AZRAQ, Jordan – Jordan opened a third refugee camp Wednesday in the middle of the desert for tens of thousands more Syrians fleeing the civil war, highlighting the staggering strains the refugees are creating in the region.
The sprawling facility, complete with prefabricated cabin-like shelters and a supermarket, is designed to accommodate up to 130,000 people and potentially become the world's second-largest refugee camp.
The inauguration of the Azraq camp comes in the fourth year of the deadly conflict, which has caused about 40 percent of Syria's prewar population of 23 million to flee their homes. The U.N. estimates there are nearly 2.7 million Syrian refugees, mostly in neighboring countries, and another 6.5 million who have been displaced in their homeland.
Thousands continue to flee Syria on a daily basis, escaping relentless carnage that has killed more than 150,000 people in three years. On Wednesday, a Syrian government airstrike hit a school in the northern battleground city of Aleppo, killing at least 19 people, including 10 children, opposition activists reported.
"I hope this is the last refugee community," said Brig. Gen. Waddah Lihmoud, director of Syrian refugee affairs in Jordan, as he officially opened the desert-city.
The $63.5 million Azraq camp is built to hold 130,000 people, he said. Once full — a process expected to take months — it will outstrip the Zaatari camp, currently Jordan's largest camp. Zaatari is actually Jordan's fourth-largest city and the world's second-largest refugee camp after Dadaab in Kenya, which holds nearly 360,000 people from Somalia.
The outpouring of Syrian refugees has had a profound effect on neighboring countries' resources and stability. Jordan already hosts 600,000 registered Syrian refugees, forming 10 percent of the country's population. Jordanian officials estimate the real number is closer to 1.3 million.
Lebanon, a tiny, fragile Arab country with a population of 4.5 million, has more than 1 million registered refugees — the highest per-capita concentration recorded anywhere in the world in recent history, according to the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR.
Unlike Jordan and Turkey, which have set up official camps, many Syrians in Lebanon live in appalling conditions, finding shelter in slums, tents and tin shacks in informal settlements across the country.
The Azraq encampment, set amid a scorching desert landscape, stretches for 9 miles (15 kilometers), and is 55 miles (90 kilometers) from the Syrian border, Lihmoud said. The nearest town, Azraq — from which the camp takes its name — is about 12 miles (20 kilometers) to the west.
Even though it is still early spring, the temperature had climbed to 86 degrees Fahrenheit (30 degrees Celsius), with the tiny, dark stones that are indigenous to the area making it feel hotter. There is no electricity in the camp because of its distance from other communities.
U.N. officials said they would give the residents solar lanterns and erect solar-powered streetlights.
Despite its harsh location, Azraq was built mindful of lessons learned from Zaatari, according to Jordanian officials and aid workers who touted it as one of the best organized camps.
"On the one hand, it looks like a continuing scenario of hopelessness, in the absence of any diplomatic solution to the crisis," said Jack Byrne of the International Rescue Committee, one of the groups overseeing the process. "On the other hand, it's been done very well by Jordanian authorities and urban planners to make it as hospitable as possible."
Azraq has individual shelters with sloped roofs, not flammable tents, and more bathrooms and shared kitchens, as well as a supermarket where Syrians can buy products with rechargeable aid cards instead of lining up for bland, dry donated food. There are medical clinics, schools and parks. The roads are paved.
The camp is divided into smaller units, which organizers hope will foster a sense of community. Each unit of about 10,000 to 15,000 people has its own community center, health clinic, police office, park, and playgrounds and sports fields, the U.N. said.
"What you see when driving around is possibly one of the best refugee camps in the world," said Andrew Harper, the U.N. refugee agency's representative to Jordan.
Zaatari was hastily thrown together when the Syrian crisis first began, as refugees poured across the border. It holds more than 100,000 people, although it was only meant for 85,000, Byrne said. It is widely perceived as a miserable, often dangerous place, where unemployed men hang out and women fear walking at night through dimly lit streets to use the dirty latrines.
There are currently only 247 refugees in Azraq, and all new arrivals to Jordan will be settled there, officials said.
Despite Azraq's new, better-planned facilities, it's unclear if Syrians will choose to flee there. Syrians aren't allowed to work in Jordan, keeping them impoverished and restless. Many work illegally in urban areas, where Syrian refugees prefer to live.
The tiny number of refugees who have arrived said they were relieved to have found a new home.
"The aid groups here haven't denied us anything," said a 20-year-old Syrian man who asked that his name not be used, fearing retaliation from Syrian authorities. He said he fled the central Syrian city of Homs after two of his cousins were killed and the apartment blocks surrounding theirs were destroyed by shelling.
Another Syrian woman in Azraq, also from Homs, said she had to carry her disabled son during her week-long journey to the camp.
"It was a difficult and long road," said the woman, who gave her name as Umm Mohammed and said she had eight children. "Thank God we arrived safely."
For Jordanians, the camp is another sign of the burden they have endured in hosting so many refugees.
"We don't want to celebrate the opening of this camp," said Foreign Minister Nasser Jouda. "We want to celebrate closing it down."
Hadid reported from Beirut.