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War Equals Profit in the Wild West of the Syria-Jordan DMZ

There are more than 55,000 people gathered in the desert between Jordan and Syria. But life here, between two huge earthen berms, happens out of reach of the military, aid workers, and journalists.

by Sara Elizabeth Williams
May 4 2016, 11:55am

Syrian refugees wait to cross into Jordan near the Hadalat area of the DMZ in January 2016. Photo by Muhammad Hamed/Reuters

In the desert badlands of southeastern Syria, the largest settlement for hundreds of miles isn't a farming village or an oil town, or even a refugee camp. It's a non-entity — a temporary transit point on the hazily defined border between Jordan and Syria, and it is rapidly spinning out of control.

Near the corner where Syria, Iraq, and Jordan converge, satellite images show more than 55,000 people gathered in the desert. They are in limbo — neither in Jordan nor Syria, but in the demilitarized strip that runs east-west between the two countries like a belt. More than a mile deep in some parts, the belt is bordered on its northern and southern edges by long earthen berms dug up by heavy-duty military bulldozers.

Many of the people between the two berms are refugees trying to enter Jordan, already host to around a million Syrians. Others are traders, smugglers, or people who have come to the de-facto waiting room between Syria and Jordan, but aren't ready to approach the berm and register their refugee claim with the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR).

Admission, for those who request it, is slow. Desperate to preserve its own stability and wary of a group that could include Islamic State (IS) elements, Jordan is taking its time with security checks.

Due to the curious geography of the region, life between the berms happens out of reach from the military, aid workers, and journalists. No one is permitted to climb over the southern berm and wade into the demilitarized zone (DMZ). Aid workers stand on the earthen mound, and refugees line up for food and water. Health workers administer polio vaccinations from their perch on the berm.

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

While the Jordanian army polices the southern edge of the berm, they have zero oversight on what is happening deeper in the demilitarized zone. From the northern, eastern, and western sides, this sprawl of humanity is completely unmonitored — a wild west in the eastern desert.

Jordanian armed forces are legally prevented from entering the demilitarized area. NGOs say they are unwilling to send staff into the settlement because they would be operating blind to risk and without protection, and because it has not been fully established where the actual border is between the two countries.

It is normal, say some refugees who have been admitted to Jordan from Ruqban, to spend five or six months on the berm. People sell off whatever is left of their homes and livelihoods, pack the essentials and head southeast. And there, they wait.

With more Syrians arriving than being admitted, the group has swollen from around 2,000 people in September, to 12,000 in December, by which time Human Rights Watch was already warning of a humanitarian crisis being created inside the berm zone by severe entry restrictions at the northeast border crossings.

By late January, the DMZ's population was an estimated 20,000. According to recent arrivals into Jordan, the population in the berm zone leapt during two periods: the height of the Russian air campaign, when the Syrian city of Homs in particular was under heavy attack, and the cessation of hostilities agreed last February, when people felt it was safer to move.

According to NGOs with access to the area, there are now around 49,000 people camped out in the desert at Ruqban, and another 6,300 at Hadalat.

Satellite image and graphic showing the settlement between the berms. Images via Human Rights Watch

Profit follows war, taking root in chaos and dislocation, finding the opportunities created out of desperation. At lawless Ruqban, its encroachment has been swift.

"Anything you can think of, you could buy it there," said Mohammad Mohammad, a 55-year-old man from Homs who spent three months on the berm in late winter.

He and other recent arrivals to Azraq listed off the medications available from black-market sellers on the berm: painkillers, antibiotics, blood pressure medication, and injections for a variety of ailments.

Clothing and shoes are also for sale, refugees say, the latter item vital in a rocky desert known for snakes and scorpions. Extortionate prices, refugees say, are common.

The World Food Programme provides all registered refugees with a food parcel every two weeks, and the International Organization for Migration offers daily bread to all takers, registered or not. There are also ad-hoc aid deliveries from Gulf charities: in the past month, a load of frozen turkeys was handed out on the berm.

For people who can afford better, there are plenty of options. Syrian traders patrol the settlement hawking fresh fruit and vegetables, sugar, and other groceries. They are priced at a premium: 200 Syrian pounds (40 US cents) for a kilogram of potatoes, compared to less than 90 SYP (18 cents) back in Homs, and 600 SYP ($1.20) for a sack of sugar, compared to around 200 SYP (40 cents) in Homs. Yoghurt is three times the price and fresh lamb sells for twice as much as back in the city.

Related: 'We're Working, Waiting, Expecting the Worst': Syrians Are Escaping Jordan's Refugee Camps for Black Market Labor

The salesmen who drive through the settlement selling food, medication, and clothing also offer a vital lifeline to family elsewhere. The cellphone signal in Ruqban is blocked due to the area's proximity to Jordanian military installations. But on the northern fringe of the settlement, a Syrian signal can be caught. For around 100 SYP (20 cents), enterprising traders sell a one-hour mobile phone charge. For stranded souls without a phone, a text message can be sent from another phone for around 3 Jordanian dinars (just over $4) per message.

The costs may look low to Western eyes, but for Syrians already crippled by five years of war, who have sold off their last possessions at a deep discount, they can be exploitative — if not impossible.

Refugees are also accessing a satellite internet signal, likely provided by Meridian. Thuraya, the satellite signal used by aid workers, is often jammed in the area, prompting one aid worker to gripe: "They have better internet up there than we do."

"They are war traders," said Mohammad Mohammad, shaking his head in disgust. But none, he says, has any interest in staying there. "Even the salesmen walk through or drive. They don't have shops. It's not a city, it's just a desert."

The prime facilitators of the war economy are the smugglers who take people from Syria's more populated north and west to the southeastern desert. The refugees coming from Hadalat describe a nine-mile journey via Bedouin smugglers from government-held Sweida province to the berm.

"It's the open road, there are smugglers and gangs. I have heard of people being robbed on this road, all their money and their gold stolen," said Mahmoud Qassim Hussein, a father of three from Sheikh Miskeen, now living at Azraq camp. He arrived at Hadalat in the last week of January, when he counted about 1,100 people there.

Related: There Are More Displaced People in the World Than Ever Before

According to statistics compiled by NGOs, the vast majority of new arrivals on the berm are from Homs. People from Daraa province in the southwest of Syria typically head to Hadalat, and people from the cities of Aleppo, Hama, and Raqqa go to Ruqban. People from the city of Deir Ezzor are making their way to both spots.

The journey from Homs, Aleppo, Hama, and the swath of northeastern Syria held by IS militants is long and controlled by a vast network of people-smugglers.

"It's very well-organized," said a staffer with one NGO, speaking off the record due to the sensitivity of the subject.

"A Bedouin will drop people 50 km (31 miles) from the border, then another vehicle appears and takes them away. The driver says he can't go any further, the people get out, and another vehicle shows up."

All of this comes at a price. And for the truly desperate, smugglers offer another, premium service: a return journey.

"If you want to go back to Syria because you can't take the berm, it costs 100,000 SYP ($200) per person," said Yasser Abu Mohammad, a refugee from Idlib now living at Azraq.

Yasser said his brother had spent six months on the berm and run out of money. Four days before he spoke to VICE News, his brother had taken on debt to pay smugglers to take himself, his wife, and their four children, one of whom is disabled, across the country again.

"Now he is back home under the war in Idlib," said Yasser. "He preferred death to life."

Related: Jordan's Syrians Are Leaving — and Many Are Risking Home Rather than Europe

Death waits on the berm, too. While access to medical care has increased in recent weeks through co-operation between the Jordanian military and humanitarian organizations, many refugees depend on unregulated help from the doctors and midwives living among them. This help does not come free.

"It's a dog-eat-dog world up there," said one senior humanitarian worker with access to the area.

The question of what aid to give is a thorny one for Jordan and the countries supporting its refugee response. Offer too much and you create a pull factor, drawing desperately vulnerable people to a place where no one — not the army nor NGOs — can ensure their safety. This has a nasty knock-on effect: sprawling, unpoliced settlements like Ruqban attract all the wrong sorts of people, say both refugees and the government on this side.

"You have all kinds of people coming in [to the berm]," said Yasser.

Some of those people are coming because they want to seek refuge in Jordan. Others — at least half the population at Ruqban — have declined to register with the UN. This could be because they are not ready to leave Syria and identify as a refugee, or because their role at the settlement is more parasitic. Some of these parasites are smugglers: according to the Jordanian Border Guard Forces, 290 people were caught trying to smuggle drugs, money, or weapons into Jordan last year.

"Smugglers come in all directions between Jordan, Syria, and Iraq," said Brigadier-General Saber Taha al-Maheyreh, head of the border guards.

Related: Meeting Syria's 'Lost Generation': These Refugee Children Must Abandon School to Survive

But there's a bigger threat. According to Jordanian government and military sources, this thriving, everyone-for-themselves ecosystem has attracted the very people Jordan is trying to keep out: IS militants.

In January, Jordan's King Abdullah II told CNN of the refugees gathered along the berm: "Part of the problem is that they have come from the north of Syria, from Al Raqqa, Hasaka, and Deir Ezzor, which is the heartland of where ISIS [IS] is. We know there are ISIS members inside those camps."

Refugees speak in hushed voices about the dangerous elements on the northern fringes of the settlement at Ruqban. Even in the relative safety of Azraq camp, few are willing to speak directly to the subject. Referring to people being held by the Jordanians for questioning, a mother of five at Azraq put it obliquely: "The Jordanians are afraid they have something to do with the people who destroyed Syria."

That destruction is continuing, and with few other options — the Turkish and Lebanese borders are effectively closed, and IS is in the east — Syrians are still heading south.

Saleh, 65, a father from Homs now living in Azraq, spent October through early March on the berm. "At first it was easier, but it got a lot more chaotic," he said. His admission into Jordan, he said, came at the right time. "I can't even imagine what it's like now."

Follow Sara Williams on Twitter: @saraewilliams