The Brutal Reality For Syrians Inside Jordanian Refugee Camp

Zaatari camp, a “town” of transit for 1,500 to 2,000 refugees
Zaatari camp, a “town” of transit for 1,500 to 2,000 refugees

ZAATARI – The Khamsin is what they call the desert wind that blows in gusts, blocking your sight with an opaque fog, burning your eyes and lungs at the same time. Scruffy-looking kids are pushing makeshift carts through the mini windstorm, piles of clothes and kitchen tools almost falling off them, as ghost-like figures of men and women emerge from the swirl of dust, heading towards unknown places.

The Jordanian town of Zaatari depicts a weak, swarming mass of humanity that has crossed the border from Syria, putting to the test this nation’s legendary hospitality.

“Considering this country is home to just six million people, it’s a considerable effort for them to harbor 500,000 refugees," says Patrice Dumont Saint-Priest, the French head of a medical aid group Tamour. "Could you imagine France with 5.4 million refugees?”

The Hashemite kingdom’s attitude towards the recurrent flux of refugees throughout the years –from Palestine then Iraq- has always been generous, but it’s not the only thing that strikes us in Zaatari.

Back in Amman, Ayman Arabeyat, from the Jordanian interior ministry, had warned us: “Stay alert, it’s become a dangerous place. Last time I went there, my car windows were all smashed by people throwing rocks!”

It didn't take long to confirm his preoccupation: as we arrived at the camp entrance, we noticed that every window of the checkpoint were broken. Even the people in charge of humanitarian organizations and the security forces agree on this point. Zaatari camp for the Syrian refugees is home to 110,000 people. It has largely become a lawless place where local mafias are enforcing their own justice, and violent demonstrations have become more and more common.

But this situation won’t last, at least that is the plan. Colonel Zaher Abu Shehab heads a unit of about 500 policemen in charge of border security and, in theory, the camp itself. He has sworn to “enforce Jordanian law,” in what used to be a 12-square-kilometer no man’s land.

Shehab says that since 90% of the refugees were from the same place – Deraa, a Syrian city a few kilometers north of the border - they wanted to create neighborhood committees. "So we let them do just that, but then people started complaining more and more,” he said. The complaints? The emergence of gang leaders and illicit trafficking.

After nightfall

The Colonel acknowledged the fact that “they received humanitarian aid, and were not distributing it back equally between the people.” That was an understatement. The UN organizations provided tents, bags of rice, sugar and flour which were then sold back to the highest bidder, sometimes a few yards away from the distribution centers. Kilian Tobias Kleinschmidt, coordinator for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) noted that the gangs were also reselling water and electricity, organizing prostitution, perpetrating sexual harassment and even rape after nightfall.

Kleinschmidt strides through the camp with confidence, but says he stays careful too. He's given himself four months to bring order back into this camp. “There is not even a hint of hierarchy, the clan leaders tend to believe they are still in Syria!”

“It has some of the characteristics of a Brazilian favela shantytown,” observed the UNHCR coordinator. You have to take this camp as if it was a city, with a dozen different districts, Jordanian state employees and “police stations,” streets and addresses.

“I’m the mayor of Zaatari now,” he quips. On the “Champs-Elysées,” the main street, series of shops and stalls have been installed. The owners pay a tax to the gang leaders who may extort up to 1000 euros. Grilled chicken shop owner Hassan has no complaints. He buys his poultry at two Jordanian dinars (a little over 2 euros) a piece and sells them back at 4.50 dinars. At the end of the months, he’s 6000 euros richer!

“We are currently teaching lessons to the bad guys: we will step on your turf and cut ourselves a slice of what you make,” says Kleinschmidt.

The local mafiosi have names: Abu Ghassem, Abu Hawad, Abu Khalil, Abu Salim. The punishment remains to be delivered. Colonel Abu Shehab assures us that sanctions will be taken and that a prosecutor and 200 policemen will settle within the camp and that violence will be punished, though rather carefully. “We won’t use brute force, these are still refugees.”

They are indeed refugees, but they are hard to keep an eye on. Zaatari is a “town” of transit. For the 1,500 to 2,000 refugees flowing in everyday at the border, three or four buses of them -- about 300 people -- are going back to Syria. The ones returning are families who were told by neighbors that their region was safe again; peasants eager to look after their crops or cattle. There are also the fighters, some of whom have had injuries patched up, heading back to the frontline.

The buses stop at the border and those going back to their homes have to continue by foot from there, helped by the silent coordination of the Jordanian army and the Syrian state army or, depending on the areas and the moments, the Free Syrian Army rebels.

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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