Picture: The West Australian/Steve Pennells

This is the stark face of the biggest humanitarian crisis since World War II.

In four days time, this collection of empty buildings in the middle of the Jordanian desert will receive its first wave of Syrian refugees.

In a matter of weeks, its population will be more than that of Bunbury, Geraldton and Kalgoorlie combined.

While other refugee camps, such as Kenya's Dadaab, have held more people in loose settlements which have grown around them, Azraq is the biggest planned refugee camp in history.

The Weekend West was the only media organisation given access to the military- controlled airspace above the desert settlement, just 70km from the Syrian border, to get the first photographs of the world's newest refugee camp.

Azraq will eclipse the headline-making Zaatari camp that was built less than two years ago and is already Jordan's fourth biggest population centre with 107,000 refugees.

It is being built to hold at least 130,000. But even this will not be enough.

As Syria continues to bleed its people through its borders at a rate of hundreds and sometimes thousands each day, this newest camp, constructed in one of the harshest terrains on the planet, is expected to absorb only six months of the influx.

The unprecedented scale of the place lays bare the staggering impact of Syria's bloody implosion.

With no end to the civil war in sight, the flight of more than 2.5 million people from Syria over the past three years is showing all the signs of becoming a permanent population shift, mirroring the movement of Palestinians during the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict and the 1967 Six-Day War.

One in 10 people in Jordan is a Syrian refugee.

As he stood on a hill overlooking Azraq, the UN refugee agency UNHCR's representative to Jordan, Andrew Harper, conceded the five-year goal for the camp's lifespan was optimistic.

Picture: The West Australian/Steve Pennells

"In the last 12 months we've had 400,000 people cross the border into Jordan," he said. "We expect another 200,000 before the end of the year. And then who can predict what's going to come in 2015?"

Azraq's sister camp Zaatari gained international attention when it was built in 10 days to house refugees fleeing from Syria across Jordan's eastern border.

This new settlement - stretching over 40sqkm with 103km of road - has been 10 months in the making.

Zaatari was built on the edge of the desert, but Azraq is in even more unforgiving terrain, making the supply of water one of the biggest challenges. In the next two months, the number of buildings in this picture will increase fivefold to 25,000 as the UNHCR scrambles to build new shelters to cope with the influx of refugees, who will be taken by bus from the border crossing points.

The camp has cost $64 million so far.

The UNHCR's budget for the 600,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan alone is more than half a million dollars a day.

Zaatari has grown into a veritable city.

Since The Weekend West visited the camp nine months ago, refugees have begun to adapt their tents and caravans into something resembling homes.

But the Syrian border is only 17km away and the reminders of what they have fled are constant.

Some nights, the bombing across the border is so intense that the ground beneath the camp shakes.


The West Australian

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