An Unrelenting Exodus

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The U.N. says that Jordan has capacity for stranded refugees in the nation’s existing camps, such as Azraq. REUTERS/ Muhammad Hamed - RTX1RVBP

Jordan’s border faces a new wave of Syrian refugees

BY Maysa Zureikat

Jordan’s northernmost desert is an unforgiving terrain. As far as the eye can see, rocks and sand disrupt the horizon, with no natural shelter against the elements.

But here squat elderly, infirm and wounded Syrian refugees, who are trapped on the border in makeshift tents. They make up a steadily growing number of over 12,000 refugees who have fled in recent weeks. As the Syrian conflict intensifies, the exodus has not abated. Some tents are haphazardly juxtaposed with the desert landscape, but a calm order has descended as the bitter cold bites. The refugees simply wait, and wait, in the hope of being allowed in. They sleep in the farms close by and under the trees. They eat what is left of the meagre supplies of food they were able to bring with them.

Last week, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) was moved to express its grave concern, in a rare appeal to the Jordanian government to allow them entry. But the country itself is feeling the strain. Its government spokesman, Minister of State for Media Affairs and Communications, Dr. Mohammad Momani, told Newsweek Middle East that “Jordan is still following the open border policy and welcomes refugees on a daily basis, giving priority to women and children.” But he added that the number declared by the U.N. has been highly exaggerated.

“The refugees are gathering near an earthen wall or ‘berm’ on Jordanian territory in a rocky area devoid of shade, water or vegetation,” UNHCR spokeswoman, Melissa Fleming said on December 8. “Women have had to give birth at the berm, in unsanitary and unhygienic conditions. The health situation is deteriorating, with increasing signs of diarrhea, vomiting and acute malnutrition among children. If refugees are not admitted to Jordan and substantial assistance not provided, the lives of refugees will be at risk in the coming winter months,” she added.

The agency’s appeal comes while it acknowledges Jordan’s “tremendous contribution” to hosting refugees, citing that the Azraq camp, around 2,000 km from the holding area, has the capacity to receive additional people.

But speaking to Jordan’s government yields a different story. According to Momani, Jordan has a proven positive record in supporting Syrian refugees despite only receiving 38 percent of the funded support it needs from the international community. He added that the country, which sits on both the Syrian and Iraqi border, has “serious security concerns and has every right to examine every refugee entering the country.”

UNHCR says that the number of people in this area has increased substantially since the start of November, from 4,000 to 12,000, following the recent intensification of the conflict in Syria.

Satellite images taken by Human Rights Watch on December 5 also stand up UNHCR’s view, and confirm that thousands of people are indeed stuck in the remote desert area, with nowhere to go. The satellite images revealed more than 1,450 tent structures compared to 175 structures apparent in the same area in April this year.

The organization’s deputy Middle East and North Africa director Nadim Houry called for the Jordanian government’s swift action in allowing the 12,000 Syrian fleeing the war to reach “transient centers and make sure they get all the help they need.”
Jordan has been home to a large number of refugees since the start of the Syrian conflict. Today, the country officially hosts around 630,000 of more than 4 million Syrians who have fled their homeland to neighboring countries since 2011, with estimates rising to 1.4 million. This has put a huge strain on the resources of not only Jordan, but also other host countries.

Turkey is also expecting a renewed exodus. “We are preparing our teams for a new wave. We have mobile kitchens, food packaged,” Kerem Kinik, vice president of the Turkish Red Crescent told Reuters. The situation had worsened since Russia launched air strikes three weeks ago, he said.

The Hashemite Kingdom has tightened its border control since 2013 slowing the influx of Syrians into Jordan significantly. The country has been permitting the entry of refugees in small groups of dozens, according to the International Organization for Migration. The exodus continues, with no end in sight.

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