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12,000 Syrian Refugees Are Stranded in a Desert Purgatory Because Jordan Won't Admit Them

Among the thousands along the border are elderly people, the sick and wounded, children, women, and others who are vulnerable and need assistance.
Image satellite d'un campement à Rukban en Jordanie. Image prise le 5 décembre 2015. (© CNES 2015 / Distribution Airbus DS via Human Rights Watch)

The UN and human rights groups have called for Jordan to allow 12,000 stranded refugees fleeing Syria's civil war to enter Jordan, amid deteriorating conditions along the border between the two states.

The UN's refugee agency said Tuesday that the 12,000 Syrians are trying to flee the war in Syria and have been stuck in desolate areas along the border because Jordanian authorities turned them away. In less than two months, the number of displaced Syrians at such locations has tripled.


Since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011, Jordan has taken in more than 630,000 Syrian refugees — roughly a tenth of its total population. As fighting continues, thousands more are attempting to leave the country, and many continue to decamp for Jordan.

Eleven thousand of those Syrians stuck on the border are in Rubkan, inside a demilitarized border zone five miles from the desert point where Syria, Iraq and Jordan meet.

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Among the thousands in Rubkan, said UNHCR spokesperson Melissa Fleming, are "elderly people, others who are sick or wounded, children, women, and others who are vulnerable and need help." The refugees, added Fleming, "are gathering near an earthen wall or 'berm' on Jordanian territory in a rocky area devoid of shade, water or vegetation."

"Women have had to give birth at the berm, in unsanitary and unhygienic conditions," she said. "Common medical complaints among the growing population include respiratory tract infections, gastroenteritis, and skin diseases such as scabies." The UN also reported that signs of acute malnutrition had been observed among children.

On Wednesday, Amnesty International called on the Jordanian government to "take immediate action" and assist the 12,000 refugees, which it said had previously been denied entry into the Hashemite Kingdom.

Human Rights Watch also called on Jordan to allow entry to the refugees, which it said were overwhelmingly women and children and in urgent need of "food, water and medical assistance." Earlier this year, the group had warned that border closures along more traditional travel routes would continue to force refugees to attempt crossing into Jordan farther to the east. That appears to be the case for the 12,000 currently caught in a literal no man's land.


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"A satellite image of the northern side of the berm at Rubkan, taken on the morning of December 5, revealed more than 1,450 tent structures, indicating the likely presence of thousands of Syrians," said Human Rights Watch in a statement. It added that fear was mounting as the winter months, and "plunging" temperatures approach. Human Rights Watch predicted 20,000 would be in such geographic purgatory by the end of the year.

Human Rights Watch and the UN took pains to recognize Jordan for the sacrifices made to support hundreds of thousands of refugees already inside its borders. But Fleming added that there was capacity at at least one refugee camp — in Azraq, roughly 200 miles from Rubkan — to receive more Syrians.

"We appeal to the Government of Jordan to allow refugees stranded at the border to enter the country, prioritizing entry for the most vulnerable adults and children," she said.

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