By Bernhard Schell*
Amnesty International johas urged Jordan to “take immediate action” to help 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.
The appeal came one day after the UN Refugee Agency UNHCR expressed “grave concern for nearly 12,000 people trying to flee the country who are now stranded in remote areas along the north eastern Jordanian border, and urged the Government of Jordan to allow them entry, prioritizing admission for the most vulnerable”.
The population includes about 11,000 people in Rukban (about 8 kilometres to the west of the point at which the Iraq, Syria, and Jordan borders meet) and 1,000 people in Hadalat (some 90 km further west), and has been growing in recent weeks, according to the UN, UNHCR said.
“It includes elderly people, others who are sick or wounded, children, women, and others who are vulnerable and need help, Melissa Fleming, spokesperson for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), told the regular press briefing in Geneva on December 8.
“By denying sanctuary to civilians seeking safety on their soil, the Jordanian authorities are fuelling a humanitarian disaster on their doorstep,” said Sherif Elsayed-Ali, Head of Refugee and Migrants’ Rights at Amnesty International.
“Thousands of people have risked their lives to make the arduous journey through war-torn Syria only to reach Jordan’s border and find themselves callously turned away and left in limbo a stone’s throw away from refuge.”
Amnesty International 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 international human rights abuses,” Amnesty said in a media release December 9.
The UN Refugee Agency UNHCR announced on December 8 that the number of refugees on the border has risen sharply since the start of November, from 4,000 to 12,000 following the recent intensification of conflict in Syria. Since 2011 Jordan has granted refuge to more than 632,000 Syrian refugees.
The rise in the influx of Syrians to 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 who have received considerable numbers of refugees – Lebanon and Turkey – have also effectively closed their borders to Syria’s refugees.
Jordan is one of five countries in the region hosting 95% of refugees from Syria and 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 and the authorities are calling on the international community to substantially increase their commitments.
“The international community must also do much more to help support Jordan and share responsibility of tackling this crisis,” Sherif Elsayed-Ali said.
It is urgent that the international community steps up its commitment both in terms of humanitarian and other financial assistance to Jordan and by resettling greater numbers of refugees from Syria, added Sherif Elsayed-Ali.
“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,” said Sherif Elsayed-Ali.
Nevertheless, as the conflict in Syria continues, Amnesty considers it critical that Jordan and Syria’s other neighbouring countries keep their borders open to those fleeing bloodshed or persecution.
In 2012, Jordan stepped up restrictions at both official and informal border crossings and since mid-2013 the majority of its borders have remained closed to most people seeking refuge from Syria, with a few exceptions for particularly vulnerable cases. In July 2014, Jordan further increased restrictions on Syrians trying to enter through its eastern border crossings.
Since then, there is evidence of rising numbers of Syrians stranded at the border in “no man’s land” just north of the “berm”, which is a raised barrier of sand marking the Jordanian limit of the Jordan-Syria border near Rukban and Hadalat crossings.
Some refugees are forced to wait for up to three months before being allowed to enter Jordan, while others are turned away. Some have chosen to return to Syria after spending several weeks waiting in dire conditions.
Since the build-up of refugees at the border zone began in July 2014, the Jordanian authorities have restricted access to the area for international organizations. Amnesty is urging the Jordanian authorities to lift restrictions on international organizations seeking to provide assistance to refugees who are waiting to enter Jordan.
According to Amnesty, there is no justification for leaving refugees stranded at the border for weeks or months. At present, Azraq refugee camp in east Jordan is not at full capacity and three other transit sites have space to host more refugees. Host communities in urban areas should also be supported to be able to receive refugees who want to live in urban areas, Amnesty said.
Background: Tightened border controls
Access through the official border crossing between the Jordanian city of Ramtha and Dera’a in Syria was restricted in 2012 blocking entry for certain categories of refugees, including Palestinians fleeing Syria, unaccompanied men who cannot prove family ties to Jordan, and people without identity documents.
In mid-2013 the western and eastern border crossings were also essentially closed to Syrian refugees, with a few exceptions made for the war-wounded and most vulnerable, according to Jordan’s own criteria, some of whom are sent back to Syria following treatment, in contravention of international obligations. In May 2014 Jordan began stopping Syrians arriving at its international airport from entering unless they had a Jordanian residency permit or met a limited number of special exceptions.
Since December 2014 the authorities have allowed some refugees who arrive at the border to travel to a transit camp in Ruweishid where they are screened by the authorities before eventually being transported to Azraq refugee camp. An estimated 40 people are allowed into Jordan per day. However higher numbers of Syrians are allowed in by the Jordanian authorities but do not pass Jordan’s opaque screening process and are then forcibly returned to Syria. Hundreds if not thousands are likely to have been returned this year alone.
UNHCR figures 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 as of October 2015.