Syria's war: Why Jordan keeps its borders shut to Deraa refugees

Seeking shelter from intense fighting in Syria's Deraa, 60,000 refugees are massing along Jordan's northern borders.

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    Amman, Jordan - Despite a raging crisis in neighbouring Syria, Jordan has recently kept its doors shut in the face of thousands of displaced Syrians massing along its northern borders.

    On June 19, forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and his military ally, Russia, launched a fierce offensive against rebels in southern Syria's Deraa province.

    The assault has pushed more than 320,000 people to flee their homes, with nearly 60,000 of those massing along Jordan's northern borders.

    Despite increasing international pressure to reverse its policy, Amman has refused to open its borders for the refugees. It says a combination of security threats and economic limitations stand behind its decision.

    While many Jordanians feel their government's decision makes sense, they cannot bear to see the sight of children locked behind closed borders.

    "I am a mother; I hate to see children suffering. We could be in their place any day and would want the help of our neighbours," said Effat Ahmad, a 27-year-old pharmacist.

    Effat Ahmad [Arwa Ibrahim/Al Jazeera]

    Security concerns

    Jordan has two main concerns that have informed its decision to keep its borders with Syria shut; a new wave of refugees, which Amman says it does not have the capacity to accommodate, and security threats.

    According to Jumana Ghunaimat, spokesperson for the Jordanian government, security top those concerns, especially since the government says it has reason to believe that armed groups linked to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) group are present in southern Syria.

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    "It is not an easy decision to close our borders in the face of our brothers, but we have to prioritise security," said Ghunaimat.

    "There is a direct threat to Jordan from terrorist [in southern Syria]. We can't risk opening our borders," she told Al Jazeera.

    Since a suicide attack on a Jordanian army base in the Rukban camp killed seven people in 2016, Jordan's concerns over developments in southern Syria have increased.

    The attack also highlighted a problem of a security vacuum existing along Jordan's northern borders.

    Limited capacity

    In addition to security concerns, Ghunaimat also pointed towards limitations in Jordan's capacity to host more refugees, stressing that the small kingdom is already home to at least 650,000 refugees from Syria.

    "Jordan has dealt with seven years of refugees and we've always supported Syrians, which has cost us a lot," said Ghunaimat. "But, we currently don't have the capacity for it.

    "It is better for Syrians to stay in their homes while we try to provide them with aid they need."

    Despite closing its borders, however, Jordan has been the main source of aid to displaced Syrians in the south, with the military providing medical assistance in a tent hospital along the border and supervising the delivery of hundreds of truck-loads of locally donated support.

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    But Jordan has felt alone in these efforts, with the international community, including the UNHCR refugee agency, saying that the security vacuum in southern Syria has prevented it from delivering aid.

    "For the past 10 days, our trucks have been waiting at the borders because it is unsafe for them to cross while the fighting is happening," Rula Amin, spokeswoman for the UNHCR's Middle East and North African division told Al Jazeera.

    "We appreciate Jordan's generosity but the risk to the lives of the [Syrian] people is high. That's why have urged Jordan to reopen its borders," she added.

    Responding to these calls, Jordan says that the international community has previously only partially supported Amman by "helping with only 50 percent of those costs" of hosting Syrian refugees, according to Ghunaimat.

    In addition to the Syrians, more than two million Palestinian refugees live in Jordan. Earlier this year, the US government announced that it was cutting its funding to the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees by more than half.

    Jordan has, therefore, been heavily engaged in mediation talks between the warring parties, which led to a successful ceasefire truce and an end to violence on Friday. Amman now hopes the agreement to stop the fighting would see the situation on those borders stablilised.

    Divided public opinion

    Jordanians are divided on the issue of keeping the borders shut.

    Bassam Arafa, a 50-year-old shop owner in downtown Amman told Al Jazeera: "We have to keep our borders closed. We already have enough to deal with here.

    "For their own sake, we should keep up pressure on Syria and Russia to allow them back to their lands and their homes, rather than become refugees.

    Bassam Arafa [Arwa Ibrahim/Al Jazeera]

    Sharaf al-Ramadan, 24, agreed: "Security-wise it makes sense to keep our borders shut. We can help them by providing the aid they need."

    According to Jordanian analyst Fahd Khaytan, public opinion geared towards keeping the borders shut has also been informed by the country's current economic struggles.

    "There is a limited amount of drinking water in Jordan, which the government is struggling to provide for its own people," said Khaytan. "Jordan's infrastructure can't cope with more refugees."

    Chronic water shortages have increased in recent years throughout Jordan's capital Amman, home to more than 40 percent of the country's population. Many neighbourhoods received running water for only 12 to 24 hours each week throughout May, partly due to low supply.

    Jordanians living in northern towns along the Syrian borders said that the war in Syria has already cost them their jobs due to cheaper Syrian labour coming into Jordan.

    But for Wissam Omar, an 18-year-old stall owner in downtown Amman, keeping the borders closed is an inhumane decision.

    "These women and children we see on TV, they should be let in. They've seen enough suffering already."

    Wissam Omar [Arwa Ibrahim/Al Jazeera]

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News


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