Marka Refugee Camp

Marka Refugee Camp

Marka Refugee Camp

November 2022
Dina Dahood Dabash

Marka Camp is the second largest camp in Jordan and one of the six emergency camps established by UNRWA in 1968 to house Palestinians who fled the West Bank and the Gaza Strip during and after the June 1967 war. The camp is in Russeifa, a city in Zarqa Governorate located in Zarqa River basin, northeast of Amman. The camp occupies an area of 0.92 square kilometers and currently hosts more than 40,000 refugees. 

Origins of the Camp 

After the 1967 war, many Palestine refugees sought immediate shelter in the closest places to their home villages. Many took refuge in Ghor Kibid and Ghor Nimrein in Balqa Governorate in the eastern part of the Jordan Valley. Israeli air raids in 1968 forced more than 15,000 Palestine refugees to flee again, this time to Marka Camp. 

The majority of the population in Marka Camp are from the Gaza region: Gaza (21%), Burayr (2%), and Yasur (1%). The other inhabitants are from different places across Palestine, including Ajjur (13%), Beersheba (9%), Jaffa (8%), Jenin (7.5%), Haifa (7%), al-Dawayima (6%), Kafr Ni'ma (5.5%), Dayr al-Dubban (5%), Jericho (5%), Bayt Nattif (2%), Al-Zakariyya (2%), Al-Qubeiba (1.50%), Dayr Nakhkhas (1%), Yalu (1%), and Bayt Kahil (1%). Not all Palestine refugees have the same status in Jordan. While most of them were granted Jordanian citizenship, those from the Gaza Strip, which was under Egyptian military administration, were not and were later referred to as ex-Gazans. However, all Palestine refugees who were granted Jordanian citizenship maintain their refugee status and their right of return.

The camp was established partially on state land or khazeena, and the government rented the remaining plot from an individual proprietor from the Da'ja tribe. The fertile land of Marka Camp was soon divided into lots where UNRWA gave each family a 12 x 9 meter plot of land and a tent. Months later, UNRWA replaced the tents with 3 x 4 meter asbestos units, which offered better protection in harsh weather. (Asbestos use was discontinued in the late 1980s because it was found to be associated with health risks.) The better-off refugees managed to build one or more brick-walled and zinc-roofed rooms, which led to the horizontal expansion of the camp. Until 1988, Marka consisted of one-story clusters incrementally self-constructed by the refugees. As a direct result of the remittances from the Gulf during the 1970s and the 1990s, and because the majority of the refugees in Marka had Jordanian citizenship, they could thus own property around the camp as the population increased. 

Refugee camps in Jordan usually have more than one name that is used interchangeably: an UNRWA name based on the camp's geographical location, the government's name given to it, which is bound to historical events, and a community name that is mainly related to the history of the place. The official name recognized by the Department of Palestinian Affairs (DPA) is Hittin, referring to a battle dating to the twelfth century. UNRWA named the camp Marka, after the district northeast of Amman where it is located, which is also the name of the civil airport that acts as a prominent landmark for the locals. The community refers to it as Schneller in reference to the German orphanage and school, which was a prominent landmark when the camp was established.


Until the mid-1980s, the Jordanian government did not permit the building of more than one-story dwellings and a basement, mainly as an effort to preserve the temporary appearance of the camp. However, those regulations were not strictly enforced, and the local authorities did not remove or fine households that built additional floors or used shared water and electricity meters within the official borders of the camp. When the DPA took responsibility for physical governance of the camps in 1988, the building of an additional story was officially permitted. In 1997, the DPA permitted the addition of a second story after it conducted a socioeconomic assessment of the camp’s households in Jordan.

During the first years of its establishment, the sanitary facilities in Marka were public, and camp neighborhoods had shared lavatories. Water points were also distributed along the camp's main roads, and women collected the water from these common water points and carried them back to their shelters. When water was cut off, women used to secure the water from Zarqa River, about 500 meters from the camp. Some recalled that the adjacent Schneller School also provided the camp with water for four years, which was almost the only interaction between the camp and the neighboring German school. 

In the early 1970s, electricity was supplied through locally initiated shareholding that generated distributed electricity to the camp. The public electricity and water networks were extended to the camp in the mid-1980s.

The domestic wastewater (gray water) in the camp was drained through exposed channels that ran across the camp, while black water was discharged into a percolation pit under each shelter. Marka Camp was connected to the public sewage network in the early 1990s.

Socioeconomic Conditions

During the early years of the camp, UNRWA distributed rations of basic items such as wheat and grains. At that time, even the poorest refugees planted vegetables in the spaces inside their shelters; some families even raised poultry in small inner barns. Yet that was not enough to meet the food needs of the families; consequently, a few months after the tents were set up, small shops opened close to UNRWA Street inside the camp. Mohammad Aiesh, a barber, Younis, a teashop owner, and Al-Jojo Restaurant were among the first shops that opened in the camp. They formed the nucleus of the camp's main market, where fresh commodities could be found for more affordable prices than the city. The market soon started to attract customers from the neighboring areas, and it grew to the extent that Bedouins from the Bani Hasan and Da’ja tribes, who used to live around the camp, referred to the camp as al-souq (the market). However, the prices of the camp's main market were still too high for many Palestinian refugees, especially those from Gaza, who were often poorer than the other residents. Toward the end of the 1970s, another market with more affordable goods was established, al-Ghazazwa market.

Like all Palestinian refugees residing in the official camps in Jordan, the residents of Marka had the right to use the land but not to own it. (The "right of use" is a term established by the UN agencies to indicate the temporary state of the camp.) As a result, the camp automatically fell outside the national regulatory milieu regarding taxation. The tax-free goods attracted more customers who sought good quality goods for affordable prices; this may also be one of the reasons that most Palestinian refugee camps in Jordan host vibrant markets. One major implication is that camps become economic zones where minimum fees are paid for establishing businesses inside the official borders of the camp. Soon Russeifa's center was shifted closer to the camp, attracting many customers from the adjacent neighborhoods and creating a fertile zone to host factories in the surroundings, which later employed many residents from Marka.

While Russeifa hosted few factories before the 1970s, the area became a prime location for factories and businesses during the late 1970s and 1980s, attracting investors from Jordan and other countries because of its cheap labor force and proximity to Amman. Those factories mainly absorbed the labor force from Marka Camp and its surroundings. The great economic activity during this period led to the establishment of the Amman–Zarqa highway. On the national level, the natural population growth combined with the improving financial means of the population drove the urban expansion along the Zarqa–Russeifa–Amman corridor. By the mid-1970s, unemployment in Jordan virtually disappeared and more than 25 percent of the domestic labor force was working in the Gulf. 

Marka Camp acted as an anchor point for the town of Marka, whose socioeconomic and spatial activities gravitated toward the camp exclusively. The economic situation of refugee families with members working in the Gulf improved; families in the camp received remittances, which they used to expand their dwellings (among other areas of spending). This activity was not limited to the camp's official borders but expanded to include the areas adjacent to the camp. It is worth noting that the main criterion while relocating outside the camp is the extent of the plot's proximity to the camp, because the refugees aimed to live as close as possible to their families and relatives living in the camp. Consequently, with such a remarkable increase in the demand for the land around the camp, the price of the low-priced plots originally used for pasturing started to command high prices. Many landowners sold their land to Marka Camp residents. This situation has led to a direct physical and social extension of the camp’s boundaries almost in all directions. The camp has evolved over time as an affordable destination for migrant workers such as Bangladeshis and for Syrian refugees. 

The transformation of the camp’s “operational” boundaries is also linked to the education, health, and relief services that UNRWA has provided to the camp population since its establishment. UNRWA runs 10 double-shift schools and one health center in Marka. Targeting people’s status rather than their place of residence, UNRWA works with all Palestine refugees, whether they live inside or outside the camps. This practice has led to many human and socioeconomic movements, amplifying the spatial permeability of the camp in general and making the borders of Marka Camp porous. It has turned the camp's site into a catchment zone for all the refugees from the surrounding areas.

Many inhabitants shed light on pivotal moments in the camp's history, like the establishment of the vocational training program at UNRWA that helped Palestine refugees enter the labor market in Jordan and abroad. UNRWA's well-established education system (including primary education and vocational training) equipped the city of Russeifa with a well-educated population ready to feed the labor market in Jordan as well as the region, especially during the oil boom in the 1970s, when the Gulf market absorbed a remarkable number of professionals (engineers, teachers, doctors, etc.). In addition, the strict regulations for female workers in the Gulf necessitated that females who got work opportunities (mainly as teachers) be escorted by a male relative of a first degree, who would eventually find a job in the same city, resulting in a "chain migration" among the refugees.


In Jordan, the international community and the government share the responsibility of serving and supporting Palestine refugees who reside the camps. The Ministry of Refugees in Jordan (1949–1950) was the official governmental entity that tackled all issues related to Palestine refugees. This task was taken over by the Ministry of Construction and Restoration (1950–1980), the Ministry of the Occupied Land Affairs (1980–1988), and since 1988, by the DPA. On the humanitarian level, UNRWA took over responsibility from the Red Cross in 1949 and has been the primary service provider to Palestine refugees since their forced exile from Palestine. The agency has provided human development and humanitarian services, including primary and vocational education, primary health care, relief, social services, and infrastructure in the camps. 

Civil Society Institutions

The camp enjoys a strong social fabric that supports its residents in various ways, ranging from connecting to economic opportunities to conflict resolution. During the first years, prominent figures played a vital role in the indirect governance of the camp and were considered official spokespersons with the Jordanian government. At the same time, the camp witnessed several collective initiatives to improve the living conditions of the people; one example is the founding of the electricity cooperative that provided electricity to the camp for several years in the 1970s. Currently, the Camp Improvement Committee, established by the DPA and consisting of camp residents, plays a similar role by acting as a mediator between the community and the Jordanian government. 

Various committees and NGOs are active in the camp and provide services and activities, such as the women's program center and the sports club.

Selected Bibliography: 

Abu Athreh, Kawthar. Interview with the author. Marka Camp, Amman, Jordan, 2020.

Awajan, Kamal. Interview with the author. Marka Camp, Amman, Jordan, 2020.

Encyclopaedia Britannica. Gaza Strip. 2000. https://www.britannica.com/place/Gaza-Strip

Al Husseini, Jalal, and R. Bocco. “The Status of the Palestinian Refugees in the Near East: The Right of Return and UNRWA in Perspective.” Refugee Survey Quarterly 28 (2009): 260–85.

Al-Khalaileh, Ibrahim. Interview with the author. Russeifa, Jordan, 2020.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates. Department of Palestinian Affairs. 2003.


Razzaz, Omar. “Contested Space: Urban Settlement around Amman.” Middle East Report 181, 1993.

UNRWA. Protection in Jordan. 2018. https://www.unrwa.org/what-we-do/protection


UNRWA. UNRWA—Who We Are. 2023. https://www.unrwa.org/?page=1