Collecting water in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. (Photo: Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images)

The Year In Preview

The For-Profit Refugee Camp

The vast majority of Syrian refugees are still stranded in the Middle East. To take care of them, the world needs a whole new kind of refugee camp.
Dec 14, 2015· 17 MIN READ
Vince Beiser has reported from more than two dozen countries for Wired, Harper’s, The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, and others. In 2014 he won the Media for Liberty Award.

To enter the world’s biggest Syrian refugee camp, a place named Zaatari out in the desert of northern Jordan, you need to pass through not one but two checkpoints. The gendarmes at the first casually waved my car through, but their comrades at the second stopped me to inspect my passport and government permission to visit the camp. Just ahead, a pickup truck sagging under the weight of at least 10 people crept through a scrum of foot traffic. Young boys in flip-flops leaned on battered wheelbarrows, hoping to make a dinar or two hauling whatever might be entering the camp. One, maybe 10 years old, piloted a load of suitcases down the road, trailed by a woman in a long black abeya and a pair of small children hauling roller bags. A dozen yards away, a handful of soldiers lounged around an armored vehicle with a machine gun mounted on top.

Papers approved, I passed through the checkpoint, maneuvered around a water truck with a giddy posse of young boys riding on its rear bumper, and turned down the rough asphalt road that rings the camp. To my right lay a seemingly endless, chaotic sprawl of sand-blown tents and trailers crammed with 80,000 people. To my left: a deep ditch fronted by an earthen berm intended to keep out smugglers. Beyond that, desert.

I nosed up to a compound surrounded by a concertina wire–topped fence. A guard opened the gate to let me in to a little village of tidily arranged trailers and Astroturf-floored shade structures, the base camp for the legion of international organizations that provide food, health care, education, and sundry other support to the refugees.

Inside one of those trailers on this relatively mild day in late 2014, Killian Kleinschmidt was presiding over an unorthodox meeting. Kleinschmidt, a burly 53-year-old German with scruffy salt-and-pepper hair in slow retreat from his sun-reddened forehead, was the guy charged by the United Nations with overall responsibility for the camp. The mayor of Zaatari, he liked to call himself. He earned the post with decades of experience in just about every hellhole you can name, from genocide-era Rwanda to warlord-ruled Somalia to earthquake-shattered Pakistan.

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Gathered in folding chairs around a long table were an eclectic couple dozen international experts. There were aid workers, of course, but also municipal officials from Marseilles, France, urban planners from Amsterdam, and a German architect. Many of them had never worked in a refugee camp before.

The issue at hand was water. For the last couple years, trucks had been distributing 4 million liters a day to large communal tanks throughout the camp. More trucks took wastewater out, to a treatment plant 35 kilometers away. It was a tremendously expensive and inefficient system, not least because so much water got stolen by refugees who jabbed hoses into the tanks to run private plumbing to their shelters.

The goal was to figure out how to get legitimate plumbing into each household. Kleinschmidt, his shirt sufficiently unbuttoned to display the tribal-style silver pendant he wore around his neck, was losing patience. “We don’t yet have the money for this, or a plan,” he told the group. A UNICEF official piped up, saying there was a plan. Another guy from a different U.N. agency insisted there wasn’t. Kleinschmidt cut them both off. “Let’s not bullshit each other,” he said. “There is not a role for humanitarians in the long run to run this water system. We are too dependent on donor money. We need to think about a business plan for a water company for Zaatari. Whether it’s public or private or public-private, we need a business plan which we can sell to the government and to possible investors.”

You don’t often hear the terms “business plan” and “refugee camp” in the same sentence. But Kleinschmidt isn’t your ordinary humanitarian worker.

Aerial view of the Zaatari camp, home to 80,000 Syrian refugees. (Photo: Mandel Ngan/Getty Images)

The standard model of a refugee camp is to set it up as an isolated island where aid goes in and nothing comes out. Food, clothes, and medical aid are doled out by NGO workers at central points, water is delivered by truck to scattered tanks, and security is provided by the U.N., local forces, or nobody at all. That usually works passably, at least for a while. The problem is that most camps end up staying in place for years, even decades. They cost a fortune to maintain and often degenerate into cauldrons of disease, violence, and corruption, their inhabitants dependent on foreign donors and resented by host-country locals.

Though the plight of refugees trying to escape to Europe has dominated the news in recent months, the reality is that most Syrian refugees remain stuck in poor Middle Eastern countries and probably will be there for years or even decades to come. Huge numbers of them are in camps. Kleinschmidt is at the forefront of a growing movement among aid workers, academics, and urban planners to reimagine the whole concept. The central idea: Stop thinking about such spaces as camps, and start thinking about them more as rapid-response cities.

FULL COVERAGE: The Global Refugee Crisis

It's a bold new approach that is being experimented with in a big way in Zaatari and piecemeal in other camps. If it pans out, it could not only save the international community untold millions of dollars but also make life for refugees in camps more tolerable—which could in turn diminish the numbers heading for Europe.

“The U.N. needs to rush in supplies during emergencies, yes. But it makes no sense to stay there for 10 years,” Kleinschmidt told me. “The humanitarian model doesn’t work anymore. We have to replace emergency systems with something more economically, politically, and environmentally sustainable.”

An excerpt from the upcoming documentary, "Safe Zone," about child refugees of the Syrian war.

In many ways, Zaatari already has plenty of the trappings of a metropolis. It has schools, hospitals, mosques, and a few paved roads. Refugees have opened hundreds of unlicensed kebab stands, hair salons, and mobile phone kiosks. Much of the local economy is pure pilferage: One-quarter of all camp residents are estimated to illegally sell donated food, tents, and other aid. The reformers’ idea is to regulate all this commerce and add more: Let entrepreneurial types and even big corporations make money meeting people’s needs. Connect the camp to Jordan’s water, power, transport, and waste systems, and make those who can afford it pay for using them. Make Zaatari a contributor to the local economy instead of a burden on it.

“You can call it a camp, a city, whatever. It’s still a densely populated place full of people with the same needs and aspirations as people everywhere,” said Don Weinreich, a partner at Ennead Architects, who oversees a joint project with the U.N. and Stanford University to develop ways of designing refugee camps to make them operate more like urban environments. “You can plan or not all you want to, but when the plans are out of sync with people’s desires, the desires will win out.”

Certainly, the world needs new ideas of how to deal with masses of people pushed out of their homes. Driven in part by the metastasizing conflicts across the Middle East, the number of forcibly displaced people worldwide stands at nearly 60 million—the highest in recorded history. And with a changing climate spawning ever-mightier typhoons and tsunamis, millions more will be put to flight in the years ahead. These are not just concerns for people in distant lands: Hurricane Katrina displaced 1 million Americans, thousands of whom were stuck in emergency shelters for months.

In short: We need to get ready to house growing masses of refugees all over the world. And since cities have become the predominant environment in which humans live, it makes sense to apply lessons learned in those that grew organically to those we will create out of necessity.

The U.N. needs to rush in supplies during emergencies, yes. But it makes no sense to stay there for 10 years. The humanitarian model doesn’t work anymore.

Killian Kleinschmidt

Refugee camps first came into large-scale use in the aftermath of World War II. Millions of displaced people were scattered all over Europe, with no way to get home—or no home left at all. The task of managing them was handed over to militaries, which housed them in the most obvious places: empty POW and even concentration camps. Those spaces, like most military camps going back to the Roman era, were designed to maximize efficiency, not human needs and wants. Nonetheless, the model has stuck.

A key 1951 United Nations treaty obliges nations to take in refugees. But it’s up to those nations to decide what to do with their uninvited guests. In many places, refugees are barred from accessing the local health and education systems, getting a job, or even leaving their camp.

Camps are undeniably efficient. They make it easy to keep tabs on refugees, distribute aid to them, and send them home when (if) conditions allow. They also serve as excellent fund-raising tools for humanitarian agencies. There’s nothing like footage of a movie star or a politician face-to-face with some miserable child in a squalid camp to get donors’ charitable impulses in gear—or at least to get a mention in the media.

All of which is fine if the refugees are only there for a few years. That’s what happened in Europe, where a clear-cut end to World War II and the wealth of the nations involved made repatriation relatively easy. Neither of those conditions obtain, however, in dozens of more recent conflicts, from Afghanistan to Central Africa. Today, the average stay in a refugee camp is estimated at 12 years. Many camps have been in place for decades. The world’s largest, Kenya’s Dadaab, home to a half-million people, has been there for 23 years.

As long-term solutions, camps are terrible. They’re expensive (Zaatari costs an estimated $500,000 a day), and their funding is perpetually at risk. Just this September, a financial shortfall forced the World Food Programme to temporarily suspend food aid to hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees in Jordan.

Camps also foster dependency. The worst of them reduce their inhabitants to virtual prisoners, forbidden from leaving, working, or doing much of anything besides lining up for handouts day after day. “Camps save lives in the emergency phase,” the UNHRC executive committee acknowledged in a 2004 report, “[but] as the years go by, they progressively waste these same lives.” In some places, such as the big Rwandan refugee camps of the 1990s, camps have devolved into training bases for fighting factions. The UNHCR even officially declared in 2014 that its policy is “to avoid the establishment of refugee camps, wherever possible.”

The problem is that host governments generally prefer keeping refugees in camps. It’s not easy for any country to absorb a sudden inrush of destitute, traumatized, possibly radicalized immigrants—especially when the country is poor and unstable to begin with. Refugees kept corralled in camps are easier for security forces to keep an eye on. Also, they won’t crowd local schools, roads, hospitals, and housing and job markets, because their needs are taken care of by donor nations. And the international aid money that comes with camps can be a significant boost to a poor country’s economy.

So when Syrians began massing at Jordan’s northern border in mid-2012, the kingdom immediately set up a camp, with the U.N.’s help: Zaatari. Tens of thousands of refugees flooded in. But by the spring of 2013, the place was bedlam. Refugees were assaulting aid workers, battling Jordanian police with rocks, and stealing everything from water tanks to toilets. Local mafias sold prime spots for tents and trailers and ran fleets of trucks bringing in black-market goods. The place was so miserable that thousands of people were leaving every month to go back and take their chances in war-ravaged Syria.

That’s when the U.N. called in Kleinschmidt.

Killian Kleinschmidt. (Photo: Dominic Nahr)

You couldn’t call Kleinschmidt warm, or even friendly, exactly, but he is a great socializer. He’s verbose and startlingly open. By the end of a four-hour steak dinner one night in the Jordanian capital of Amman, I knew way more about his personal troubles with several ex-spouses and assorted relatives than any journalist should.

Kleinschmidt grew up in Cold War–era West Berlin, the son of respected educators. He went feral as a teenager, living in a squat and running with tribes of punks and anarchists. He drifted to southern France and joined a goat-farming collective for a while, then lit out for Africa on a motorcycle. One night, in a bar in Mali, he met a couple of young development workers who were trying to build a school. Kleinschmidt offered to help out. He found he liked the challenge of wrangling untrained workers amid sandstorms. Moreover, he said, “I saw it’s nice to be compassionate.”

That was his entrée into the international emergency business. Over the past 20 years, he’s been in and out of the world’s hottest spots. Kleinschmidt set up one of the first camps for the Lost Boys of Sudan. He was in Mogadishu during the “Black Hawk Down” raid. He rescued thousands of refugees hiding in the jungle after the Rwandan genocide. He’s had colleagues kidnapped and killed and once saw a suicide bomber blow himself to pieces outside the gates of a U.N. compound.

But it was a four-year stint in Brussels, wearing a suit and tie and working high up in the U.N. bureaucracy, that best prepared him for what he’s doing now. “That’s where I learned about networking with the private sector,” he said.

When he got to Zaatari, said Kleinschmidt, it was the worst camp he’d ever seen. His first order of business was to seek out and talk face-to-face with the street fighters and black marketers, negotiating a mutual modus vivendi. The camp calmed down and began opening for business.

Residents of the Zaatari refugee camp splice electrical wires for use in their homes and makeshift businesses, which sell everything from mobile phones to wedding dresses. (Photo: Dominic Nahr)

In theory, only food, clothing, and other basic necessities are available inside Zaatari. In practice, you can get just about anything you want on the bustling shopping street known as the Champs-Élysées. I strolled its length one sunny afternoon, taking in the hundreds of spontaneously generated businesses, most of them sited in repurposed housing trailers. A certain amount of entrepreneurship always takes hold in camps. Refugees everywhere trade with locals and sell each other used clothes, food rations, firewood, and, not infrequently, sex and drugs. But Zaatari has got to be the most free-market-friendly refugee camp in the world.

On the Champs-Élysées, the aromas of deep-frying falafel and grilling kebabs waft pleasantly through the dusty air, the robotic thrumming of portable generators and Arabic pop music blaring from cheap speakers providing a soundtrack. There are grocery stores, bakeries, beauty parlors, and mobile phone shops. There’s a travel agency, a jewelry store brimming with gold bracelets and necklaces, a perfume shop with plate-glass display windows and tiled floors, and at least one sit-down restaurant with a dozen tables.

Where does the money come from? Some people brought savings with them or get money from relatives. Some work for organizations inside the camp or illegally outside it. The World Food Programme also gives everyone a weekly food credit worth about $14. All told, an estimated 2,500 refugee-run shops do about $14 million worth of commerce every month in the camp.

Business is good for Bassem Mansour, a 24-year-old Syrian I met who sells washing machines, refrigerators, and flat-screen TVs in a shop made of two patched-together housing trailers. “Bringing in these goods isn’t allowed, so we buy them from smugglers,” he explained casually. Zaatari is only about six miles from the town of Mafraq; it’s not hard for industrious locals to provide the refugees with illicit goods.

All of this trade is unlicensed, unregulated, and technically illegal. But it continues to be tolerated. Cities run on commerce, not charity. Perhaps the most important element of the push to urbanify Zaatari is its embrace of private enterprise, harnessing market forces to serve humanitarian goals.

This general notion is one that many relief and development organizations are promoting these days. Everyone knows donors can’t be counted on to meet the needs of millions of refugees indefinitely. And the spread of microcredit throughout the developing world has shown the poverty-fighting potential of capitalism when geared to the dispossessed. Mercy Corps, for instance, boasts of its unabashedly Silicon Valley–ish “Social Ventures” team that “turns ideas into scalable businesses in emerging markets, acting like an internal incubation and acceleration lab.” (Disclosure: Mercy Corps receives funding from the Skoll Foundation, whose founder also owns TakePart’s parent company.)

A young Syrian who works in a bike repair shop waits for customers in the alley of the Zaatari refugee camp known as the Champs-Élysées. (Photo: Dominic Nahr)

Consider the busy bicycle repair shop, a little way down from Mansour’s appliance emporium. It’s owned by a young man who wants to be identified only as Abu Fadil. He is a solidly built 20-something with ragged scars on each shoulder—souvenirs of a government air raid on his town in southern Syria. “In Syria, we lived well,” he said. His family had a two-story house on half an acre of land amid lemon, apple, and orange trees. They stayed even after several relatives were killed in the fighting, finally fleeing only after a bomb destroyed their house. “When we came here, we thought we’d only be here a few months,” Abu Fadil said, sighing. When I met him, he’d been in Zaatari for nearly two years.

Abu Fadil lives with his wife and two children, his parents, and a few other relatives—14 in all—in three trailers cut and pasted together. In Zaatari’s first months, everyone was housed in tents. After a while, families began to be issued “caravans”—container-size corrugated metal boxes with windows and doors cut into them. Almost immediately, an ad hoc real estate market sprang up. The caravans are bought and sold, moved from place to place on homemade travois cobbled together from fence posts and wheelbarrow wheels. Those who can afford it—like Abu Fadil—patch together several, with the help of one of the camp’s welding-torch-equipped “contractors.”

The caravans have no electricity or plumbing. So Abu Fadil hired a guy who specializes in tapping into the cables powering the U.N.-provided streetlights, who ran a line into the house that powers their lights, TV, and air conditioner. Abu Fadil also built a tiny indoor bathroom out of cinder blocks stolen from communal bathrooms and kitchens and plumbed it with a hose tapping into a nearby water tank.

All the “luxuries” Abu Fadil’s family enjoys are made possible by his business income. “They want us to live on coupons,” scoffed his mother. “Those barely cover our milk.”

Camps, instead of being the repositories of human tragedies, should be the job havens that incubate the future economy.

Paul Collier, University of Oxford

Allowing refugees like Abu Fadil to make their own living could benefit Jordan’s economy while restoring a sense of dignity and purpose to them, argues Paul Collier, an economics professor at the University of Oxford. Zaatari sits near an empty industrial zone “large enough to employ the entire labor force of the camp twice over,” he wrote recently on the World Bank’s blog. “The displaced could, if adequately supported, constitute an economy-in-exile which, once peace was restored, could return and speed recovery. Camps, instead of being the repositories of human tragedies, should be the job havens that incubated the future economy.”

In other words, make the vibrant underground economy legitimate. And why stop there? Why not invite in major private companies while you’re at it? Zaatari has done exactly that. The camp hosts a Safeway—a relatively small, somewhat rough-edged, but actual supermarket, conveniently located on the ring road that circles the camp. It opened in December 2013, the first-ever such venture in a refugee camp. “At first it was strange, with these tents all around,” said assistant manager Ahmad Hamdan, a Jordanian who had never seen a refugee camp before his boss assigned him out here. “But now we’re used to it.”

Inside, the store feels spacious, with a polished cement floor and a high steel-beamed ceiling. The offerings are weighted toward basics—pasta, canned meat, and sacks of rice and flour piled high. But there are also fresh vegetables, a butcher’s section, a refrigerated case filled with soft drinks, and a freezer stocked with lamb from New Zealand, beef from Brazil, and fish from Argentina. “These are all the same brands we buy in Amman,” said my translator, impressed.

The supermarket is a winning proposition for everyone. It relieves the U.N. of much of the logistical hassle of bringing in and distributing tons of food. Piggybacking on Safeway’s existing supply network—the chain has three other stores in Jordan—is much easier than building a new one from scratch. The refugees get to choose foods they want, instead of settling for whatever millet or corn the international community sends their way. There’s a similar setup in a big refugee camp near the Turkish town of Kilis. There, three privately run grocery stores compete to serve the camp residents.

Giving refugees these kinds of choices also improves their mental health, says Richard Mollica, head of the Harvard Program in Refugee Trauma. That’s no small matter, considering research shows as many as 60 percent of refugees in camps suffer from PTSD and depression. “It brings people a sense of normalcy, instead of making them eat out of donated cans for 10 years,” Mollica said.

Safeway, for its part, has something close to a guaranteed customer base, because the U.N. gives the refugees credit to buy food with. “We make a profit. If not, we would have left by now,” said Hamdan.

In a similar vein, the UNHCR also struck a deal with Zain, a regional mobile service provider, to provide free SIM cards to the estimated 20,000 Zaatari residents who have cell phones. The refugees saved a little money, Zain acquired customers to sell airtime to, and the UNHCR got a percentage. MasterCard has also partnered with camp officials to distribute biometrically authenticated debit cards that the refugees use to buy food and clothing, replacing the old paper-voucher system.

Kleinschmidt wants to see that kind of thinking extended into municipal utilities. The U.N. brought electricity to the camp, drawing power from the grid in Mafraq to supply streetlights. Enterprising residents immediately started tapping into them, selling pirated connections to shops and homes. An estimated three-quarters of all the camp’s residents get electricity from the resulting spaghetti of wires snaking out of pylons and running over the ground. The U.N. was stuck with bills from Jordan for $1 million a month until it resorted in June to cutting off power for much of the day.

“People in the camp let their air conditioners run all day because they weren’t paying for it,” said Kleinschmidt. He thinks he has a better idea: Provide power, but make those who can afford it pay for it, just like on the other side of Zaatari’s fence. A report released in November by a consortium of humanitarian agencies outlines a range of ways private entrepreneurs could profitably provide energy in camps, by selling everything from rooftop solar arrays to hybrid diesel generators. “There’s an emotional objection to making refugees pay,” Kleinschmidt said, “but of course, many of them can.”

Men wait to have their ration cards checked before collecting distributions for their families. (Photo: Dominic Nahr)

A couple of hours away from Zaatari lies Azraq, another enormous Syrian refugee camp opened in April 2014. It’s a classic example of a by-the-book refugee camp—and an illustration of what’s wrong with that model.

Azraq is rows and rows of rigidly ordered white trailers marching across an otherwise empty expanse of sand in Jordan’s eastern desert. It’s 20-odd miles from the nearest human settlement. The caravans are all bolted to the ground, to keep the refugees from rearranging and trading them. Following the success of the grocery store in Zaatari, the U.N. has allowed in a privately operated supermarket, but other than that, there’s nowhere to openly buy anything. Incoming refugees are voting on the place with their feet: The camp, designed for more than 100,000 people, holds only about 25,000.

Azraq is set up the way it is for reasons that present big obstacles to the whole camps-as-cities project. First off, there’s a degree of inertia in the vast industry of humanitarian aid. More important are the politics of host countries. Take Jordan. In the mid-2000s, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis fled to the kingdom, but because many of them had money, and because they trickled in gradually, almost all of them wound up in cities. They strained scarce water supplies, crowded classrooms and hospitals and roads, and drove up rents. “Jordan felt it was left with a huge caseload when international attention turned elsewhere,” said Paul Stromberg, the UNHCR’s second-in-command in Jordan. “They didn’t want to get stuck with another ‘invisible problem.’ ” They wanted those refugees in camps.

Like pretty much every host country, Jordan also wants its refugees to go away as soon as possible. The permanence implied in the concept of “city” makes government officials bristle. “If they stay three years, five years, 10 years, we will never accept that Zaatari will be a city,” a senior Jordanian government official told me privately. “It is a matter of national identity and national security.”

Jordan, a country of only 8 million, is already hosting some 700,000 officially registered Syrian refugees and an estimated 700,000 more who are unregistered. There are many more from Palestine, Iraq, Somalia, and Sudan. Jordan has the world’s second-highest number of refugees per capita, behind only Lebanon. On top of all the strain those uninvited migrants put on the country’s infrastructure, there’s a possibility they may include Islamic State–style jihadists. Small wonder that a 2012 poll found 65 percent of Jordanians opposed admitting more Syrians. And they’re hardly alone: In the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks, virtually every Republican presidential candidate has loudly questioned whether the U.S. should accept any Syrian refugees at all. About half of all Americans say the answer is no.

Azraq’s unpleasantness is not an oversight; it’s an example of what Karen Jacobsen, a Tufts professor specializing in refugee issues, calls “the unspoken policy of humane deterrence.” “The UNHCR and other groups have been trying for a long time to make camps more humane,” she said. “But the more humane and appealing you make the camps, the more refugees you get.”

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Late last year, Kleinschmidt left the U.N. and moved to Vienna to start his own operation, the unflashily titled Innovation and Planning Agency. It’s sort of a consultancy on catastrophe, including architects, urban planners, and tech geeks, aimed at bringing his brand of change to refugee camps around the world. “The IPA is a tool to bring together people who would never usually talk to each other—the tycoon with the student,” said Kleinschmidt, breaking into a rare grin. “I love doing that. Throw people together. Let ideas fly.”

“I don’t want to be stuck anymore with the bureaucracy and jealousy you find in big organizations,” he continued. “I know from what we have achieved in Zaatari that I can bring this to the next generation of refugee camps.”

He has personal reasons too. Kleinschmidt has by now fathered five children, and adopted a sixth, with four women in various places. “I want to spend more time with my family,” he said. “Otherwise, I will lose my family. Again.”

For now, though, he needs money to get the project off the ground. Since leaving the U.N., Kleinschmidt has been busy hustling for support, giving talks and holding meetings from Paris to New York. More recently, he has taken a prominent role helping the Austrian government cope with the waves of incoming refugees.

Kleinschmidt’s new project may or may not be a solution. But there’s no denying the scale and seriousness of the refugee crisis, or that crisis is only getting worse. In October, a fresh surge of fighting drove another 120,000 Syrians from their homes.