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Syrians trapped in desert no man's land

No way forward, no way back from "the berm"

Children at Jordanian side of the no-man's-land camp of Rukban Peter Biro/ECHO
Children at Jordanian side of the no-man's-land camp of Rukban

Some 60,000 Syrians are currently trapped in Rukban and the smaller Hadalat, makeshift camps in a barren slice of desert at the border between Syria and Jordan. Accounts from the settlements describe a lawless no man’s land where healthcare, food, and water are difficult to access. They are places ruled by violence and fear, threatened by disease and where relief is hard to find. With daytime temperatures topping 40 degrees, the fasting month of Ramadan, which started this week, will be particularly gruelling.

These makeshift camps are sandwiched between two ridges of earth and sand (berms). The international border, based on the 1916 Sykes-Picot line, should be somewhere between the berms, built by Syrian and Jordanian authorities to demarcate a demilitarised buffer zone. In recent weeks, it’s become clear the camps are not just temporary way stations, but here to stay, and growing. The little aid that gets in is poorly targeted and monitored.

Jordan is letting in 100-200 each day. But some Syrians are choosing to stay in limbo at the berm, unsure of the reception that awaits them in Jordan, or fearing they will be sent back to Syria. According to recent projections by humanitarian agencies, the border population could reach 100,000 by the end of the year. International aid organisations are constructing a service area on the Jordanian side of the berm at Rukban, which will serve as a base for providing goods and services.

“These people will be left in the desert"

“Let’s be honest, it’s going to be a permanent service area,” a source familiar with the situation told IRIN. “Unless we’re finding a solution to the conflict, unless we’re finding a long-term solution for these asylum seekers, this camp is going to stay; and this setup is going to stay.”

The problematic “setup” is one that’s been gradually evolving, to the dismay of humanitarian observers, for more than a year. In mid-2014, Jordan, which hosts some 650,000 registered Syrian refugees, effectively closed its border crossing points at Rukban and Hadalat. That stopped Syrians entering Jordan, but not their desire, or drive, to flee.

Rukban camp is in no-man's-land between Syria and Jordan
Rukban camp is in no-man's-land between Syria and Jordan

Many still headed towards Jordan but found their way barred. Gradually, a community of asylum seekers amassed at the country’s eastern border: 5,000 people last November, 20,000 by January this year. The numbers have tripled since and now more than 60,000 are stuck there. Estimates are derived in part from satellite imagery, as international access is blocked. Many of those living here have been waiting to cross for more than six months.

In March this year, Jordan began letting several hundred Syrians in daily. In less than three months, nearly 20,000 have arrived at Azraq camp, not far from the border. But Azraq has reached its working capacity. The numbers entering Jordan have declined significantly from a peak of 400-500 a day in mid-May. Although border officials insist people are still arriving, while undergoing strict security vetting, it’s unlikely that the tens of thousands at the berm will all be able to enter Jordan.

Map of Syria and borders
Edgar Mwakaba/IRIN

“These people will be left in the desert,” the humanitarian source said.

Survival of the fittest

The fate of these forgotten people depends on a fragile infrastructure cut through by the high-stakes politics of the earthen berm. The community lives on one side of the berm, an area of sunbaked desert with no running water, no authorities and almost no facilities. On the Jordanian side of the berm, aid agencies set up for daily distribution, bringing mobile clinics, food provision and, to a limited extent, psychosocial support. Water is brought in trucks and distributed among individuals who then have to carry it back to their tents. There’s some maternal care and children’s health programmes and vaccination campaigns. Food parcels are distributed every two weeks, but facilities aren’t available for more than a few hours a day.

Suheiya and her six children spent four months at the berm, and are now recovering from the war, their escape, and their time at Rukban. The 42-year-old told IRIN that her family left Aleppo after their house was destroyed by Russian bombing; they reached the berm in a farmer’s truck by hiding themselves among sheep.

"There’s gangs controlling everything and stealing all the services."

“The situation is really hard,” Suheiya said. For much of the time during the four months at the berm, she and her children stayed inside tents, frightened. Although she was able to turn to her brother-in-law for protection, she was especially vulnerable as her husband was still in Syria. “There’s gangs controlling everything and stealing all the services. It was really frightening. Because I was alone, they took everything."

The area north of the Jordanian berm is not treated as Jordan’s territory so the Jordanian authorities don’t officially operate there, and humanitarian agencies are kept out by security concerns. In the absence of rule of law, tribal power dynamics are reportedly filling the void in terms of controlling of the camp. Violent crime has been reported, as well as rioting – a phenomenon that’s not helped by the scarcity of aid.

A child at the Rukban no-man's-land between Syria and Jordan
A child at the Rukban no-man's-land between Syria and Jordan

Suheiya explained that the means of distributing help varied. Distributions to people grouped from the same area in Syria were safer and better organised, she said. But on some days private donations would be brought to the border without organisation, leading to chaos. “We had to walk there to get anything, but it was so, so hot,” Suheiya said. “It’s in the desert so there were wind and dust storms. It was so hot in the day, then at night very cold.”

Aid workers report high levels of malnutrition among arrivals at Azraq, although the status of the wider population at the berm is hard to assess. Diarrhoea is reportedly common, and women have had to give birth in flimsy tents without medical care.

Alima, now at Azraq’s Village 5, told IRIN that the chaos often meant she went hungry. “Every time I tried to get the card to get food they would start a problem, a fight, and I wouldn’t be able to get anything,” the 23-year-old said.

Between a rock and a hard place

Brigadier General Mohammad al-Mawajdeh, director of civil and military affairs for the Jordanian military, told IRIN that the violence and lawlessness stems from those he called “trouble-makers”, people that have no intention to claim asylum in Jordan but who exploit the desperate and vulnerable and the humanitarian assistance they are provided. “They create problems intentionally in order to create this chaos. They are war traders. They are getting benefit out of the situation,” he said.

Jordanian authorities also believe that so-called Islamic State elements move among those at the berm, and the resulting security threat is one of the reasons border control is stringent. But the presence of profiteers doesn’t change the immense humanitarian needs of those at the berm. “You cannot stop sending assistance because of some bad people,” al-Mawajdeh explained. “You cannot separate the good from the bad.”

The growth of the Rukban settlement seen in satellite imagery
The growth of the Rukban settlement seen in satellite imagery

For humanitarian organisations, the ambiguity contributes to a complex moral dilemma. It’s not unusual for vulnerable people to get pushed to the bottom when aid is distributed, but in most contexts humanitarian workers are able to get to the community and mitigate the risks. At the berm, service providers have no consistent access to the people they’re helping, and in a world where nepotism, factionalism, and extortion are likely rampant, the unseen side-effects of any intervention are difficult to assess.

The humanitarian source IRIN spoke to said their organisation was “working in the dark”, and compared the camp to a "net" where vulnerable people, attracted by life-saving assistance, could be preyed upon.

“We, by our own presence, are creating a pull factor that is dragging people to the corner of the desert… people that are genuinely vulnerable,” the source said. “They are going to be eaten alive by those dynamics in the camp.”

The service area currently being built and coordinated by agencies including the UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR), the World Food Programme and the International Committee of the Red Cross, it’s hoped, could go some way to addressing these problems. Many months in negotiation, it will be designed for effective crowd control and distribution, organising aid to better ensure those in need get a fair share. With more permanent structures in the field, less money and time will be spent on the daily journey – much of it off-road – that aid workers make to the border.

“Having this service area in place will improve the humanitarian assistance to be given to the refugees or asylum-seekers, and to organise the flow of the refugees and vulnerable people who are allowed to come in Jordan,” General al-Mawajdeh said. “We will provide them with the basic needs of life.”

It’s far from perfect, and doesn’t address the underlying issues: that refugees cannot easily enter Jordan, that humanitarians can’t access the community, and that those fleeing a devastating conflict will continue to mass at the border. Some aid workers have expressed concerns that the centre will require people to pass through a high level of security clearance just to fulfil their basic needs, and that it strongly indicates the border camp will become permanent.

"It’s unacceptable to work at the berm. But it’s unacceptable not to be there."

But for now the importance of saving lives means compromises have to be made. “We can’t really manage to solve the dilemma,” IRIN’s humanitarian source said. “It’s unacceptable to work at the berm. But it’s unacceptable not to be there. We just have to swallow it.”

An uncertain future

“We are not intending to have a permanent camp there,” al-Mawajdeh told IRIN. But while stressing that refugees will continue to enter Jordan, he also highlighted that the border population continues to increase, despite the recent spike in entries to Jordan.

His response to the question of whether the border camp would then remain: “You had better direct it to the international community, to resolve the issue of the Syria crisis.”

The precarious status of the people at the berm may be based on flimsy legal grounds. Human Rights Watch suggests the exact international border runs roughly halfway between the two berms at Rukban, based on analysis of satellite photographs and maps from the UN and US. As the shelters at both Hadalat and Rukban are clustered towards the southerly Jordanian berm, many may already technically be inside Jordan. Jordan rejects this analysis.

If on Jordanian soil, international law would imply that the people would be entitled to protection from being sent back. It would mean Jordan could ease humanitarian access to the area – and it would add thousands to the country’s refugee caseload at a stroke.

In any case, if Jordan is preventing asylum seekers from entering what it says is its territory and controlling access to them, that likely amounts to "extraterritorial control”. That may mean Jordan is already responsible for those at the berm, according to Bill Frelick, director of the refugee program at Human Rights Watch.

Sykes–Picot Agreement Map
Sykes–Picot Agreement Map

“If you’re preventing people from accessing their rights, if you’re pushing them back, that is a violation of non-refoulement law,” he told IRIN. The principle of non-refoulement forbids returning people to where their lives or safety may be in danger, and it’s a crucial tenet of refugee law. HRW recognises that important security concerns necessitate controlling the border, but regards the idea of a “no man’s land”, where no state is responsible for the rights of asylum seekers, as a “legal fiction”.

“Where a state exercises control over people, they have a responsibility to protect and uphold the rights of those people. You can’t declare a stretch that’s a rights-free zone,” Frelick continued.

With Jordan’s capacity to receive refugees increasingly squeezed, the options available for the population at the berm are narrow. And regardless of the legal status of the territory, its remote location and vulnerable population mean providing aid there will continue to be difficult and expensive: In documents seen by IRIN, Jordan’s Interagency Task Force working at the border estimated that its operations will require $117 million of funding for the remainder of the year – an amount that covers only the most basic level of life-saving assistance.

"You can’t declare a stretch that’s a rights-free zone” 

And as the population of the border camp continues to increase, those trying to improve the lives of those trapped there face a bleak situation. The prospect of 100,000 people stuck in a demilitarised zone has scant precedent.

“What we’re looking at are really just options that are less worse,” an employee of an NGO operating at Azraq said. “There are no good solutions any more.”

Header photo: Peter Biro/ECHO


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