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Syrian Refugee Camp Grows To The Size Of A Small City


Certainly one big focus for John Kerry and the Obama administration is the conflict in Syria which continues to rage on. Diplomatic efforts to solve it remain at a stalemate. And as the fighting goes on, refugee camps have become difficult to manage. Getting aid into the country is an even bigger challenge.

NPR's Michele Kelemen contacted several aid groups to see how they're trying to reach millions of Syrians in need.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Even for those Syrians who manage to flee the civil war, their troubles are not over. Take the Zaatari Camp in Jordan. It was built for about 25,000 refugees but it's now the size of a major city. And all that happened in a year, says Andrew Harper, the head of the U.N. refugee agency in Jordan.

ANDREW HARPER: People were initially saying no one would go into a tented camp in the Jordanian desert. No would bring themselves to that. But what we found was that the desperation of the situation inside Syria gave people no choice.

KELEMEN: The UN refugee agency UNHCR recently did an audit of that camp and others in the region and found some worrying trends. Organized crime groups and Syrian rebels are operating in Zaatari and refugees are paying as much as $500 a person to middle men to get out and move elsewhere in Jordan.

Harper says he's taking steps to improve the situation.

HARPER: Crime is an issue in the camp as it would be in any sort of situation where you've got a city of 120, 130 thousand people there. We're working hard. We've got much more to do and what the report outline was that there's still various areas that we have to do more work on and we're the first ones to acknowledge that.

KELEMEN: But even as UNHCR tries to improve that camp in Zaatari, it's also building a new camp, which Harper says will be divided into smaller villages and hopefully avoid the mistakes of the past.

HARPER: They'll be more police stations. They'll be better facilities. Again, with Zaatari we really had to react to basically a mass exodus of part of Syria's population to Jordan. And we've succeeded in doing the basics relatively well. But with the next camp, we've had time, we've got additional resources and so we've been able to plan a bit more.

KELEMEN: Aid groups say they're playing a constant game of catch-up when it comes to the crisis in Syria. UN appeals are underfunded and the number of people displaced inside the country continues to grow. Last week the top UN humanitarian coordinator sent the Security Council a wish list of ways she hopes that aid can move across borders into Syria and get around Syrian government bureaucratic obstacles.

It's a call Valerie Amos has been making for months.

VALERIE AMOS: We should look at every single way in which we could get help to the 6.8 million people who are in need in Syria, including not just cross-line but also cross border operations.

KELEMEN: But she's acknowledged that the Syrian government doesn't like the idea of having the UN move supplies across borders that the rebels control, including parts of Syria's border with Turkey. Amos is hoping now that the UN Security Council could help push for humanitarian pauses and new routes for aid workers.

Up to now, council diplomats have been divided on Syria and aid experts are trying to sound the alarms. Sanj Srikanthan is the emergency field director for the International Rescue Committee.

SANJ SRIKANTHAN: This is the humanitarian crisis of this generation. I have no doubt. And I do believe that we as humanitarians, as individuals and governments, will look back and wonder, did we do enough. And although very few of us listening can influence the outcome of this war, all of us are in a position to help relieve human suffering in Syria.

KELEMEN: He says he's worried about the coming winter if humanitarian access doesn't improve. Over in Jordan, the UNHCR's Harper is preparing his team for more refugees as the violence intensifies in Damascus, Aleppo and elsewhere.

HARPER: One of the challenges that we've got is how long is this crisis going to go for and how are we going to continue to fund what is a massive refugee population in the region, a refugee population that could possibly double again within the next 12 months, and it's quite likely that within the next few days, within the next week, we could have our one millionth refugee child cross the border from Syria.

KELEMEN: Harper says the newest refugee camp in Jordan will be ready by the beginning of next month. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.