugees who will come here”, she says.
UNHCR is currently assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the Zaatari and Azraq camps. Castel-Hollingsworth says these evaluations could go on to inform refugee assistance in other contexts.
Imogen Mathers is a reporter and researcher at SciDev.Net. @ImogenMathers