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Jordan’s Open Door Is Now Only Cracked, Leaving Syrians Stranded

AMMAN, Jordan — Thousands of Syrians, mostly women and children, have been stranded for weeks on Jordan’s border, according to international aid agencies who say Jordan appears to be increasingly turning away Syrians fleeing war at home.

“We’ve received reports there’s a large group of Syrians near the Jordanian border,” said Andrew Harper, the top official with the United Nations refugee agency in Jordan, which has been one of the countries most open to Syrians in the past. “What we’re calling for is that all vulnerable persons are provided access to asylum.”

Mr. Harper and other aid officials say that the flow of Syrians into Jordan has slowed substantially in recent weeks as domestic tension has risen over the growing refugee population from Syria and Iraq. Fears about terrorist infiltrators have also increased.

The Syrians stuck at the border have presumably been turned away by border guards, the aid workers say, and have built makeshift shelters in a desolate stretch of desert north of Mafraq, Jordan, in an apparent hope that the country will eventually allow them in.

A satellite image published this month by the United Nations showed around 155 shelters. The International Organization for Migration has estimated that about 2,700 people were waiting there, but a document circulated among countries contributing money for the refugees and obtained by The New York Times put the number at up to 4,000.

The situation has contributed to a growing alarm among aid agencies over what they see as the decreasing options for Syrians seeking refuge from the war tearing their country apart. A recent report by two aid groups showed the number of Syrians accepted as refugees in the region declined by 88 percent last month as nations like Jordan that already host many refugees are becoming overwhelmed.

The Jordanian government, which limits access by journalists to the border, would not discuss the aid agencies’ claims about the people waiting just over the border.

“We cannot attest to something outside our border,” said Mohammad Momani, a government spokesman, adding that all those arriving at border crossings were being screened according to the procedures agreed on with the United Nations.

In an interview, Mr. Harper of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (U.N.H.C.R.) said that the numbers of refugees crossing into Jordan had decreased sharply since September.

“In September, we’ve had around 6,000 people cross into Jordan; in October, we’ve had around 500 people; and in November, we’ve had very very few people cross the border,” Mr. Harper said. The International Organization for Migration figures also attest to the drop in numbers.

The Syrian civil war, now in its fourth year, has caused an influx of more than 600,000 refugees to Jordan, which has a population of 6.5 million. Lebanon, Egypt and Turkey have been among other countries taking in some of the more than three million Syrians who have fled the fighting.

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But the joint report by the Norwegian Refugee Council and the International Rescue Committee released last week suggested that many civilians who were fleeing were finding it more difficult to find refuge, leading to “a new level of hopelessness.”

On average, more than 150,000 Syrians were able to cross into neighboring countries each month in 2013, the report said. Last month, the number of new refugees declined to 18,453.

Lebanon last month announced it was denying entry to all but “exceptional” refugee cases.

In Jordan, analysts and aid workers say the refugees appear, in part, to be caught in a struggle over who will take care of them in the long term.

“Jordan is saying we cannot bear this responsibility alone anymore,” said Oraib al-Rantawi, director of Al Quds Center for Political Studies, a Jordanian research institute. “The international community and the Arab countries need to contribute and find a solution to the refugee crisis whether it’s through direct aid and support to Jordan or through safe areas or havens inside Syria.”

Petra, the official Jordanian news agency, on Wednesday picked up a news report from Japan in which the king, who is visiting, thanked the country for its aid but also spoke of the continuing challenges for his country.

“Foreign aid to Jordan and to the U.N. refugee agency reached only 29 percent of what is needed this year, and the rest of burden will fall onto our shoulders,” King Abdullah II is quoted saying.

In addition, fears of infiltration rose after Jordan in September joined the United States-led military campaign against the Islamic State terrorist group operating in Syria and Iraq.

As winter approaches, aid agencies worry conditions will further deteriorate for the refugees stranded on Jordan’s border. The aid agencies say they have been allowed to provide basic aid such as food and blankets through the Jordanian military and border guards. But they have not been allowed to visit the refugees.

“We’re calling on all the countries in the region to allow those refugees who are fleeing the conflict to enter and calling on the international community to do more,” Mr. Harper said.


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