Jordanian army says northern and northeastern border with Syria a closed military zone after attack kills six.
Amman – Tens of thousands of Syrians refugees, trapped at the border with Jordan, are left without water, food or medical care as humanitarian agencies have been denied access to the border area, aid workers say.
“Around 60,000 people are currently without food, water or healthcare. They have nothing,” said Hala Shamlawi, spokesperson at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
The border closure came as a response to a cross-border attack that killed six guards and injured 14. The attack took place near the informal settlement at Ruqban on the northeast Jordanian border with Syria. The area, located behind a raised sand barrier or “berm” that marks the border, was declared a closed military zone immediately after the attack.
The northern border is Syrians’ only route into Jordan.
On Thursday, Amnesty International said Jordan’s response to the deadly car bomb attack on its border should not entail “closing the border and denying humanitarian aid to tens of thousands of Syrian refugees fleeing armed conflict”.
Mohammed al-Momeni, the Jordanian government’s spokesperson, said his country would not establish any new Syrian refugee camps, and would not expand existing ones.
For the past year, the settlement at Ruqban has been growing exponentially as fleeing Syrians, desperate for an opportunity to be among the few hundred that have been allowed into the country daily, mass at Jordan’s strictly controlled border.
There's nothing there, it's a desert area, devoid of all water and basic services. The people there ... have nothing.
Those who managed to escape the berm, and settled at Azraq refugee camp, say the place is ruled by gangs and criminals who exploit the desperation of vulnerable people.
“The situation at the border is really tough,” said one refugee who recently left the border for Azraq camp, and preferred to remain anonymous. Many refugees report living in fear of violence, riots and exploitation, which frequently denied them access to aid.
Jordan does not recognise the settlement to be within its territory – though this interpretation has been disputed by Human Rights Watch, which said the settlements were in “desert areas just inside Jordan’s border with Syria”.
A day before the bombing, refugees were forced to cross over the berm to access aid, before returning to their tents on the other side.
“There’s nothing there, it’s a desert area, devoid of all water and basic services,” said Shamlawi. “People there have been dependent on humanitarian service since they got to the berm.”
Jordan’s Border Guard say that Daesh [ISIL, also known as ISIS] operatives move among those seeking help. It’s this threat that’s necessitated tight border controls, and officials have taken the bombing as grim proof of the spectre of terrorism posed by the camp.
Jordanian officials also say the security breach demonstrates that this small country has taken its fair share of refugees, that it can no longer offer sanctuary and support at the same scale, and that the international community must intervene.
“Jordan has borne a heavy burden that no country in the world has experienced in relation to the waves of refugees,” Nasser Judeh, foreign secretary, said after the attack. “The world must shoulder its responsibilities and respect Jordan’s decisions, especially the ones related to its security.”
There are currently some 650,000 Syrian refugees registered by the UN in Jordan, although the Jordanian government gives higher estimates. Earlier this year, Jordan secured pledges of $1.7bn in international donations to support the refugees on its territory.
International NGOs, including ICRC and the World Food Programme, are currently in negotiations with Jordanian border troops over access to the border area. Though some aid agencies have evacuated, ICRC remains at Ruweishid, where aid operations to refugees stranded at the border is based.
“We are in dialogue with other organisations and will continue talks with the government over the coming days to find out what is workable,” Shamlawi said.
Owing to the highly sensitive nature of negotiations, most aid workers stressed that it was impossible to draw clear conclusions about what will happen in the coming days.
Tuesday’s attack is a worst-case scenario in a context that humanitarian workers have long been describing as a disaster. “The structural nature of the place is very difficult, and it’s more so in Ramadan,” Shamlawi said. “Frustration is widespread among the people, because they have spent months there.”
According to aid workers, some refugees are returning to Syria after losing hope that humanitarian aid will be resumed. Where they will go is unclear as many fled Daesh-held territory.
“It will affect the refugees issue here in Jordan,” one Syrian refugee, a mother and teacher who preferred not to be named, told Al Jazeera. She is now living in Azraq camp, glad to have escaped when she did. She looks back on times spent at Ruqban camp with a shudder.
“It’s already a disaster on the border,” she said. “How will it be after that attack?”