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Video footage and satellite images showing makeshift grave sites and burial mounds offer a rare glimpse inside a desert no man’s land between Jordan and Syria where tens of thousands of refugees who have been virtually cut off from humanitarian aid for two months are stranded, said Amnesty International.
The video footage was obtained from Tribal Council of Palmyra and Badia, which has a network of activists operating inside the area known as the berm, and independently verified using satellite imagery.
Fresh accounts gathered by the organization, paint a desperate picture of human suffering and highlight the tragic consequences of the world’s failure to share responsibility for the global refugee crisis. Next week, world leaders will gather in New York for two high-level summits to discuss refugees.
“The situation at the berm offers a grim snapshot of the consequences of the world’s abject failure to share responsibility for the global refugee crisis. The knock on effect of this failure has seen many of Syria’s neighbours close their borders to refugees,” said Tirana Hassan, Crisis Response Director at Amnesty International.
“It’s a desperate picture for people trapped at the berm, food is running out and disease is rife. In some cases people are suffering or even dying from preventable illnesses, simply because they are not allowed into Jordan and the authorities have blocked access for aid, medical treatment and a meaningful humanitarian response.”
©Data via UNITAR-UNOSAT
Syria’s neighbours, including Jordan which is hosting 650,000 refugees, have taken in the vast majority of people fleeing the conflict, severely straining their resources. Ahead of the two summits next week Amnesty International is calling on world leaders to move beyond rhetoric and make concrete commitments to welcome their fair share of refugees, relieving the pressure on countries which are hosting large numbers of refugees. The organization is also calling on Jordan to grant immediate entry to refugees at the berm.
Starvation, sickness and death
Humanitarian assistance to the berm, which was already limited before, stopped completely when the Jordanian authorities sealed off the Rukban and Hadalat border crossings after a deadly attack killed seven border guards on 21 June. Since then, only one delivery of food aid was made in early August to more than 75,000 people stranded there. Aid agencies are barred by the Jordanian authorities from accessing the no man’s land area and were forced to drop supplies over the sandy ridge (berm) using cranes.
Abu Mohamed, who has been living in the informal camp at Rukban for five months said the situation there has sharply deteriorated since the 21 June attack.
“The humanitarian situation is very bad, the situation of children in particular is very bad. We have drinking water but hardly any food or milk… [it] is awful,” he said.
“Many people have died… They distributed just rice and lentils and a kilo of dried dates, but that was all for a whole month, they gave us nothing but that. The mood among the people in Rukban is below zero.”
Video footage obtained by Amnesty International shows two makeshift grave sites in Rukban revealing dozens of burial mounds in close proximity to refugee tents.
The lack of access to proper medical care and the dire conditions is a deadly combination. Poor hygiene, sanitation conditions and limited access to clean water are reported to have led to an outbreak of hepatitis, which is believed to be the leading cause of child deaths in Rukban.
Humanitarian sources indicate that since June there have been at least 10 deaths from hepatitis. Sources in Rukban and members of the Tribal Council of Palmyra and Badia said many of those who have died are children who were suffering from jaundice which occurs as a result of hepatitis.
Aid workers have also reported that at least nine childbirth-related deaths took place since 21 June. A significant number of pregnant women are reportedly among the refugee population unable to access medical care.
The total number of deaths that have occurred is difficult to verify given the lack of access to the berm.
Slide to display before and after image of shelters at Rukban
According to sources inside Rukban, in late August a 20-year-old man died from complications of jaundice most likely as a result of hepatitis. He is reported to have bled to death from gastrointestinal bleeding. The lack of medical treatment meant there was nothing that could be done to save his life.
Among the other most prevalent illnesses spreading in the camp are respiratory infections, dehydration, leishmaniasisand diarrhoea.
Satellite images obtained by Amnesty International show that since the end of 2015 the population density near the two informal border camps at Rukban and Hadalat has risen significantly.
Although the number of refugees at Hadalat decreased slightly following the halt to the humanitarian response in June and nearby Russian airstrikes in July, overall there has been steady rise in the number of refugees at the berm.
At Rukban the overall number of shelters rose from just 368 a year ago to 6,563 in late July 2016 and most recently increased to more 8,295 in September 2016. This dramatic influx highlights the fact that over the past few months thousands of people have continued to flee the conflict in Syria where war crimes and other grave violations are being committed on a daily basis.
Security concerns heighten restrictions
The Jordanian authorities have repeatedly cited security concerns as their reason for closing the border, halting humanitarian operations at the berm. Jordan’s Minister of State for Media Affairs Mohammed al-Momani told Amnesty International that the area around the berm is “becoming a Daesh enclave” (controlled by the armed group calling itself Islamic State). While he acknowledged that the humanitarian situation there is difficult and said that Jordan is ready to assume its share of responsibility he also called on the UN and international community to do their fair share for the refugees at the berm.
“There is no question that security is an important consideration, but protecting people in Jordan should not come at the expense of providing humanitarian assistance and protection to those desperately in need,” said Tirana Hassan.
Jordan has previously welcomed refugees from Syria through its borders and carried out rigorous screening and registration processes prior to allowing their entry into the country. The authorities can use these processes again to open their doors to refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria, while ensuring security at the same time.
The UN is negotiating plans with the Jordanian authorities to shift humanitarian aid distribution points some 2km into the no man’s land area, away from the Jordanian border creating a buffer zone, to allow humanitarian operations to resume.
“Whether aid is distributed at the berm’s edge or 2km away does not change the fact that there are tens of thousands of people seeking international protection on Jordan’s doorstep, nor does it absolve the authorities’ obligation to offer a safe haven to those fleeing conflict and persecution,” said Tirana Hassan.
“Directly or indirectly forcing refugees to return to Syria by refusing access and imposing intolerable living conditions on them is a flagrant violation of Jordan’s international obligations. The authorities must allow unfettered humanitarian access to refugees who are trapped. Any attempt to coerce or ask them to move should be rejected.”
Any longer term solution however, needs to be a global one. Internationally, resettlement places for refugees from Syria remain woefully insufficient. Countries in the region continue to bear the brunt of the refugee crisis, with more than four million refugees in just three countries.
“Without real commitments to boost resettlement followed by concrete action, next week’s refugee summits will serve as little more than a token gesture,” said Tirana Hassan.
“Failing to provide a long term solution for refugees stranded at the berm will point not just to the world’s failure there, but their failure of refugees worldwide.”