Plight of Syrian refugees stranded near Jordan border worsens

Reuters News
Posted: May 29, 2013 12:44 PM

By Suleiman Al-Khalidi

AMMAN (Reuters) - Thousands of Syrian refugees stranded near the closed border with Jordan, including mothers and babies, are running out of food and many need medical treatment, aid workers and refugees said on Wednesday.

Jordan closed its northern border about 10 days ago after offering refuge to hundreds of thousands of Syrians who have fled violence since the revolt against President Bashar al-Assad's rule began in March 2011.

Syrians trying to enter through unofficial border crossings have also been turned back. Jordanian officials have given no explanation for the closure, according to refugees and aid workers who have had first-hand contact with border authorities.

The kingdom has since allowed only a handful of refugees across. Even civilians seeking medical treatment have been turned back and only critically wounded people have entered, according to aid workers.

Hundreds of refugees from areas as far north as Homs and from violence-torn suburbs of Damascus still arrive daily at the border villages of Nasib and Tel Shehab in southern Syria, a few kilometers from the main routes for entry into Jordan.

YouTube videos have shown refugees including mothers and babies who waited for hours in sweltering heat but were then refused entry by Jordanian army officers.

Frequent shooting from Syrian artillery positions at the official Syrian border crossing close by has prevented large numbers gathering on the frontier, they said.

Inhabitants of border villages seeking shelter from the fierce fighting and shelling were now also heading to other villages where relative calm prevails, instead of crossing the border.

Witnesses said the recent arrivals to these border villages had depleted already minimal food supplies and created a growing humanitarian crisis.

Aid workers say Jordan is also reluctant to allow supplies of flour and food into southern Syria, hindering their work.

"What I am doing is something no international aid committee has done," said Samer Hariri, speaking from Nasib. "Nor have they given me money to feed these people. This food is from Nasib and we are a group of volunteers who collect money and food for these people."

Close to 500,000 Syrian refugees out of a total of 1.5 million Syrians have sought shelter in Jordan, and only a fraction of the hundreds of millions of dollars of international aid pledged to help the Syrian refugees has arrived.

The kingdom has received an average of around 1,000 refugees daily since the start of the year.

Jordan has publicly denied it closed the frontier - such an acknowledgement would breach international obligations to keep borders open to refugees, but officials privately say the move signaled it could not absorb any more arrivals.

"There was a need to send a message that the world has failed to pay its dues" to support Jordan, said a senior official who requested anonymity.

U.N. and aid agencies helping the Jordanian authorities have avoided criticizing the kingdom's border move, at a time of mounting economic pressures on its deficit-ridden budget.

UNHCR's head of mission in Jordan Andrew Harper said the growing plight of the refugees showed the need to step up aid support inside Syria, possibly by setting up aid corridors, to relieve the pressure on the kingdom.

"There is a humanitarian need in southern Syria and we need to get support there one way or the other," Harper said.

"If we cannot give assistance to the population in southern Syria then they will have to come into Jordan ... Our objective is to help the Syrian population and at a certain point we have to look at the most practical way of doing it," he said.

Jordanian officials worry that opening the border to a flow of goods into rebel-held areas would anger Syrian authorities who instead insist any aid should be channeled through them.

(Editing by Dominic Evans and Pravin Char)