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Human Rights Commissioner appalled at situation in refugee camps in Jordan

02.08.2012 - Interview

Markus Löning, the Federal Government Commissioner for Human Rights Policy, warns that the situation in Syria might escalate in an interview broadcast on Deutschlandfunk on 2 August 2012.

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Mr Löning, what’s the situation like in the camps?

In the two days I spent in Jordan I went to see various camps and a hospital caring for the injured. Visiting such refugee camps is always a shocking experience, for people there have often made long and arduous journeys, crossing the border illegally. Some were shot at along the way, as Syrian border guards appear to shoot at refugees from time to time. These people have lost everything and are stranded in the desert. Surrounded by sand and extreme heat, sitting in tents, only with their most basic needs taken care of. There’s water, something to eat, there are blankets and mattresses, but that’s about it. I was devastated to see how people have to live there. It’s mostly women and children sitting there, and they start to weep when you ask them how they are and where their families are.

Who is taking care of the refugees?

Essentially, it’s the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the UN Children’s Fund and the World Food Programme. A major Jordanian NGO is in charge of setting up the camp, but beyond that it’s the major UN agencies that have the know-how, and they are doing an excellent job; but even so they had just a few days to build the camp from scratch. The Federal Agency for Technical Relief has also been very helpful, indeed indispensable – the UN agencies keep praising the accomplishments of its engineers in setting up a water supply system within just a few days.

Can NGOs and private relief organizations do their work there without hindrance?

In the camps I’ve seen, it was essentially the major UN relief agencies. So far, I have hardly seen other NGOs. I have seen a medical NGO taking care of injured refugees, a major global one under the aegis of which Syrian doctors and nurses, refugees themselves, are volunteering to help people with gunshot wounds, broken limbs and other injuries. But apart from that, I have seen very few NGOs.

Do people wish to return to their homes? After all, such camps sometimes take on a more permanent character, particularly in the Middle East.

Well, the one we are talking about is only a few days old. But of course, everyone wants to go back. An elderly woman gave me a heartbreaking account of how she had to leave behind her house and her garden. I had to leave behind my cucumbers and my tomatoes, and now I’m sitting here in the desert with nothing, she said to me. I do believe that everyone wants to go back, following a deeply human impulse, but whether they can do so remains to be seen. At the moment it doesn’t seem likely, and the Jordanian side is very much afraid that once Assad is gone, once he’s been brought down, a veritable fratricidal war will break out in Syria, and that would be a real nightmare.

You also had talks with government agencies. How do those in power in Amman assess the situation for refugees from neighbouring Syria?

Jordan has taken in some 150,000 refugees, most of whom have found shelter in the homes of families. Just picture it. Comparing the sizes of our countries, Germany would have to take in some 1.5 million people to match the tremendous effort people in Jordan have been making these past months. They are terribly worried that the situation might escalate further. They very much fear that once Assad has been removed conflicts will break out amongst the factions over the control of resources or that revenge will be taken – all of it leading to a massive flood of refugees. The great concern with which they are watching their neighbour makes itself very much felt.

Will Germany step up its humanitarian engagement?

We’ll be doing two things: on the one hand, we will remain very strongly engaged at the political level to try to end or at least contain the conflict. By no means can it be allowed to spill over to the neighbouring countries; rather, it must be ended as soon as possible in Syria itself. That is the political action we are taking at UN level and with Syria’s neighbours. On the other hand we have for months shown a clear humanitarian commitment. We have funded the work carried out in Syria by the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Syrian Red Crescent. Naturally, we are also supporting those who are working with refugees and looking after them in Lebanon and Jordan. Helping these rather small and not very wealthy countries is vital if we want to avoid instability and a spill-over of the conflict. Quite apart from that, it is a humanitarian imperative to provide help there. So far, the German Government has made available some eleven million euros for this cause.

Amongst the refugees, are there any expectations of Germany, of Europe, or have they given up on expecting things?

The refugees themselves have spoken little of their expectations. And what expectations they do have are not directed specifically to Europe or to Germany. The Jordanian side, on the other hand, has made it very clear that they do need the support of the international community, that they can no longer cope on their own. Along with the fear of the situation in neighbouring Syria, they are simply out of their depth in economic terms given the large number of refugees they have to take care of.

Interview conducted by: Jürgen Liminski. Reproduced with the kind permission of Deutschlandfunk.

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