No-Man’s Land

In the north-eastern corner of Jordan, where the country borders both Iraq and Syria, a barrier resembling a mound of earth extends across the desert. Running parallel to this barrier is a second mound of earth, this time within Syrian territory. The area of desert between these two mounds is the demilitarized zone between southern Syria and northern Jordan is known as “the berm”. The area is pretty much as uninviting as it gets. There are scorpions, snakes, swarms of insects, but no shade from the blistering summer sun, and no vegetation to use for bonfires on bitterly cold winter nights. This is no-man’s-land. No man is supposed to be here. No man should need to be here either, but nonetheless many thousands of Syrian refugees are living right here. Having fled their homes in Syria, but with no possibility of entering into neighbouring Jordan, they are stranded here in “the berm”.

As always with major refugee crises such as the Syrian, is difficult to be certain how many refugees are present in the different locations across the region. Aid organizations estimate that as many as 85,000 refugees may be stranded in the berm. What these refugees want – the reason why they came here in the first place – is to cross the border into Jordan. Their dream is for an organized refugee camp. As far as dreams go, this must be said to be pretty unambitious. Even so, it has proved hard to realize. Jordan is a relatively small country with few resources and 6.5 million inhabitants. The UNHCR has registered over 650,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan. The Jordanian authorities believe that the true number, however, exceeds one million. In their view, enough is enough.

Until the summer of 2016, “the berm“ functioned as a waiting place, a kind of human air-lock. It took a while, sometimes several months, but the refugees slowly but surely trickled across the border to Jordan. But when an IS attack killed six Jordanian guards at the Rukhban border station in June 2016, the Jordanian authorities responded by closing all points of entry. Security must be the number one priority, said the Kingdom, which feared the presence of IS sympathizers among the refugees. No one was allowed to leave the area. Nothing was allowed in. In practice, the refugees opted either to stay where they were, or to set out on an exhausting and hazardous journey back to the war that they had originally fled.

As a result, from June to November last year, 85,000 people were abandoned to their own devices, without the humanitarian aid that they were entitled to as refugees. The only delivery of aid came in August, when several tonnes of food, water, blankets and medicines were lifted over to the refugees with the help of a giant crane. From a crisis-management point of view, this delivery perhaps represented some form of creative highlight, but if we are talking about human dignity, surely emergency-aid-by-crane must be pretty much rock-bottom?

Later in the autumn of 2017, Jordan permitted a resumption of aid. They are still refusing, though, to allow the refugees entry into the country, with the exception of extreme cases of humanitarian hardship. So far the Syrians are surviving with what they already had and the aid they are receiving, but this situation is obviously not sustainable in the longer term. They are living in the middle of a desert. It is a no-man’s-land. Everything at “the berm” is laborious, difficult and dangerous. There are no roads, water or infrastructure. But for so long as it is unsafe to return home, and for so long as Jordan refuses them entry, the refugees will remain stranded here.

In some ways, the aid-by-crane episode was illustrative of the Western response to the refugee crisis: “Don’t come here, just hang in there, and we’ll help to you where you are.” The deals that were brokered with Greece and Turkey faced immediate criticism for breaching international refugee law. Now it seems that their practical implementation is also proceeding far too slowly. Refugees are stranded not only in the no-man’s-land of “the berm”, but in Greece and in Italy.

An additional concern is that the current policy has serious consequences for the ways in which refugees are being treated in the areas close to the conflict. Large-scale development aid is generally accompanied by a mass of demands on the recipient countries. Western aid money comes with some strings attached. But in current negotiations with – and exhortations to – local governments regarding their handling of the refugee crisis, we (as in donor countries) are quite simply in a weaker position than was previously the case.

Turns out holding aloft the banner of international refugee law is getting complicated, when the banner itself is tearing at the seams and its pole is breaking in two. King Abdullah of Jordan’s statement to the BBC in February 2016 was telling with regard to the problems now faced by Western countries when we demand respect for international law and conventions in the regions close to the conflict. King Abdullah suggested that if Europe wanted to take the moral high ground, then Jordan would be happy to transport all the refugees to the nearest airbase in order to fly them to Europe, so that they could live there instead. A deadly effective checkmate played by the King.

This post was first published in Norwegian in Dagsavisen: Der ingen skulle tru…“. Translation from Norwegian was done by Fidotext. This post also appeared on the PRIO blog.