The war in Syria started in 2011. Since then millions of Syrians have fled their homes. Many sought safety in neighbouring countries Jordan and Lebanon. Most refugees are received in cities and villages, but hundreds of thousands of refugees have to live in emergency refugee camps. Like Jordan’s huge Zaa’tari camp. Before the start of the war, there was only barren desert, but now almost 100,000 people live there. In Lebanon the camps do not even exist officially. So they remained informal and small. There are 1,500 of them scattered across the country.
What lies at the heart of the problem?
Dealing with the massive influx of refugees is a huge structural challenge for the governments of Jordan and Lebanon. Sometimes the number of people in a community doubles almost overnight. And they do not have the staff or expertise to put good public services in the refugee camps or even make a clear street plan. The situation in towns and villages is not much better. The houses and neighbourhoods are run-down. There’s not much there either.
In the reception camps good basic services like sewage or waste collection are vital to prevent the spread of disease. A street plan means the emergency services can find their way to where they are needed. And by following the signposts, kids can find the way home to their own white tent among all those other white tents.
How is the Netherlands helping Jordan?
In 2013 Lilianne Ploumen, the Dutch Minister for Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation, visited Zaa’tari camp. She saw opportunities for sharing knowledge. So she drew up a plan with VNG International and the municipality of Amsterdam which she submitted to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR, responsible for Zaa’tari camp) and to the Jordanian government.
In the next two years over thirty experts from the municipality of Amsterdam worked on the project. They advised colleagues in Jordan on how to install drinking water facilities, sewage and waste management services. They brainstormed on the future: on how to develop a sound economy in the camps and lay a solid foundation for housing or logistics. For today and for tomorrow.
And what is the Netherlands doing in Lebanon?
The plan worked so well in Jordan that Lebanon wanted a similar project for its refugee camps. In 2015 VNG International expanded the Programme into Lebanon with staff from the municipalities of The Hague and Almere. Because officially the camps do not exist there, the Dutch staff work directly with local authorities, instead of UNHCR.
There too the initial focus is on basic public services like drinking water, waste water and waste management. The Programme will also focus on sustainable economic development. Like setting up a good taxation system, or making money from recycled waste.
How long will the project last?
The Dutch municipalities will continue working in Jordan and Lebanon until the end of 2018. Until then they will work hard to transfer all they have learned to other local officials, knowledge they can build on throughout their working lives.