Magazine article Forced Migration Review

Competing Security and Humanitarian Imperatives in the Berm

Magazine article Forced Migration Review

Competing Security and Humanitarian Imperatives in the Berm

Article excerpt

When the Government of Jordan severely restricted entry through its border with Syria at Rabaa' al-Sarhan in October 2014, 5,000 internally displaced Syrians were turned away. They established temporary shelters within 200 metres of Jordan, and in doing so they planted a seed in the desert that has grown into two informal tented settlements: Rukban, with 60,000 inhabitants, and Hadalat, with 1,000.

Separated from Jordan by a rocky barrier of sand - known as a 'berm' - these settlements have suffered from internal instability, insufficient access to food, water and non-food aid, pervasive health problems, and regular attacks by both the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and Syrian Arab Armed Forces (SAAF). The vulnerability of the inhabitants of what is now known as the Berm has been perpetuated by Jordan's continuing border closure and restrictions on humanitarian access citing security concerns. Several aid agencies have cooperated with Jordan's restrictions (including on public communications in relation to the Berm) in order to secure limited access to the settlements but this has only served to prolong conditions of vulnerability and create a norm of secrecy that has in turn prevented a candid analysis of the costs and benefits of Jordan's closed border policy. The situation is complex, and this article is not intended to be accusatory but rather to present information that will allow more balanced cost-benefit analysis of the border closure policy. Security goals and humanitarianism do not need to be in competition but without accurate information policymakers can misperceive or misrepresent these interests as mutually exclusive.

Dodging the humanitarian imperative

While Jordan overtly attributed the border closings to security concerns about terrorists among the refugee population, an unspoken motivation was the growing sense of the country's incapacity to support the growing population of 600,000 Syrian refugees (7% of Jordan's total population) which was putting stress on Jordan's economy, services and infrastructures.

In addition to citing security concerns, Jordan, with support from its international backers, avoided international legal responsibility by stating that those people fleeing the conflict who were now sheltering in the border area 'grey zone' were in fact internally displaced persons (IDPs), situated away from Jordanian territory in 'no man's land', flexibly interpreting the Sykes-Picot boundaries established in 1916.1 Domestically, Jordan had its own interpretation of certain aspects of national laws and the Arab Charter on Human Rights (Jordan has not fully ratified the 1951 UN Refugee Convention nor its Protocol) to authorise both refoulement of Syrians from Jordan to the Berm and to prevent the crossing of vulnerable Syrians.

These actions have directly threatened Berm inhabitants' right to life. Temporary shelters are mostly improvised tents, three metres by three metres, constructed of disintegrating materials and occupied by three to ten people. Dusty conditions with limited food, water, medical care and hygiene facilities have resulted in a high prevalence of communicable diseases, malnutrition, and child and maternal deaths.

With restricted access, aid agencies have developed creative ways to deliver relief across the border, including airdrops and the use of cranes to drop supplies into the Berm, where children with donkey carts then distribute resources throughout Rukban. UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and UNICEF, the UN Children's Fund, have also airlifted Syrian volunteers into Jordan for training in community health and refugee law, and then returned them to the Berm to conduct medical evaluations, polio vaccinations, documentation gathering and shelter repairs.

Only a small minority of Berm residents can cross into Jordan, either for emergency treatment or for settlement in the Azraq refugee camp some 300km away. On average only three Berm families per week are allowed through the Bustana or Ruwayshid Transit Centres for settlement in Jordan. …

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