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Syrian Refugees Are Stuck at the Jordan Border

Desperate to get out of the war-torn country, thousands of refugees have made their way to Daraa only to find themselves trapped.

by Sara Elizabeth Williams
May 9 2014, 7:30pm

Barrel bombing drove this elderly couple from their village in the Golan to a field near Tal Shihab, where they wait for the border to open. Photos by Abo Bakr al Haj Ali

Syria’s southernmost province of Daraa is often referred to as the birthplace of the revolution, but for a growing number of displaced people, it’s also literally the end of the road.

Even though the stretch of border between Daraa and Jordan has been closed since the summer of 2013, families from Homs, Hama, Damascus, and beyond are still turning up there, trying to get away from the chaos of the Syrian civil war. In many cases, they only reach Daraa after exhausting their resources in a failed bid to enter Jordan through the last open crossing, much further east, at Ruwaished.

This continuous flow of new arrivals has led to a buildup of people in the towns and villages near the border. Omar al Hariri, a Daraa journalist with the activist-based Sham News Network, estimated there are more than 5,000 people crowded into the stretch of land that includes the border villages of Tal Shihab and Naseeb. Lama Fakih, a Syria and Lebanon researcher at Human Rights Watch agreed that there could easily be between 4,000 and 5,000 refugees in the area, but can’t say for sure because his organizatoin hasn’t had access to the area.

Human Rights Watch isn’t the only aid group to be effectively shut out from Daraa. “Due to security constraints our access to Daraa has been restricted,” said Ahmed Mohsen, an external relations officer with UNHCR’s Damascus operation. “We rely on our partners on ground to deliver the respective services and assistance.” Those partners, noted al Hariri, are mostly informal local organizations and individuals giving what they can, when they can. But it is not enough, he said.

The lack of aid organizations has led to a situation verging on the catastrophic—and according to Baroness Valerie Amos, the UN’s under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, it is only getting worse.

Around 200 displaced people, mostly women and children, are crammed into this school in Tal Shihab.

While factions of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) currently run the camps, there is none of the infrastructure that well-funded humanitarian organizations can provide. People are crowded into abandoned schools, other disused buildings, and orchards filled with makeshift tents. More arrive by the day, straining already stretched resources.

“We’ve got clear and consistent messages that in some parts of Daraa people are struggling to feed themselves,” said Robert Beer, the Jordan country director for the Norwegian Refugee Council, an NGO that receives new arrivals and distributes relief items at Za’atari and Azraq refugee camps—both across the border in Jordan.

“They say it’s getting more and more difficult, that there are lots of checkpoints," Beer continued. "There are pockets of safety, but other places will have been heavily affected and houses destroyed.”

Um Firas, a young mother from Homs who was wearing a black niqab when I spoke to her, has been in Daraa since the beginning of February. In January her family paid to be smuggled to the crossing at Ruwaished, making the long journey through regime-held land in the back of a truck “like sheep,” she said. But there were questions about her family booklet—an identity document—and she said she, her husband, and their young child were ultimately denied passage to the Za’atari camp.

Abu Khaled, a 34-year-old father of two, had a similar disappointment. “We came from Reef al Sham through al Ruwaished road," he told me, his face wrapped in a red and white keffiyeh. "They let us enter Al Sarhan square, and then they took us out because of IDs and I don't know what.” He and his family had no choice but to come to Daraa, where they have been stuck ever since. “The borders are closed and now there is nothing.”

One of the many factors compounding the desperation in Daraa is poverty. Any bid to enter Jordan costs money, and the price is going up. “We’ve recently heard that people are paying $140 per person for transport to the border, up from $10 to $15 not that long ago,” said Beer.

In Tal Shihab, a local entrepreneur opened up shop selling cookies, chips, and juice outside a school filled with displaced people.

Um Mohammed, a 45-year-old from Al Ghouta, near Damascus, said she sold her last item of value—an automatic washing machine—to pay smugglers to transport her and her five children to Ruwaished. “They kept on moving us from one place to another, not to mention the hunger, the cold, and if a child got ill. Then we reached Al Sarhan square. I had my family booklet and a receipt for my ID, but my ID got lost in the town.” Without her ID, she was unable to convince authorities that she was Syrian. “I was put in the station and I was unable to go past this point.” Like Um Firas, Abu Khaled, and so many others before her, Um Mohammed and her children had nowhere left to go and precious little money to get there. After ten days in Daraa, she was truly desperate: “I can’t go back to Damascus and I can’t live here. How can I reach Jordan just to sort my children?”

All along the border, displaced families spoke of feeling trapped and having nothing to do but wait until the border re-opens—if indeed it ever does. After failing to reach Jordan at Ruwaished, they have run out of options.

But for an unlucky few, there is one last way out: by ambulance. Jordan quietly provides emergency medical care to those with the most grievous injuries. Typically a local ambulance takes victims to a Daraa field hospital, then transports them to the border, where they are transferred to a Jordanian ambulance and rushed to hospital for specialized care.

As I filed this article, I got a message from Daraa: Helicopters were hovering and barrel bombs were falling. A long pause. Then another message: A 12-year-old boy had been hit. He’d lost a leg. It had been severed, then and there. The boy was in an ambulance within minutes, bound for the nearest field hospital and then on to the border and a Jordanian ambulance. It’s not policy to take family along—this is emergency medical care, not a pathway for refugees.

The boy crossed the border alone.

Additional reporting by Abo Bakr al Haj Ali

Follow Sara Elizabeth Williams on Twitter.