Al-Azraq camp, Jordan – Rows of empty caravans line the dusty roads of Jordan’s newest refugee camp.
There is no shortage of desperate refugees at the border who would be happy to fill them, but after five years of taking in Syrian refugees, Jordan – increasingly concerned about security – has slammed its last border post shut.
After a suicide car bomb at the remote Rukban border crossing in northeastern Jordan in late June, the government declared the area a closed military zone. It barred access even for the UN and aid agencies that have provided food, water, and medical care to the refugees.
More than a dozen newborn infants and elderly have since died in the camp, according to activists. They say the bodies are buried near the road to Damascus.
Aid officials refer to the makeshift refugee camp – across a sand embankment near the triangle where the Jordanian, Syrian and Iraqi borders meet – as “the berm”. Many of the refugees have made their way over hundreds of kilometres of desert to escape fighting in Homs, Palmyra, and the suburbs of Damascus in the hope that Jordan would let them in. More than half are children.
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There are no toilets, electricity or running water at the berm. Families pitch homemade tents of blankets and rope for protection from the blazing sun and wait. Activists and aid officials say some children and the elderly have died because of lack of food, water and medical care since Jordan closed the border.
“It’s entirely barren desert with just rocks and sand and dust, an unbelievably inhospitable environment,” says Pavlo Kolovos, in charge of Doctors Without Borders (MSF) mobile clinics at the berm.
After intense negotiations, the Jordanian government allowed UNICEF contractors to deliver limited amounts of drinking water to an area near the berm over the past week.
The area where aid agencies had operated has been sealed off by barbed wire since the attack and military authorities have not yet allowed food deliveries and medical missions to resume.
Nor have they allowed badly wounded refugees to be evacuated into Jordan – either from Rukban or the northern border near Ramtha.
“We have recorded 13 cases documented of denial of access, including a 10-year-old-child who had a head injury,” says Luis Eguiluz, head of MSF in Jordan. “He died while his family was trying to transfer him to Damascus.
“It has been more than three weeks and no one has reached Jordan,” Eguiluz told Al Jazeera. “The war wounded who normally reach us are about 50 a month even after the ceasefire. They have no place to go, so we are very concerned.”
Seven Jordanian soldiers were killed in the suicide car bombing at the Rukban crossing last month. Jordan’s head of the armed forces said after the attack that the kingdom’s security was its top priority and the border would remain closed.
Jordan’s information minister has declined to comment on growing calls from aid groups for authorities to let aid resume to Rakban.
Most of the Syrian refugees who have sought refuge in Jordan since the five-year-old conflict began are from Dara’a province, just across Jordan’s northern border. Many come from the same tribes as Jordanians.
But the refugees massing at the border in Rukban are from much further cities of Homs, Palmyra, and the suburbs of Damascus. Some have escaped areas controlled by ISIL. Even before it sealed the border, Jordan considered the refugees a security risk and strictly controlled the numbers it allowed in.
The issue is so sensitive, the UNHCR, which had registered 35,000 of the refugees before the bombing, has declined to comment on the increasingly dire situation at the border.
With the block in aid, life at the berm has become even more desperate.
“It’s getting worse. There is no water, or food or medicine. The tents are in tatters because of the sun and the sandstorms,” said Ali al-Tadmori, an activist from Palymyra, by phone from the camp.
He said newborn babies and the elderly were dying in the 50-degree Celsius heat.
Prices of food and water on the black market have risen far beyond the reach of most residents, and many spent everything they had getting to the Syrian border. Eguiluz says bread is being sold for $2, while a jerry can of water was 70 cents.
Kolovos says before the bombing MSF’s mobile clinics at the berm were seeing malnourished and severely malnourished children among the 250 patients a day they treat.
Without access to regular food and water, “the malnourished children we saw are at risk of death”, he says.
At Jordan’s al-Azraq refugee camp, Syrian refugees from the Rukban crossing are housed in a special sealed section. Jordan let in 20,000 of the refugees over five months.
“The situation there is terrible, there is no water or food – you have to bring everything from far away,” says Selim, a teenager whose cousin and husband have been waiting with their two-year-old child for six months at the border.
Selim and his relatives are from the Bayada neighbourhood in Homs, which has essentially been destroyed.
“People were being killed in front of us and we had to step over them,” he says about their escape from the city. “Buildings were being destroyed – they were flying MIGs [fighter jets] above us.”
“Where would they go back to?” he says when asked why people don’t return into Syria from the berm.
Apart from immediate aid, humanitarian organisations are calling for more international help for Jordan and resettlement for the refugees.
“These people need assistance but assistance is not a solution,” says Kolovos. “A solution doesn’t involve keeping people in the barren desert with no real access to services …The international community has a responsibility to move these people to a safe place.”
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