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Deal to Deliver Help to Refugees at the Berm Divides Aid Community

While a compromise has been reached with Jordan that allows access to 85,000 Syrians in the lawless border area between the two countries, lack of control over supplies and security has deterred some agencies from taking part.

Written by Bethan Staton Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
One of 12 rock graves at the Rukban refugee encampment on the Jordan-Syria border. AP

AMMAN, Jordan – For some 85,000 Syrians trapped on the Jordanian border, a new aid deal has meant the difference between life and death. Food rations, diapers, hygiene kits, infrastructure for pumping water and health services, delivered by the U.N. on November 23, was the first assistance they had received in months.

Yet for humanitarian agencies in Jordan, the decision to deliver this life-saving aid has not been easy. Though the makeshift camp at Rukban is desperately in need, providing help is fraught with risks and the resumption of aid has split the humanitarian community, with only some agencies willing to take part.

Jordan, the U.N. and aid agencies have been locked in negotiations over the refugees at “the berm” – a crude earth mound marking the Jordan-Syria border — since the area was completely cut off from humanitarian access in June following a deadly attack claimed by ISIS on a Jordanian military post.

The new deal sees the delivery of relief channeled through a new distribution point and a service facility that will house a clinic, water tanks, a pumping station and rooms where aid workers can meet representatives from the berm. The facilities will be located some way from the Rukban camp itself, either behind the berm on Jordanian territory or further into Syria itself. If all goes to plan, the arrangement will guarantee regular aid deliveries.

But not all aid agencies are convinced, and some remain troubled by the compromises necessary to send assistance to the berm.

“Because of these concerns, the ICRC is no longer able to work to its modalities and working methods,” Hala Shamlawi, spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Jordan, said following the deal’s announcement.

After the summer bombing at the berm, the ICRC stopped working in the area and announced it was scaling back its operations to support a smaller number of asylum seekers from the border within Jordan. “The most important thing is for the ICRC to be approximate to the refugees and monitor the situation there,” Shamlawi said. “A sustainable solution needs to be found for these people.”

Even before the June bombing, providers at the berm found it difficult to distribute aid satisfactorily. Unable to work in the camp itself, they would distribute food and set up health clinics behind the berm, and Syrians had to cross into Jordan to receive assistance before returning to the camp. That made it difficult to ensure that the aid was helping the vulnerable and not being exploited by tribal groups.

The concerns are real. The camp at Rukban came to life chaotically more than a year ago, as Syrians fleeing ISIS and regime bombing found themselves trapped on the tightly controlled and often completely closed Jordanian border. Unable to move forward or back, they created a makeshift city. Desperate for food and resources, and populated by tribal groups fighting for control, it evolved into a brutal, lawless environment where violence, extortion and a black market thrives.

“There is a vacuum. There is no police. No government. Nothing. And in the vacuum everything is possible,” said Murad Saru from CAP Anamur, a Germancharity that operates clinics at the berm. In that context, aid provision could be commandeered by groups seeking to gain control, and militants could threaten the safety of aid workers. The situation is not improved by a lack of aid. “When you don’t have anything, you must have something,” Saru said. “You must get what you need, with money or without money.”

In order to facilitate assistance, CAP Anamur is working with community representatives to employ tight security and staff clinics with camp residents. Saru thinks the situation is improving.

“There is control, but it’s very difficult to say who’s in control,” he said.

In October, suspected ISIS militants launched an attack in the area, seeming to confirm fears about the berm. At a press conference after the attack, Filippo Grandi, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, said fears that humanitarian staff “would be at serious risk of being hurt” were a major reason for the delay in negotiations. For the Jordanian military, too, the risk of militant incursions from the camp into national territory is a chief concern.

The response to those fears necessitates compromise. During negotiations, for example, focus fell on the relocation of distribution centers north, toward Syrian territory and further from the camp. A military source who requested anonymity said all parties would benefit from the move, which would allow monitoring of asylum seekers and guarantee that what happened in the summer wouldn’t be repeated. But the movement of asylum seekers toward a war zone is, from a humanitarian perspective, problematic.

Yet in spite of these troubling scenarios, the berm’s grim reality necessitated action. In September, an Amnesty International report described the camp as “desperate,” documenting unsanitary conditions, a lack of medical care and insufficient drinking water as contributing to the spread of deadly disease. “In the camp, nothing is normal,” Saru said. “”They need bread. They need water. They need everything.”

While the delivery of aid begins to address the crisis, solutions to the berm’s humanitarian nightmare are spoken of as marginally better options than what preceded them, rather than causes for celebration. Speaking anonymously while negotiations were taking place, a U.N. worker said he regarded the evolving deal as a necessary “compromise. Our priority is to get humanitarian assistance to these people,” he said. “If we wait much longer it will be winter, and the situation will be much worse.”

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