Muhammad Hamed / Reuters Syrian refugees after crossing the border into Jordan, December 2013.

Amman's Refugee Waiting Game

The Time Bomb on Jordan's Border

Abdal Salam Hameed, 52, has been stranded in Rukban, a refugee camp situated in the scorching desert at the edge of Jordan’s northeast border with Syria, since March 2016. He fled here from Homs to escape the Syrian civil war and find security for his family. But the camp he inhabits, which houses approximately 80,000 displaced Syrians over a hundred miles from the closest city, has seen only one UN food shipment since January, and is without a single professional medical facility. “The situation in Rukban is catastrophic,” he said. According to the UN, approximately 80 percent of those stranded in Rukban are women and children. A father of eight, Hameed requested permission from the Jordanian government for one of his sons to receive treatment for an ongoing heart problem, but was denied. He also lamented that without formal schooling in the camp, some of his children do not even know how to write their own names. “It’s as if we are living in the Stone Age,” he said. 

After the outbreak of Syria’s civil war in 2011, Jordan opened its doors to Syrian refugees. According to UN figures, the country has absorbed at least 659,000 Syrian refugees over the last six years, behind only Turkey and Lebanon. (The Jordanian government says the real number is around 1.4 million.) But in July 2014, Amman changed its mind. It began blocking thousands of Syrian asylum seekers from entering the country, stranding them near Rukban, in an international no-man’s land that aid officials call “the berm.” Given the close proximity to the Jordanian border, residents fled to this isolated desert camp to escape the Assad regime and Russian airstrikes.

Unlike the formal refugee camps inside Jordan, such as Za’atari or Azraq, where Jordanian forces provide security, in Rukban, no Hashemite military brigade or police force operates regularly inside the area. Partly as a result, chaos reigns. During the past year, at least eight bombs have exploded in the berm, most recently on May 16, and frequent clashes between militant groups within the camp, including ISIS, the Free Syrian Army, and other Syrian rebel groups, have further inflamed tensions. Given the lack of reliable media access to the berm—entry from Syria is dangerous, while entry from Jordan is restricted by the government—the number of attacks could be far higher.

Then in June 2016, Islamic State militants (also known as ISIS) drove a truck filled with explosives into a border outpost near Rukban, killing seven Jordanian security personnel and sending shockwaves across the country. Although King Abdullah had promised in early 2016 to allow 20,000 Syrians from Rukban into Jordan, reportedly due to pressure from then-U.S. President Barack Obama, the June bombing completely changed his calculus. Jordan swiftly declared the entire area a closed military zone and cut off food and medical assistance until August 2016, arguing that the berm crisis was no longer the country’s problem, even though the UN and Western donors had been funding the entire humanitarian program. The cuts led to severe malnutrition, with respiratory tract infections and acute water diarrhea spreading, especially among children. Although Amman eventually allowed extremely limited aid to resume, the situation remains tenuous. Speaking on the condition of anonymity so as not to upset the Jordanian government, one international aid official noted that since the beginning of the berm crisis, over a dozen children in Rukban have died from lack of access to health care, with makeshift graveyards visible in satellite imagery. Despite the humanitarian crisis, Amman has refused to allow the refugees to resettle in Jordan.

Despite the humanitarian crisis, Amman has refused to allow the refugees to resettle in Jordan. As Oraib Rantawi, the director of the Amman-based Quds Center for Political Studies explained in an interview, the Syrians stuck at the border “will never be allowed to enter Jordan, no question about that. We are not going to risk our security.” Such sentiments are widespread in the Hashemite Kingdom. Before the border attack, King Abdullah had told the BBC in February 2016 that Jordan had reached its “boiling point” in terms of accepting refugees, warning that “sooner or later, I think, the dam is going to burst.” Many Jordanians are hostile, moreover, to what they see as hypocritical Western preaching about the importance of human rights. Since the beginning of the Syrian war in 2011, the United States, for instance, has absorbed only about 18,000 Syrians seeking asylum, a tiny fraction compared to the resource-poor Hashemite Kingdom. As Rantawi put it, “If there is anybody interested in solving this problem, they can come and take [the refugees] to Europe or Canada.”

Sean Yom, a political scientist at Temple University who maintains regular contact with top Jordanian officials, emphasized that Amman had “no long-term strategy” for solving the berm crisis. Instead, he said, the Jordanian government will “continue kicking the can down the road as long as [it] can until the situation in Syria stabilizes.” In fact, Amman faces a conundrum. Jordan fears that formally admitting Syrians from Rukban into Jordan would create a massive new wave of refugees, as people from Syria would once again begin flocking to Jordan’s borders in order to secure protection. At the same time, by keeping 80,000 Syrians stranded, the Hashemite Kingdom creates a significant security threat for itself as the camp becomes a magnet for militants. Jordan is extremely concerned about the threat of another attack on its own forces, and the numerous recent bombings at Rukban have only intensified its concerns. Finally, King Abdullah argues that ISIS militants have established a strong foothold inside the camp.

Muhammad Hamed / Reuters King Abdullah of Jordan reviews an honor guard in Amman, November 2014.

Indeed, Jordan’s chief of border forces, Brigadier General Sami Kafawin, announced in February that ISIS’ presence has strengthened in the berm. Yet Adam Coogle, an Amman-based researcher for Human Rights Watch, criticized official rhetoric tying the 80,000 refugees with ISIS. Such statements, he said, “can be used to obscure the fact that these are people who are really suffering,” adding that the refugees have “fled severe persecution and request humanitarian assistance.”

Assistance has not been forthcoming. Although a UN clinic has been established near Rukban, it has severe limitations. The Jordanian government only permits the UN facility to accept approximately 20 to 30 patients per day—a rate that meets only about 10 percent of the camp population’s medical needs, according to an informed international humanitarian official. Coogle explained that access to the medical facility is controlled by a militia group within the camp, which “in many ways violates humanitarian principles” since care is supposed to be provided to all those who need it. Khairun Dhala, Amnesty International’s expert on the berm, noted that access to food is so limited that some residents are resorting to prostitution for survival.

Dhala insisted that she and others in the aid community understand Jordan’s “legitimate security concerns,” but were calling on the government to at the very least “allow for unfettered humanitarian access to refugees in Rukban and Hadalat,” another refugee camp nearby. For now, the situation remains grim. The UN’s operation in Rukban is currently one of its most expensive, according to one official I spoke with. Yet camp residents accuse local tribal militias of pilfering the aid, and the insecurity in the region ensures that Western donors have no way of independently verifying that their assistance is reaching its intended targets.

Even if Amman were to allow unrestricted UN access inside the berm, humanitarian officials would still face daunting challenges. Citing the numerous bombings, a European ambassador (who requested anonymity) explained, “There’s a risk of abduction and killings: Which NGO or international organization would send its people to the berm in such an environment?” Adding to the berm’s complexities, European officials explained that the Jordanian government has discussed pushing the refugees four-to-six miles away from the border to create a buffer zone and prevent a repeat of the June 2016 attack. Yet such a proposal would be an enormous logistical challenge, at the very least, and might also violate international law, potentially creating a massive public relations headache for Jordan.

Although 11 informed individuals including senior Western diplomats, human rights officials, and Syrians stranded at the berm were interviewed for this article, Jordanian government spokesman Mohammad al-Momani declined to comment on Jordan’s handling of the humanitarian crisis in the area.

At the very least, Jordan should allow consistent food assistance, increased access for Syrians to the nearby UN medical facility, and more regular referrals of asylum seekers who face medical emergencies to Jordanian hospitals. Absent some change of policy by Amman or the conclusion of the six-year Syrian civil war, the humanitarian challenges, coupled with the mounting threat of extremism in the berm is a ticking time bomb on Jordan’s doorstep. 

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