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Attack in Jordan Leaves 70,000 Syrians Trapped in Desert Without Aid

Oxfam’s Camilla Jelbart Mosse spoke to Syria Deeply on the difficulties faced by aid organizations trying to reach 70,000 Syrians trapped in the desert after a suicide attack in June led Jordan to close its border and suspend aid deliveries.

Written by Hiba Dlewati Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
Stranded Syrians carry water bottles at the Rukban border camp near northeast Jordan, on June 25, 2016. International aid organizations say little water and no food has reached the nearly 70,000 displaced Syrian stranded in the desert after Jordan sealed its border in response to a suicide attack on June 21. AP

BEIRUT – Nearly 70,000 Syrian men, women and children are stranded close to Jordan’s border with Syria, caught between the conflict they fled and a crossing that has been closed for more than a month. Camped in the desert no man’s land known as the “berm” between the two countries, these people face increasingly dire conditions.

The Jordanians closed their border with Syria, citing security concerns, after a cross-border attack on June 21 by militants from the so-called Islamic State resulted in the death of seven Jordanian security personnel. The Jordanian government also suspended aid deliveries to the 70,000 people stuck on the other side; the last food rations distributed by the World Food Programme were delivered in June. Locked outside of Jordan in two settlements, Rukban and Hadalat, the Syrians are facing extreme heat and have limited food and water.

People only have one-third of the minimum international standard for water in emergency situations, said Camilla Jelbart Mosse, Oxfam’s Jordan policy advisor. Oxfam works in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, providing clean drinking water, delivering relief supplies and building shower and toilet blocks in both refugee camps and informal settlements. Jelbart Mosse spoke to Syria Deeply about the difficulties aid organizations are facing in trying to reach the displaced Syrians trapped on Jordan’s borders after the June 21 attack, and possible solutions for the critical humanitarian situation in the area.

Syria Deeply: People have been stuck on the Jordanian border for months now; how have humanitarian organizations been able to reach them?

Camilla Jelbart Mosse: The number of Syrians waiting to enter Jordan started noticeably increasing in November 2015. The government of Jordan has allowed around 20,000 refugees into the country from the berm so far this year – transferring them to Azraq refugee camp. However, all admissions have stopped since the suicide attack on 21 June, including for people with serious war wounds.

Even before the attack, humanitarian personnel were not allowed into the camps in the berm, where people live in basic tents, as the area was a military zone. United Nations agencies and other humanitarian organizations provided basics like food, water and medical assistance to a small service area on the Jordanian side of the berm, where distributions would take place. The humanitarian actors were, however, able to talk to the population, assess needs and directly manage the distributions.

Syria Deeply: How has this work been affected by the sealing of the border last month after the Islamic State cross-border attack on Jordanian troops?

Jelbart Mosse: The situation is now much more problematic. With greater restrictions on humanitarian access, U.N. agencies have been exploring delivering assistance using a crane to lift goods over barbed wire fences. But no food and only a small amount of water has got through from Jordan to the tens of thousands of people in need. The last food rations were delivered by the World Food Programme in June and will now have run out. We’re really concerned that people desperately in need – including very vulnerable populations such as children and the elderly – will be struggling to survive in the inhospitable conditions.

Syria Deeply: The berm is located in a remote desert area near the border. How would you describe the water and sanitation needs of the people trapped there, and their reliance on aid to meet those needs?

Jelbart Mosse: People have no access to running water at the berm: They are dependent on water being trucked to them. The border area is very isolated and difficult to reach. The roads are bad, which makes the journey even longer – and there are no shops. Supplies need to be brought in, making them more expensive, and skilled labor is hard to find. Ruqban is particularly isolated and supplies, including water, need to be trucked 100 miles (160km) from the desert town of Ruwayshid, including across 7.5 miles (12km) of desert tracks.

Since the attack, UNICEF water trucking has been resumed but they have only been able to deliver low levels of water to people in need: 11–13 pints (5-6 litres) per person per day, well below the 15 litres international standard seen as an absolute minimum for drinking, cooking and personal hygiene in emergency situations. When you compare this to the 34 gallons (130 litres) used per person each day in Germany or the 50–100 gallons (200–400 litres) in the U.S. you get a sense of just how dire the situation is.

Oxfam worked previously with UNICEF to install four large water tanks at Ruqban and two at Hadalat to supply water to the populations in the informal camps. However, the tanks at Ruqban were damaged during a storm in June and we have had no access to repair them.

Syria Deeply: The border was sealed after the ISIS attack near Ruqban, and this was followed by the Jordanian government’s decision to no longer allow refugees in, as well as a suspension of aid deliveries. The government said security concerns trumped humanitarian (concerns). You mentioned that U.N. agencies have been exploring using cranes to deliver aid. Will this solution work?

Jelbart Mosse: The attack on 21 June near Ruqban caused the death of seven and injury of 13 Jordanian security personnel who were coordinating assistance for the Syrians seeking asylum at the border. The suicide attack was a terrible event; the government of Jordan of course must take security threats seriously and it has a duty to protect its population. However, we believe that tens of thousands of vulnerable people who themselves have been fleeing the violence in Syria should not pay the price.

It is essential that life-saving humanitarian assistance is restarted immediately as people are getting more and more desperate. Humanitarian agencies need to work with the authorities to explore different ways in which this can be achieved. The plan to use cranes has been designed to get around the restrictions on the movement of humanitarian personnel on the ground; however, the World Food Programme still hasn’t been given the go-ahead to do the delivery. In order to adequately help people in the berm, humanitarian actors need to be able to interact with the population to monitor their needs, as well as to restart distributions and the registration of refugees at the border.

Syria Deeply: What would the ideal solution be in the longer term?

Jelbart Mosse: With no end to Syria’s spiraling conflict in sight, humanitarian agencies and the governments of Jordan and other countries are currently exploring a range of options to help people at the berm. The top priority is restarting humanitarian operations through opening up access at the Jordanian border – as most people have nowhere safe to return to.

In the longer term, the aim should be to provide protection to those in need – away from such an inhospitable environment – including through restarting the registration of asylum seekers at the border and admitting refugees into Jordanian territory with an appropriate screening process. Jordan’s Azraq refugee camp, set up in 2014, was designed to be expanded; with an injection of financial support from donors and an improvement in conditions, it could be scaled up to accommodate more refugees. Among the populations at Ruqban and Hadalat, the particularly vulnerable asylum seekers should be prioritized, including people with serious medical conditions, unaccompanied minors, pregnant women, the elderly, survivors of child recruitment and victims of gender-based and other forms of violence.

When questioned on the situation, the government of Jordan invited other countries to resettle the population currently at the berm. While it’s hard to imagine that we’ll see governments sending planes to transport people directly from the area, the Jordanian authorities are making an important point: There are already more than 650,000 registered refugees in water-scarce Jordan and public services are stretched to the limit, with many refugees and poor Jordanians facing very difficult living conditions across the country. The relative lack of support to Jordan and the other countries hosting large numbers of Syrian refugees in the region is a continuing scandal. As the deadly conflict in Syria continues to force people to flee their homes on a daily basis, other governments should speed up and increase their resettlement schemes from Jordan and other countries in the region as a matter of urgency.

As Oxfam recently revealed, the world’s six richest countries host fewer than 9 percent of refugees and asylum seekers: the United States, China, Japan, Germany, France and the United Kingdom. Government representatives in New York are right now negotiating the commitments that they will make at global summits on refugees due to be held alongside the U.N. General Assembly in September: They should keep the plight of those trapped at the berm in the forefront of their minds and work together to provide the protection these vulnerable people need.

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