Syria/Jordan politics: From haven to hell

Jul 23, 2016



THE hospitality of the Jordanian government reached its limits on June 21st, when a terrorist attack on the last entry point from Syria into Jordan killed seven Jordanian soldiers. The authorities slammed the border shut, and King Abdullah said that Jordan would respond "with an iron fist against anyone who tries to tamper with its security and borders".The closure has turned a desperate situation into a humanitarian black hole. According to the UN, more than 70,000 people are now stranded in a harsh no-man's land-between Jordan and Syria, known as the berm (see map). No one knows the exact numbers in the settlements, nor indeed what life is like there, since the attack has stopped aid flowing in and information flowing out.Before aid agencies were shut out reports and video footage suggested a hostile refuge. Mice and disease roam amid the sprawl of dusty tents. In May an NGO reported that women were using nappies to avoid defecating in the open, and that mothers were covering their newborn babies' faces to protect them from rat bites.In the blistering heat and without shade, water or greenery, the inhabitants depend on help from outside. But since June 21st the Jordanian government has blocked anything other than water from passing through. That means that for a month no food or medical services from the Jordanian side have reached the people stuck there. At first even the water did not get through to the berm, as people within refused it in the absence of food.Aid workers are racing to negotiate better access. By July 20th the UN's World Food Programme had a provisional agreement to send food in, but had been unable to get final Jordanian approval. Even this would buy it time only to explore other options, none of which looks good. Trucking in help through Syria would mean travelling through territory held by the hostage-beheaders of Islamic State. Dropping it from the sky would require permission from the Syrian, Russian, American and Jordanian governments, as well as being hugely expensive.The people there will need to move. Before the attack Jordan's government had offered to fly them to wherever will take them, but so far no country has offered to. It closed other crossing points from Syria to reduce the influx of refugees, not expecting the fighting to push so many towards this passage of last resort. The aid on offer, and the hope of entry into Jordan, drew yet more in. Meanwhile the lawless vacuum has been a magnet for militias.There are no easy exits. A return to Syria is too unsafe for most, though a very few may be going back. But last month's attack made entry into Jordan much harder. The country's authorities want to preserve its status as a haven in a region on fire and reassure citizens already disgruntled by the refugee influx.The Jordanian government has an economic motive, too, for sealing off the settlements; it has long exploited its geography to squeeze goodies from worried foreigners. On July 20th, for example, details of preferential access for Jordan's exports to the EU were announced, in exchange for expanding Syrians' right to work in Jordan.The situation at the berm reminds foreign governments and agencies that Jordan has already taken in 660,000 registered refugees, putting huge pressure on its infrastructure and services. Even before the attack, Azraq camp, which had been receiving people from the berm, was nearly full. In Mafraq, where half the residents are Syrian refugees, rubbish piles up too fast for collectors to keep up. And donors have fallen short of their promises. With half of the year gone, only a third of the aid promised to Jordan at February's conference in London has come through.
The Economist Newspaper LimitedSource: The Economist