AMMAN, Jordan — More than 75,000 Syrian refugees have been stranded for several months in a desert no-man’s land between Jordan and Syria called “the berm.”
U.N. and aid officials say the refugees are in need of medical care and that most of them are women and children. Jordan insists that dozens of Islamic State operatives might be among them, waiting to carry out attacks in the kingdom.
Now a proposal to deliver aid to the refugees using cranes set up across the border in Jordan has raised concerns from the United Nations and humanitarian groups.
“Aid organizations must have unfettered access to provide food aid, lifesaving medical treatment and other support,” Amnesty International said in a statement this week in response to the deal, which the United Nations and Jordan are negotiating. “Anything less is just a band aid that will do little in the long run.”
Since the onset of the Syrian crisis in 2011, more than 1.3 million refugees have arrived in Jordan, a resource-poor country with a population of just 6.4 million. But Jordanian officials expressed alarm last year when tens of thousands began arriving from areas of Syria controlled by the Islamic State, and hundreds of miles away from the Jordanian border.
“They are coming from Deir Zour, from Raqqa,” the Islamic State's de facto capital, said Mohammed Momani, Jordan's minister of media affairs. “They are traveling 600 kilometers through the desert just to reach Jordan. They could have gone to other neighboring countries which are closer. Why Jordan?”
Fearing an infiltration, Jordan tightened its northeastern border with Syria in mid-2015. Over the next several months, a makeshift camp called Rukban swelled from a few thousand people to more than 75,000, many of whom were fleeing Islamic State violence and Russian airstrikes.
Jordan resisted calls from the international community to open its borders and allow the Syrians to enter en masse. Instead, the government allowed only a steady trickle of heavily vetted refugees to enter the kingdom and granted the United Nations and aid agencies access to the camp.
But on June 21, a truck bomber barreled into an army outpost near the camp, killing seven Jordanian soldiers. Jordan sealed its border the next day. Since then, aid agencies have not gone in, and refugees have not come out.
Under a deal, aid services will resume to the Rukban camp, but with a caveat — the aid will be dropped via crane over the earthen wall demarcating the border.
“The border area will remain a closed military zone, as we believe this is a Daesh enclave,” Momani said, using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State.
The United Nations and aid agencies have reportedly pushed back on the Jordanian proposal, insisting that medical and sanitation services can only be provided by allowing U.N. and humanitarian agencies direct access to the people at the border.
“The only way for the population to have access to health care is for the providers themselves to have access to the population,” said Luis Eguiluz, Jordan director for the medical charity Doctors Without Borders, which previously provided medical service to the camp. “You cannot deliver health care with a crane.”
During their brief access to the camp, aid agencies noted the potential spread of tuberculosis and whooping cough in the area, where temperatures reach 115 degrees in the summer and below freezing in winter.
Jordan plans for community leaders in the camp — tribal sheikhs and activists — to receive and distribute the aid.
Representatives of the camp say that while they welcome the assistance, the fears of Islamic State infiltration are “exaggerated.”