Britain, the European Union and various United Nations welfare agencies combined over the past 16 months to build the world’s second-biggest and best refugee camp. The tent city stands in the baking Jordanian desert, 55 miles from the Syrian border, and today it lacks for only one thing: refugees.
The instant model city should host up to 130,000 Syrians fleeing their nation’s crippling civil war and ministers assured Parliament that this camp showed taxpayers they should be rest assured Britain’s response to Europe’s worst refugee crisis since the Second World War is on par with other global efforts.
The Mail on Sunday reports that the evidence is less than a reassurance and more a symbol of bureaucratic ineptitude. The camp is filled with rows of simple zinc and steel huts. Each cost £1,300 since they are specially made to cope with searing heat in summer and strong winds in winter; last year, there was even snow.
Yet two of the four completed ‘villages’ – each intended to host 15,000 refugees – are spectacularly empty of clients.
It was just weeks ago Foreign Office Minister Tobias Ellwood used the camp to boast in the House of Commons of British benevolence.
“I am pleased to say that we are seeing how well British money is spent,” he told MPs after inspecting camps in Jordan. “It is clear refugees want to stay in the region.”
Trouble is, even the UNHCR admits Azraq is a total failure, despite decent security. “It has not filled, that’s our biggest problem,” Paul Stromberg, deputy representative for Jordan, told the newspaper. “It’s in a harsh climate and we’ve not been able to build the lives there we wanted.”
Stromberg said they created the camp when higher numbers were arriving from Syria. Since then, the flood slowed after Jordan started vetting refugees to stop militants while tens of thousands of other prospective clients simply went to Turkey and crossed into Europe to seek a new life on the Continent rather than wait in a city in the sand.
Britain’s Department for International Development says it cannot break down how much it spent on Azraq. But it has handed £115 million to UNHCR since the start of the Syrian crisis and £227 million to the World Food Programme, along with many millions to charities active inside camps.
Some aid chiefs criticise the focus on camps. “The conditions are so bad people prefer to live in extreme poverty or risk their lives on boats to Europe,” one senior official is quoted by the Mail. Nigel Pont, Mercy Corps’ regional director for the Middle East, told a House of Commons inquiry last year “disproportionate’ sums were spent providing help in camps since it was ‘easier’.”
Britain is a significant contributor to global aid. Earlier this year, it became the first country in the G7 to honour its commitment to ringfencing 0.7 per cent of gross national income for foreign aid.
That means that 7p of every £10 raised from UK taxpayers is spent on overseas development. In 2013, this amounted to £11.4bn. Provisional figures for 2014 suggest the figure rose to £11.8bn last year.
When Azraq opened on a site selected by Jordan, UN officials boasted it had been planned carefully after studying shortcomings of other refugee camps and Britain insisted this would “enhance the delivery of services”.
On the evidence, the only thing being serviced is the deep pockets of international welfare services, with British taxpayers footing the bill through the mushrooming foreign aid budget.