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Photo credit: UNHCR

Interview with Andrew Harper, UNHCR Country Representative in Jordan

by UNHCR
24 June 2013

Andrew Harper has been working with refugees since the 1990’s when he worked in Turkey during the first gulf war for UNHCR. Currently he is UNHCR Country Representative in Jordan and responsible for more than half a million Syrian refugees who have fled the war in their country.

What is UNHCR’s role in Jordan?

UNHCR’s role is to ensure the necessary protection and assistance is being provided to the refugees obviously, in support of the government in the host communities. That’s the main objective- to support the government to alleviate the pressure on it from what is an extremely challenging situation, of almost unprecedented proportion in the Middle East, probably not since 1948 have you actually seen such masses of humanity people fleeing conflict and crossing borders in the Middle East. The situation here is that it’s probably not coming to an end any time soon, so we have an extremely challenging not only in Jordan but also in Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq and not to forget the millions of people who have dire needs in Syria themselves.

For those who are half a world away – can you put this emergency context?

We’ve got over 500,000 Syrians in Jordan alone, that number could almost double by the end of the year, so given the absence of any political solution inside Syria and given the continued impasse which has been taking place at the highest political levels we’re not seeing anything positive any time soon. So what we’re preparing for an even worse situation than what we’ve got; which is hard to believe. We’ve now got the world’s second largest refugee camp, which we’ve established in Za’atri – it’s got well over 100,000 people, the vast majority women and children, completely dependent on outside support for their survival and if we don’t get the necessary support then lives are at risk.

What are the biggest challenges?

The biggest challenge at the moment is to continue to provide the confidence to the government of Jordan and the people of Jordan that they can absorb the massive pressure that’s coming their way from Syria. People get moved to the refugee camp and then you have to look at all their needs and that ranges from putting them in shelter and that is unfortunately in many cases tents, providing them with blankets, food, health care, education, water. So they need everything you would imagine would be required to keep a population alive and I wouldn’t necessarily say happy, but to at least address some of their most basic needs.

We are essentially running what has become the fifth largest city in Jordan and that comes with all of the challenges that you would imagine. It’s our job to make sure that people are provided with the necessary feeling of safety but also children can go to school and they do have health care. At the moment we’re winning, but it is an incredibly difficult task when more and more people come across the border, absolutely in need because many of them who are coming across have suffered so much in Syria.

What condition are the refugees in when they arrive?

Many of them were internally displaced inside Syria for sometimes a year or more, they’ve sought refuge in two, three, four different locations and in the end they feel that there’s no choice, there’s no hope for where they are in Syria and they make the decision to come to Jordan. And so when they do come across many of them are in a very bad state, some of they are malnourished, they’re extremely traumatized, the children haven’t been to school for months, possibly years and many of they do not know where their husbands or fathers or family members are now. And so they do need a lot of care, they do need a lot of attention but when you’re dealing with hundreds of thousands of people there is also a limit to what we can actually provide given the resources that we have.

Do numbers really tell the story of this tragedy?

Well, I think it’s important that when you’re talking about refugees that you don’t look at the statistics alone because the statistics are just so mind boggling, or mind numbingly large but each one of those, each night that we have one or two thousand refugees coming across, 60% of those are children and it’s incredibly, almost disturbing that when you go to the border and you see a complete generation of Syrians who are basically being forced to become refugees. It is a situation where, no one wants to become a refugee and we just have to ensure that they have as much assistance and are provided with as much dignity until they can return. This is not just a situation which involves countries like Jordan this is now an international crisis of giant proportions and how we handle this now will be evaluated in the years to come because this is one of the largest refugee operations in the world now.

What can people do to help?

Well, I think, the simple things, one is just recognizing the incredible generosity that Jordan and other countries have made towards protecting refugees. What UNHCR desperately needs is simply funding; we need money to buy tents, we need money to buy the blankets, the mattresses, provide trucks to bring in the water, pay teachers to teach classes, improve the health clinics around the country, buy food, support the government, have doctors, community service professionals going into the camps and into the community identifying the people most vulnerable and providing cash assistance to the tens of thousands of needy families. There’s one thing which we can be sure of and that is the numbers of refugees will continue to grow in the coming months but what we’re not sure about is whether we’ve got the resources to actually do what’s necessary to provide them with the necessary protection.

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