ZAATARI, Jordan — With a population of almost 80,000, Zaatari refugee camp is now the fourth-largest settlement in Jordan and is quickly evolving into a permanent community. However, refugees continue to struggle as humanitarian aid falls short, even with international effort. Despite their circumstances, Zaatari residents have found resourceful ways to make a living, and now there is talk of establishing a Zaatari Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in a plot of desert just north of the camp.
Most refugees, when entering a new country, are banned from finding employment due to labor regulations. As a result, many living in camps like Zaatari have had to rely on more enterprising measures within the camp. More than 3,000 small businesses have popped up in Zaatari over the past four years, with incredible diversity – anything from produce stalls and barber shops to pizza delivery and wedding gown rental.
Researchers have thus turned their attention to an eight-square-mile patch of desert north of the camp, known as the King Hussein Bin Talal Development Area. This plot of land could be a critical tool in the Syrian refugee crisis, and policy experts have encouraged the creation of a SEZ – a specialized area in which refugees could set up their own enterprises and become a part of the country’s economy, rather than a burden upon it.
The Jordanian government has already invested more than $100 million in infrastructure for a Zaatari Special Economic Zone in this area, seeking to give thousands access to a legitimate economy which can be maintained until the time comes to return home.
King Abdullah of Jordan joined forces with then-U.K. prime minister David Cameron and World Bank president Jim Yong Kim in February 2016 to host the Supporting Syria and the Region Conference in London. The conference raised more than $12 billion for the cause, with more than half of those funds to be distributed in the next three years.
The following month, the World Bank approved $100 million in low-rate loans to Jordan to help create jobs for Syrians and Jordanians alike, a move estimated to provide work opportunities for 100,000 people. In addition, King Abdullah claimed he could provide 150,000 Syrian refugees with work in exchange for $1.6 billion in aid to help create the SEZ.
Such a deal was brokered in July 2016 between the EU and Jordan, and the SEZ has the potential to help hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees as they await return to their homes. With the help of the EU, Jordan and other nations, an effective solution to turn an economic burden into a great opportunity is on the horizon.
– Emily Marshall