PHOTO: Refugees seek water at the Ruqban camp near the Jordanian border (AP)
Rana F. Sweis and Somini Sengupta write for The New York Times:
In the middle of a roadless desert on the edge of Syria and Jordan, thousands of Syrian men, women and children have been living for months in tents made of head scarves and tarp.
There are scorpions and rats among them, and an unknown number of men with guns. The noonday heat soars above 100 degrees. There is no water.
For a week, since a suicide bomber blew himself up, killing seven Jordanian security officials, the refugees, now numbering at least 60,000, have not had access to food or medicine, as they had in previous months. Only three times since then have water trucks reached them, carrying what the medical aid group Doctors Without Borders estimated to be equivalent to a 1.5-liter bottle of water a day.
“If this continues like it is now, we will soon see starvation, dehydration, and we will be confronted with preventable deaths,” Benoit De Gryse, the aid group’s operations manager warned Thursday at a news conference here in the Jordanian capital, Amman.
The last time the refugees in the camp got a two-week supply of food aid was on June 1, before the bomber’s attack and the sealing of the border by Jordanian authorities, United Nations officials said. Aid agencies are negotiating with the government for access.
Speaking to reporters in Geneva, the United Nations’ humanitarian adviser for the Syria peace talks, Jan Egeland, called the situation “desperate.”
“We hope and believe that cross-border humanitarian assistance can again be made available, taking note of Jordan’s very legitimate security needs,” Mr. Egeland added.
The situation in the encampment reflects one of the most acute challenges facing humanitarian agencies anywhere in the world. International law demands that Jordan let in people seeking protection from war. But aid workers say privately that they have lost the moral authority to speak out, in large part because so many Western countries have refused to take in Syrians and others fleeing conflict.
The situation in the camp is compounded by other challenges. First, Jordan faces a real security concern, embodied by the June 21 suicide bombing, for which the Islamic State later claimed responsibility. Second, it is in the middle of nowhere, more than 80 miles from the nearest town with water wells. Third, the border, a relic of the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, when Britain and France carved up the region in ways that made sense perhaps only to them, is not well delineated.
Growing Camp, Growing Problems
Since the beginning of the Syrian conflict, Jordan has built hillocks of hard sand — berms – and encampments just on the other side of the berms have grown significantly in recent months, especially since airstrikes by Russia, the United States and others intensified inside Syria.
Last November, there were about 5,000 people camped out in the desert. By mid-June, aid agencies estimated, the number had grown to 60,000, in an area known as Rukban.
Satellite images taken by the United Nations and posted on Twitter on Tuesday showed 8,000 temporary shelters, a 24 percent increase from a month ago.
There are no trees there, not even brambles.
The United Nations said it tried to send water trucks on Thursday and was unsuccessful.
A video, posted on YouTube by the International Committee of the Red Cross, shows the harshness of the terrain and the difficulties of ferrying even water to the encampment.
All the while, the condition of the people in the encampment has gone from precarious to worse.
Before the June 21 attack and the sealing of the border, they had access to some lifesaving aid. Jordanian authorities allowed people to fill jerrycans of water, receive food supplies and take it all back to their tents. Aid agencies also gave them shovels to dig latrines and encouraged them to carry their trash to a pickup point, in an effort to stave off disease.
Doctors without Borders, which had operated a makeshift clinic for just over a month before the border closing, said nearly a fourth of all the children its medics treated had acute diarrhea; more than 200 children were malnourished. At the news conference on Thursday, the group called for an immediate resumption of lifesaving aid, and said that the very presence of so many desperate refugees in the inhospitable desert served as an indictment of world leaders.
“Why are they there? Because no country is giving them options to resettle to a safe place,” Mr. De Gryse said. “Jordan cannot be doing this alone. We see this as a collective responsibility, and as a consequence, we see it as a collective failure of the international community.”
Jordan had also allowed a few thousand of the most vulnerable refugees to move across the berms and shipped them to an encampment enclosed in razor wire built by the United Nations refugee agency in a remote area called Azraq. Privately, United Nations staff members called it an internment center.
Even that trickle has stopped. The border is sealed and it has been declared a military zone, a move that Amnesty International denounced as a violation of international law.
Jordan already hosts more than 650,000 registered Syrian refugees. In February, in a BBC interview, King Abdullah II of Jordan responded to concerns about the fate of the refugees stuck at Jordan’s doorstep. “If you are going to take the higher moral ground on this issue, we’ll get them all to an air base and we’re more than happy to relocate them to your country,” he said.