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'The jungle': Syrian refugees endure crowded, lawless camp

Zaatari, one of the largest refugee camps is five miles from the Syrian border in neighboring Jordan. Now there are more than 25,000 and of the 120 thousand people living there, half are children. In this first of a special series, ITV's John Ray reports from a makeshift children's clinic inside the camp.  

ZAATARI CAMP, Jordan -- Just 5 miles from Jordan's border with the war-torn country he fled, Ahmed Mohammad Salti spends each day cleaning one corner of the largest camp for Syrian refugees in the Middle East.

At night, gangs of youngsters run wild in the Zaatari Camp, battering and defacing walls, throwing rocks and creating "mess and rubbish," he said.

Salti, 33, says he feels powerless to stop them.

"We have really, really naughty kids here who have become sort of criminalized street kids," said Kilian Kleinschmidt, camp manager and field coordinator for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR. "They are out of control."

The unruly youths are hardly Zaatari's biggest challenge. The camp of 110,000 people -- now one of the largest "cities" in Jordan despite being barely 10 months old -- has grown fast, and there are no police or government structures in place by which to regulate or enforce rules.

Salti, who was a baker in Mezza, Syria, left with his family after artillery shells destroyed their home -- he says they were fired by government forces. He said living in Zaatari Camp is like living in "the jungle."

For people who have lived under a 40-year-old autocratic security state, Syrians have dealt with the lawlessness the best way they can: They have arranged themselves in neighborhoods that include family and friends -- basically recreating their villages and towns in Syria.

They rely on these networks to provide security and depend on informal community leaders to mediate disputes and resolve conflicts.

Muhammad Hamed / Reuters

About 110,000 Syrian refugees are now living in the Zaatari Camp in Jordan. And while life may be better there than in the war-ravaged country they fled, some describe the camp as a lawless and frightening place.

"Most of the refugees feel homeless now. Some of us have lost everything, and some of these families lost a wife or their kids," said Abu Al Waleed, 60, one such mediator.

"So people are angry, and so any small problem makes people want to explode on it. But thank God, we try to resolve these things," he said.

Kleinschmidt, 50, says there is plenty of food and water in the camp and that health care and education are readily available for the 60,000 children. But many of them don't go to school, and criminal activity is rising, he said, comparing Zaatari to a bad neighborhood in a big city.

"We are looking at best practice from cleaning out the bad neighborhoods from Rio de Janeiro to New York and other places," he said.


A look back at the conflict that has overtaken the country.

Many people in Zaatari Camp are frustrated by the lack of law and order and blame the UN, which has in turn led to rioting. Kleinschmidt says he has been beaten up twice.

"We have a very strong feeling amongst the people who are in the camp that they are mistreated, that Syria has been forgotten by the international community, that not enough is being done for them or against their enemy," he said, referring to Bashar Assad's government. "So they're feeling that we owe them," he said.

Kleinschmidt says he is trying to set up a camp police force and wants to organize a government structure with refugee leaders who would represent local communities. Women and other vulnerable people who are reluctant to vocalize their needs must be protected, he says.

He faces an uphill battle.

There have been reports of young women being marketed as short-term brides to rich Arabian Gulf men in what amounts to a prostitution scheme. Some of the so-called mediators are involved in criminal gangs that smuggle and sell aid materials outside the camp. This is on top of the frayed nerves of those who have escaped their imploding homeland with only their lives.

"If someone steals from you or someone beats you, if you are strong, then you can get justice," said Salti's sister-in-law, who asked not to be identified. "But if you are not strong, then no one is going to intervene and help you. Here the situation is like, he who is strongest, he wins."