On the beat in Zaatari

How UK aid is helping keep Syrians safe in the world’s second largest refugee camp.


Lieutenant Ahmad M’Jalli puts on his beret and steps out of his office into the searing heat of northern Jordan.

He’s a community police officer with what has to be one of the most unusual patrols in the world: his police station is in the middle of the Za’atari refugee camp, which is home to over 80,000 Syrian refugees — and he’s been trained with the help of former British police officers.

A few months ago, Lieutenant M’Jalli wouldn’t have been walking around Za’atari on foot. The Jordanian police would only come into the camp then by vehicle if there was a security incident or a reported crime. Many refugees were nervous of the police due to the experiences they’d had in Syria. Relations were not good.

But, in early 2014, at the request of the Jordanian Syrian Refugee Affairs Directorate (SRAD), and the Syrian refugee community in Za’atari themselves, the British embassy in Jordan stepped in and helped to set up a Community Policing Team led by former British police officers, to provide training in community policing to the Jordanian police.

The result is greatly improved trust between the Syrian refugees and the police, and a team of Jordanian community police officers who are now confident to patrol Zaatari on foot, providing improved, visible security for the Syrian refugees there.

Lieutenant Ahmad M’Jalli of the Jordanian community policing team in the Za’atari camp. Russell Watkins/DFID

Lieutenant M’Jalli explains what a difference the project has made:

“We’ve seen huge changes for the better, in terms of health and safety, and in terms of the refugees accepting the police inside the camp”, he says.

“In the beginning the Syrian people were a bit afraid of us but since the Community Police have been trained here, they have accepted the idea of having police inside the camp, partly because they see that we have provided assistance in many, many ways.

“This is what we’d hoped for from the beginning and I think we’ve accomplished it.”

By providing training in street skills, negotiation and problem solving, the Community Policing Support Team (PST) from the British Embassy in Amman aimed to help build the Jordanian officers’ confidence to patrol on foot in the camp.

Stephen Boddy is the team leader for the Policing Support Team. Before that, he was a community police officer for nearly 30 years in Belfast, Northern Ireland. He explains how the project is working:

“We’ve been here for about 18 months now, and it’s great to see that we’ve now got community police officers patrolling inside Za’atari.

“We’ve been training the community police here on a number of things. We’ve trained them to be pro-active, so that they can identify any problems arising inside the camp before they turn into larger issues.

“They now see their primary role as a humanitarian one, helping to understand the challenges the refugees face, and helping them to access services from the humanitarian agencies inside the camp.

“Yes they’re there to enforce the law, but they’re also there to protect the refugees, look out for their interests, and to make them feel safe in the community.”

Immediately after the influx of Syrians to Jordan there was a pressing need to establish a safe environment in which the refugees could be accommodated and provided with humanitarian assistance. Initially, many residents in Za’atari felt uncomfortable leaving their homes for fear of assault, harassment and/or exploitation.

In November 2013 the PST commissioned a survey of Za’atari refugee vamp residents and found that only 13% of males and 12% of females felt ‘very safe’ walking alone in the camp. As a result of this feeling of being unsafe, they felt that their access to essential humanitarian assistance was restricted.

This also hindered the dissemination of important information about how they could access such services and about their rights, entitlements and obligations in Jordan. The community police team now provide information and advice about services that are available and often either refer people to appropriate agencies or follow up with the agencies themselves.

Mahmoud al-Masri was one of the very first Syrian refugees to arrive in Za’atari. He’s now a community leader in the camp, and agrees that the situation there has improved as a result of the community police team.

Mahmoud al-Masri, one of the first Syrians to arrive in Za’atari. Picture: RussellWatkins/DFID

“I’ve been here for just over 2 years. I was one of the first people to meet the community police when they started patrolling on foot in the camp”, he says.

“They are definitely helping here. People in the camp have begun to trust them. When people see their officers now, they will go up to them and talk to them, and they will try to help them.

“It’s safer here now.”

Since then, the PST has been training, mentoring and providing material support to Community Police in the refugee camps at Za’atari and nearby Azraq. Community Policing Teams now operate on foot within the camps where previously Jordanian police would not routinely patrol even by vehicle.

Targets for female participation and representation in the Community Police have also been set, to help make it easier for vulnerable women and girls to contact the police. There are currently eight trained female officers in Za’atari — and there are plans to train a further 10 female police officers this year.

2nd Lieutenant Abeer al-Mesayeed, one of eight female officers in the Za’atari community police team. Pictures: Russell Watkins/DFID

One of them is 2nd Lieutenant Abeer al-Mesayeed, who explains the importance of having women police officers in the camp:

“Of course, female refugees appreciate the fact that there are female police officers here as well as male ones”, she says.

“Women here find it easier to deal with other women, rather than with a man. I can talk to women about sensitive issues such as domestic or other forms of abuse. So it’s important that we have female officers here to help the female refugees.”

The evidence that the community policing project is working is plain to see. As officers M’Jalli and Al-Mesayeed walk down Za’atari’s main street — the so-called ‘Champs Elysees’ — a Syrian refugee woman comes up to them to report a case of domestic abuse. She covers her face in front of the male officers, but the fact that she feels confident enough to approach the police in public is a good sign.

The officers take down the details and immediately head off into the maze of temporary buildings and shelters that make up the Za’atari camp, to track down the family concerned. A man is spoken to, although in this instance the family does not want to take the matter further. Lieutenant M’Jalli says that they will now follow up and keep in touch with the family over the coming days to make sure everything is OK.

On patrol on Za’atari’s main shopping street, the so-called ‘Champs Elysees’

In addition to the police officers, earlier this year, a 24-hour community police station has recently been opened, the first of its kind to ever be built inside a refugee camp. The station is complete with a ‘privacy room’ for women and small children, and is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week and will be augmented by a custom-­built mobile police station — all aimed at making it as easy as possible for refugees to contact the police if they need them.

Beyond the camps

Outside Azraq and Za’atari, close to 80% of Syrian refugees in Jordan live in non-­‐camp settings, with the majority having settled in the northern governorates of Amman, Irbid and Mafraq. The British Embassy Policing Support Team is now conducting research into the social, economic and security situation for Syrian refugees in the north of Jordan, and working with the Jordanian Police to identify ways to meet refugees policing needs in these areas.

The PST is a made up of team of security-sector consultants and practitioners. Acting upon the Jordanian Government’s request for assistance in the handling of the humanitarian and development challenges posed by the conflict in neighbouring Syria, the PST is providing strategic advice, training and mentoring to the civil security services in Jordan.

These interventions aim to enhance the public safety capabilities of the Jordanian police forces, and improve their response to the safety and security needs of Syrian refugees in Jordan and their host-communities. The PST is financed by the British Government’s Conflict, Stability and Security Fund and is part of UK support to Jordan totalling more than £70 million ($110m) this year alone.