• Press Release

Risk of humanitarian disaster in Jordan as 12,000 refugees from Syria stranded in ‘no man’s land’

December 9, 2015

Jordan must take immediate action to assist up to 12,000 refugees who have been denied entry to the country and are struggling to survive in desperate, freezing conditions in “no man’s land” on the Jordanian side of the border with Syria, said Amnesty International. Those stranded include pregnant women, young children, elderly people and people suffering from serious medical conditions.

Testimony from Syrian refugees and international aid workers in Jordan collected during a recent research trip to the country, suggests that hundreds of refugees have been arriving on a daily basis in recent weeks but have been denied access to Jordan by the authorities. Analysis of satellite imagery also confirms that the number of refugees arriving at the border has increased in recent months.

“As the conflict in Syria continues, it is critical that Jordan, and Syria’s other neighbouring countries, keep their borders open to those fleeing bloodshed or persecution. By denying sanctuary to civilians seeking safety on their soil, the Jordanian authorities are fuelling a humanitarian disaster on their doorstep,” said Sherif Elsayed-Ali, Head of Refugee and Migrants’ Rights at Amnesty International.

“Thousands of people have risked their lives to make the arduous journey through war-torn Syria only to reach Jordan’s border and find themselves callously turned away and left in limbo a stone’s throw away from refuge.”

UNHCR announced on 8 December that the number of refugees on the border has risen sharply since the start of November, from 4,000 to 12,000 following the recent intensification of conflict in Syria.

The authorities have given no official reason why they are refusing access to the refugees. Since 2011 Jordan has granted refuge to more than 632,000 Syrian refugees but its policy on allowing those fleeing the conflict has become increasingly restrictive.

Jordan is one of five countries in the region hosting 95% of refugees from Syria and is struggling to cope with the added strain of this influx. Only 52% of Jordan’s humanitarian funding requirements for refugees have been met by international donors and the authorities are calling on the international community to substantially increase their commitments.

In 2012, Jordan stepped up restrictions at both official and informal border crossings and since mid-2013 the majority of its borders have remained closed to most people seeking refuge from Syria, with a few exceptions for particularly vulnerable cases. In July 2014 Jordan further increased restrictions on Syrians trying to enter through its eastern border crossings. Since then, there is evidence of rising numbers of Syrians stranded at the border in “no man’s land” just north of the “berm”, which is a raised barrier of sand marking the Jordanian limit of the Jordan-Syria border near Rukban and Hadalat crossings. Some refugees are forced to wait for up to three months before being allowed to enter Jordan, while others are turned away. Some have chosen to return to Syria after spending several weeks waiting in dire conditions.

Struggling to survive in dire conditions

Since this build-up of refugees at the border zone began in July 2014, the authorities have restricted access to the area for international organizations. Evidence gathered by Amnesty International suggests that refugees waiting there are facing appalling conditions. During winter, temperatures in the desert border zone can plunge to freezing. Refugees stranded there are living in makeshift shelters with dwindling supplies and are bracing themselves for even more hardship as the coldest winter months approach. They have limited access to food, water, blankets and medical supplies provided by international aid agencies.

Warde, a Syrian woman in her sixties, was only allowed into Jordan in July 2015 after one of the border guards eventually took pity on her. She had been stranded in no-man’s land for a month along with around 2,000 people. They relied on handouts from international aid agencies for food and non-food items, surviving on one meagre meal a day.

“We stayed in the dirt…It was terrible… We made our own tents with our blankets – we would sew them together… as protection against the sun and the wind,” she said describing the dreadful conditions.

“Some children and women died there while they were waiting and they were buried there. Others left to go back to Syria … When I told a [Jordanian] solider ‘I am an old woman and I’ll die here’ he said ‘there’s a shovel over there, we can dig your grave’.”

The rise in the influx of Syrians to Jordan’s borders in recent months is the result of an intensification of hostilities inside Syria combined with the fact that the two other countries neighbouring Syria who have received considerable numbers of refugees – Lebanon and Turkey – have also effectively closed their borders to Syria’s refugees.

“It is clear that Jordan and other countries in the region are under incredible strain from the influx of refugees. However, the Jordanian authorities cannot watch as thousands of desperate refugees fight for their lives in the freezing cold with little access to food, clean water or warm clothing and shelter,” said Sherif Elsayed-Ali.

The Jordanian authorities must also lift restrictions on international organizations seeking to provide assistance to refugees who are seeking to enter Jordan.

There is no justification for leaving refugees stranded at the border for weeks or months. At present, Azraq refugee camp in east Jordan is not at full capacity and three other transit sites have space to host more refugees. Host communities in urban areas should also be supported to be able to receive refugees who want to live in urban areas.

“The international community must also do much more to help support Jordan and share responsibility of tackling this crisis,” said Sherif Elsayed-Ali.

It is urgent that the international community steps up its commitment both in terms of humanitarian and other financial assistance to Jordan and by resettling greater numbers of refugees from Syria.

Satellite imagery evidence

On December 8, 2015 Human Rights Watch released satellite imagery taken on 5 December showing more than 1,450 makeshift shelters on the Rukban border crossing. Amnesty International’s analysis of earlier satellite imagery of the Rukban border crossing shows 705 shelters on 24 September compared to 175 shelters shown in satellite imagery analysis carried out by Human Rights Watch of the same border crossing on 20 April 2015. Prior to this on 3 November 2014 the UN’s analysis of imagery showed 155 structures while in July 2014 it showed 90 shelters.

Analysis of satellite images of Hadalat border crossing also shows an increase in number of shelters present. Images obtained by Amnesty International for 15 October show 92 shelters compared to 70 seen on satellite imagery analysed by the UN for 21 April.

The shelters are mainly made of blankets, tarpaulin and other materials. According to aid workers and refugees who have come through the border, each makeshift shelter holds six or more people, sometimes up to 20 people, including many children.

Amnesty International believes that anyone from Syria seeking asylum should be considered to be in need of international protection due to the widespread human rights abuses being committed in the conflict, including war crimes and crimes against humanity. Closing the border to those in need of asylum is in violation of the principle of non-refoulement – the obligation not to return individuals to a situation where they would be at risk of persecution or international human rights abuses.

Background: Tightened border controls

Access through the official border crossing between the Jordanian city of Ramtha and Dera’a in Syria was restricted in 2012 blocking entry for certain categories of refugees, including Palestinians fleeing Syria, unaccompanied men who cannot prove family ties to Jordan, and people without identity documents.

In mid-2013 the western and eastern border crossings were also essentially closed to Syrian refugees, with a few exceptions made for the war-wounded and most vulnerable, according to Jordan’s own criteria, some of whom are sent back to Syria following treatment, in contravention of international obligations. In May 2014 Jordan began stopping Syrians arriving at its international airport from entering unless they had a Jordanian residency permit or met a limited number of special exceptions.

Since December 2014 the authorities have allowed some refugees who arrive at the border to travel to a transit camp in Ruweishid where they are screened by the authorities before eventually being transported to Azraq refugee camp. An estimated 40 people are allowed into Jordan per day. However higher numbers of Syrians are allowed in by the Jordanian authorities but do not pass Jordan’s opaque screening process and are then forcibly returned to Syria. Hundreds if not thousands are likely to have been returned this year alone.

UNHCR figures show registered new arrivals of Syrians in Jordan have dropped significantly from 310,000 people in 2013 to 82,400 people in 2014 and just 25,532 as of October this year.