Syria-Jordan border: 75,000 refugees trapped in 'berm' no-man's land in 'desperate' conditions

Satellite image and screenshot showing a water distribution point at Syrian-Jordan border © CNES 2016, Distribution AIRBUS DS. Screenshot from video obtained via the Tribal Council of Palmyra
Food aid almost non-existent and children dying from hepatitis
 
Satellite images show how camp numbers have swollen dramatically
 
‘It’s a desperate picture for people trapped at the berm - food is running out and disease is rife’ - Tirana Hassan
 
Video footage and satellite images (*see below) showing makeshift grave sites and burial mounds offer a rare glimpse inside a desert no-man’s land between Jordan and Syria where more than 75,000 refugees are stranded and virtually cut off from humanitarian aid, said Amnesty International today.
 
Fresh accounts gathered by Amnesty from people in the area known as the “berm” (sandy ridge), paint a desperate picture of human suffering and highlight the tragic consequences of the world’s failure to share responsibility for the global refugee crisis. Next week, world leaders will gather in New York for two high-level summits to discuss the crisis.
 
The 75,000 Syrian refugees are completely trapped at the berm after the Jordanian authorities sealed off two border crossings - the Rukban and Hadalat crossings - after an attack which killed seven border guards on 21 June. Since then, only one delivery of food aid has been made (in early August) to the tens of thousands of stranded people. Abu Mohamed, who has been living in an informal refugee camp at Rukban for five months, said the situation has deteriorated sharply since the 21 June attack:
 
“The humanitarian situation is very bad; the situation of children in particular is very bad. We have drinking water but hardly any food or milk … [it] is awful. Many people have died … They distributed just rice and lentils and a kilo of dried dates, but that was all for a whole month, they gave us nothing but that. The mood among the people in Rukban is below zero.”
 
A lack of access to proper medical care and dire conditions is a deadly combination, and video footage obtained by Amnesty shows two makeshift grave sites in Rukban revealing dozens of burial mounds near to refugee tents. Poor hygiene, sanitation conditions and limited access to clean water are reported to have led to an outbreak of hepatitis, which is believed to be the leading cause of child deaths in Rukban. Humanitarian sources indicate that since June there have been at least ten hepatitis deaths, with people in Rukban saying many of those who’ve died are children suffering from jaundice as a result of contracting hepatitis.
 
Aid workers have also reported that at least nine childbirth-related deaths have taken place since 21 June and a significant number of pregnant women are reportedly among the refugee population unable to access medical care. Meanwhile, according to sources inside Rukban, in late August a 20-year-old man died from jaundice complications most likely as a result of hepatitis, having reportedly bled to death from gastrointestinal bleeding. A lack of available medical treatment meant nothing could be done to save his life. Meanwhile, among the other most prevalent illnesses spreading in the camp are respiratory infections, dehydration, leishmaniasis (spread by sandflies) and diarrhoea.
 
However, the overall number of deaths at the berm is difficult to verify given a lack of access to the area.
 
Amnesty International’s Crisis Response Director Tirana Hassan said:
 
“It’s a desperate picture for people trapped at the berm - food is running out and disease is rife.
 
“In some cases people are suffering or even dying from preventable illnesses, simply because they are not allowed into Jordan and the authorities have blocked access for aid, medical treatment and a meaningful humanitarian response.
 
“Directly or indirectly forcing refugees to return to Syria by refusing access and imposing intolerable living conditions on them is a flagrant violation of Jordan’s international obligations.
 
“The authorities must allow unfettered humanitarian access to refugees who are trapped.”
 

Satellite images show rising berm population

Satellite images obtained by Amnesty show that since October 2015 the population density near the two informal border camps at Rukban and Hadalat has risen significantly. Although the number of refugees at Hadalat decreased slightly following the halt to the humanitarian response in June and nearby Russian airstrikes in July, overall there has been steady rise in the number of refugees at the berm. At Rukban the overall number of shelters rose from just 368 a year ago to 6,563 in late July, and recently increased to more than 8,295.
 
*Photographs and satellite images are available here.

Jordan justifies border closure on ‘security’ grounds

The Jordanian authorities have repeatedly cited security concerns as their reason for closing the border and halting humanitarian operations at the berm. Jordan’s Minister of State for Media Affairs, Mohammed al-Momani, told Amnesty that the area around the berm is “becoming a Daesh enclave”. While he acknowledged that the humanitarian situation is difficult and said that Jordan is ready to assume its share of responsibility, he also called on the UN and international community to do their fair share for the berm refugees. Jordan has previously welcomed refugees from Syria through its borders and carried out rigorous screening and registration processes prior to allowing their entry into the country. Amnesty insists it can use these processes again to open their doors to refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria, while ensuring security at the same time.
 
The UN is currently negotiating over plans with the Jordanian authorities to shift humanitarian aid distribution points some one-and-half miles into the no-man’s land area, creating a buffer zone to allow humanitarian operations to resume. Amnesty believes, however, that any longer-term solution needs to be a global one. Internationally, resettlement places for refugees from Syria remain woefully insufficient and countries in the region continue to bear the brunt of the refugee crisis, with more than four million refugees in just three countries.
 

New York summits

Syria’s neighbours, including Jordan which is hosting 650,000 refugees, have taken in the vast majority of people fleeing the conflict in Syria, severely straining their resources. Ahead of the two New York summits next week, Amnesty is calling on world leaders to move beyond rhetoric and make concrete commitments to welcome their fair share of refugees, relieving the pressure on countries which are hosting large numbers of refugees. The organisation is also calling on Jordan to grant immediate entry to refugees at the berm.
 

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