Jordan: Risk of humanitarian disaster as 12,000 Syrian refugees stranded in 'no man's land'

Image: Satellite imagery of refugee shelters at the Rukban border crossing on the border of Syria and Jordan. © CNES 2015, Distribution AIRBUS DS 

Jordan must take immediate action to assist up to 12,000 refugees who have been denied entry to the country and are struggling to survive in desperate, freezing conditions in “no man’s land” on the Jordanian side of the border with Syria, said Amnesty International today. Those stranded include pregnant women, young children, elderly people and people suffering from serious medical conditions.

Testimony from Syrian refugees and international aid workers in Jordan collected during a recent research trip to the country, suggests that hundreds of refugees have been arriving on a daily basis in recent weeks but have been denied access to Jordan by the authorities. Analysis of satellite imagery also confirms that the number of refugees arriving at the border has increased in recent months.

The authorities have given no official reason why they are refusing access to the refugees. Since 2011 Jordan has granted refuge to more than 632,000 Syrian refugees but its policy on allowing entry to those fleeing the conflict has become increasingly restrictive.

Sherif Elsayed-Ali said:

“As the conflict in Syria continues, it is critical that Jordan, and Syria’s other neighbouring countries, keep their borders open to those fleeing bloodshed or persecution. By denying sanctuary to civilians seeking safety on their soil, the Jordanian authorities are fuelling a humanitarian disaster on their doorstep.

"It is clear that Jordan and other countries in the region are under incredible strain from the influx of refugees. However, the Jordanian authorities cannot watch as thousands of desperate refugees fight for their lives in the freezing cold with little access to food, clean water or warm clothing and shelter.

“The international community must also do much more to help support Jordan and share responsibility of tackling this crisis.”

The UNHCR announced yesterday that that the number of refugees on the Syria-Jordan border has risen sharply since the start of November, from 4,000 to 12,000 following the recent intensification of conflict in Syria. UNHCR figures also show registered new arrivals of Syrians in Jordan have dropped significantly from 310,000 people in 2013 to 82,400 people in 2014 and just 25,532 by October this year.

Jordan is one of five countries in the region which collectively host 95% of refugees from Syria, and it is struggling to cope with the added strain of this influx. Only 52% of Jordan’s humanitarian funding requirements for refugees have been met by international donors. The authorities are calling on the international community to substantially increase their commitments.

Struggling to survive in dire conditions

Since this build-up of refugees at the border zone began in July last year, the authorities have restricted access to the area for international organisations. Evidence gathered by Amnesty suggests that refugees waiting there are facing appalling conditions.

During winter, temperatures in the desert border zone can plunge to freezing. Refugees stranded there are living in makeshift shelters with dwindling supplies and are bracing themselves for even more hardship as the coldest winter months approach. They have limited access to food, water, blankets and medical supplies provided by international aid agencies.

Warde, a Syrian woman in her sixties, was only allowed into Jordan in July this year after one of the border guards eventually took pity on her. She had been stranded in no-man’s land for a month along with around 2,000 others. They relied on handouts from international aid agencies for food and non-food items, surviving on one meagre meal a day.

She told Amnesty:

“We stayed in the dirt…It was terrible… We made our own tents with our blankets – we would sew them together… as protection against the sun and the wind.

“Some children and women died there while they were waiting and they were buried there. Others left to go back to Syria … When I told a [Jordanian] solider ‘I am an old woman and I’ll die here’ he said ‘there’s a shovel over there, we can dig your grave’.”

The rise in the number of Syrians on Jordan’s borders in recent months is the result of an intensification of hostilities inside Syria combined with the fact that the two other countries neighbouring Syria that have received considerable numbers of refugees - Lebanon and Turkey - have also effectively closed their borders.

The Jordanian authorities must also lift restrictions on international organisations seeking to provide assistance to refugees who are seeking to enter Jordan, said Amnesty.

The international community must urgently step up its commitment both in terms of humanitarian and other financial assistance to Jordan and by resettling greater numbers of refugees from Syria.  

Satellite imagery evidence

Satellite images have shown an increase in the number of shelters at the Rukban border crossing since last year.

Yesterday, Human Rights Watch released satellite imagery taken on 5 December showing more than 1,450 makeshift shelters on the crossing. Amnesty’s analysis of earlier satellite imagery on 25 September shows 705 shelters compared with 175 identified by Human Rights Watch on 20 April. Prior to this, on 3 November last year the UN’s analysis of imagery showed 155 structures while in July 2014 it showed 90 shelters.

Analysis of satellite images of Hadalat border crossing also shows an increase in number of shelters. Images obtained by Amnesty for 15 October show 92 shelters compared to 70 seen on satellite imagery analysed by the UN for 21 April.

The shelters are mainly made of blankets, tarpaulin and other materials. According to aid workers and refugees who have come through the border, each makeshift shelter holds six or more people, sometimes up to 20 people, including many children.

Amnesty believes that anyone from Syria seeking asylum should be considered to be in need of international protection due to the widespread human rights abuses being committed in the conflict, including war crimes and crimes against humanity. Closing the border to those in need of asylum is in violation of the principle of non-refoulement – the obligation not to return individuals to a situation where they would be at risk of persecution or human rights abuses. 

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