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Refugee crisis: 12,000 people stuck in limbo along Syria-Jordan border

Satellite image of Syrian asylum seeker encampment, Rukban, Jordan. Image taken on morning of December 5, 2015. (Credit: CNES 2015 / Distribution Airbus DS)

More than 12,000 Syrians seeking asylum in neighboring Jordan are stuck in a make-shift camp along the northeast border. Jordanian authorities are preventing people from entering, forcing them to live in “deplorable conditions,” according to Human Rights Watch. A new satellite image released by the human rights group shows a sprawling camp near the border.

“The health situation is deteriorating, with increasing signs of diarrhea, vomiting and acute malnutrition among children,” said Melissa Fleming, spokesperson for the U.N.’s refugee agency (UNHCR). “If refugees are not admitted to Jordan and substantial assistance not provided, the lives of refugees will be at risk in the coming winter months.”

The Jordanian government disputes the claim. A day after Human Rights Watch released its photographs and UNHCR raised its concerns, a spokesman for the Jordanian government called the estimates “exaggerated.”

Mohammed Momani said that Jordan’s “borders are open for refugees” and that “we take care of humanitarian cases, particularly children and women,” according to the Associated Press.

Both Human Rights Watch and UNHCR are concerned about the living conditions for asylum seekers – who are mostly women and children. Reports from the camps tell of women giving birth in unsanitary conditions and the rise of infections associated with people living in cramped and unhygienic conditions.

Jordan is already home to more than 630,000 Syrian refugees. UNHCR made clear that it recognized Jordan’s efforts, and the strain it places on the government and its citizens. But Human Rights Watch says that Jordan has made entry difficult over the past two years. Border entry points were closed in 2013 and areas restricted in 2014.

Some Syrians were allowed in Jordan earlier this year, but the Rukban checkpoint essentially shut down in recent months. Now, the roughly 12,000 and counting people trying to enter Jordan are situated in nearly 1,500 tents inside the demilitarized zone between Syria and Jordan.



“Jordan is blocking 12,000 people fleeing war in remote desert areas without proper help,” said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch, in a statement. “The authorities should swiftly allow them to reach transit centers and should make sure they get all the help they need.”

Similar satellite photos taken in April showed only 175 settlements in the area, according to Human Rights Watch. Increased fighting in Syria forced more people to flee, and the number of people caught at the border grew from roughly 4,000 at the start of November to 12,000 today. The total number may swell to 20,000 people by the end of the year and aid groups do not have the resources to meet the needs of the 12,000 already there.

Human Rights Watch joined UNHCR in recognizing the extraordinary effort by Jordan to take in so many refugees. It called on other countries to provide support to Jordan so that it can better manage its response.

“Jordan’s schools, hospitals and cities remain under tremendous pressure, given the sheer numbers of Syrians in the county,” said Houry. “International donors should be doing their utmost to make sure Jordan protects Syrians at the border and doesn’t push them back.”


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]