A Refugee Crisis on Jordan's Border

The war in Syria has forced more than five million people to flee from their homes. The vast majority of them are not in Europe. They are living in neighboring countries as the conflict in Syria stretches into its sixth year with no signs of abating. The Syrian population in Jordan exceeds 1 million now, representing 11 percent of the population, with more than 650,000 of them registered as refugees. The numbers continue to grow but an even more alarming crisis is brewing along Jordan's northern-eastern border causing yet another enormous and complicated refugee situation. I have been following the Syrian refugee flow into Jordan since its inception in March 2011, prior to any crisis or camps. The few Syrians who fled the unrest back then were staying with Jordanian families in the northern border town of Ramtha. Syrians, like Jordanians, thought it was a temporary conflict and they would return home fairly quickly. Of course, that has not been the case. The Syrian civil war, in its sixth year now, has fueled a massive exodus that continues to grow. It has triggered the world's largest humanitarian crisis of our time. More than a year ago, Syrians began fleeing to an area located over a sand ridge or berm. A demilitarized zone on the Syrian/Jordanian border, the berm prevents refugees crossing into Jordan and limits help from aid workers. As a result, it's believed some Syrians have died in the berm area. Jordan's government argues it has security and economic concerns about the refugees, some of whom come from areas controlled by Isis. The fact that Syrians are willing to live in a desolate stretch of desert for many months now reveals the dangers of the Syrian conflict and the level of desperation among the refugees. A satellite image published in November 2014 revealed nearly 155 informal white shelters, with nearly 2700 people stranded on the other side of Jordan's border. Today that number has increased to more than 50,000 people, effectively creating a massive unmonitored refugee camp. Once known more for scorpions and snakes, the newly populated area is now vulnerable to traders, smugglers and drug dealers.

In order for the stranded refugees at the border to receive food rations by the World Food Programme and other aid items, the UN refugee agency registers the refugees. Aid workers have been dispatched to the border yet it is taking the UN team nearly four hours each way, per day, to reach a waiting area where the refugees are being registered. In the few hours the UN staff is there, they are registering a few thousand refugees a day. As it stands, it's a painstaking slow process because of the time spent driving on unpaved desert dirt roads, resulting in vehicle accidents and sometimes causing injuries to aid staff. The international community, including Germany, must help to facilitate this registration process and in turn the aid distribution by dispatching helicopters for aid workers to register many more of the stranded refugees each day. The international community can also help the Jordanian government build a road for safer and easier access. Of the more than 50,000 refugees on the border, Jordan is allowing between 200-300 refugees daily into the country only after thorough security screening and immense pressure from the international community. The refugees who enter are being sent to Azraq refugee camp, also far from being an ideal place for living. It was deliberately built far from any settlement, a half-hour's drive from the city of Azraq, mostly an arid desert area about 60 miles east of the capital, Amman. The newly arrived refugees in the Azraq camp are enclosed and closely monitored but have easier access to services, personal safety and aid. There is electricity provided by generators only in very limited areas. Recent polls in Jordan reveal worsening public attitudes toward refugees, yet many Jordanians know that Syrians are likely here to stay. In fact, only 2 percent of Syrian refugees in Jordan left for Europe and nearly one-third of Syrians residing here plan to stay for good, according to a study on the economic and social integration of refugees. The trip to Europe is treacherous and costly but as desperation grows and the summer months loom ahead, it is yet unknown whether more refugees, despite the tightening of borders, will attempt to make the journey. The Syrian refugee tragedy is a global humanitarian and security crisis and unless Europe steps up to help Jordan take immediate steps to try to improve the health care and security at the berm, it will mean more injuries and deaths. It means riots and security deterioration at the defacto camp that will in turn endanger women and children but also cause more border security concerns for Jordan. Other concerns include human trafficking and exploitation Despite the alarming numbers at the berm, aid agencies and the government are wary of speaking publicly about the refugee situation on the border. This should not be the case. Some ordinary Jordanians and others who I spoke to and who visited the border area argue the fact that aid and limited services are being distributed encourages desperate Syrians to flock to the stranded area and remain there. Moreover, the mere thought of entering Jordan encourages others to leave their belongings and lives behind and flock to the border. This is what aid agencies and politicians call a pull factor, which creates a paradoxical situation, a catch-22, for both international organizations and governments. Therefore, the recent announcement of an agreement to air-drop food and other supplies to towns besieged by the Assad regime is welcome news. The international community continues to be weary of hosting Syrian refugees, but they are also not contributing enough money to help host communities where the Syrians are living now. This is causing harm to both refugees and those living in host countries. So far, the UN Syria appeal for this year is only 22 percent funded. In the immediate future, Germany and the international community must dispatch helicopters to aid refugee registration, increase medical aid and help the Jordanian government maintain both border security and increase security at the berm. Jordan should speak more publicly about what is taking place at the berm and the challenges it is facing on the border. In the long run, however, the absence of a political solution to address the root cause of the humanitarian crisis will mean more complex emergencies like the one growing on Jordan's border. It will also mean more threats to Europe and more parents seeking a haven and a future for their children.

Also published in German at IPG Journal

Follow Rana F. Sweis on Twitter @ranasweis