On half a kilometer of desert no-man’s land, surrounded by sand and stones, 70,000 people are crammed into a camp on the Jordanian border with Syria. Ruqban is a black hole, an oasis-hell 130 kilometers from the nearest village and the nearest water well. In recent years, Ruqban has become a refugee camp, monitored day and night by King Abdullah’s military.
There’s no turning back. But there’s no going forward either.
This is the policy that many Arab countries have adopted since welcoming millions of Syrian refugees: Turkey has sealed the borders for a year and a half and has shot at those trying to pass through. Lebanon has canceled residence permits and suspended new arrivals.
Amman, for its part, has cut aid. At least to Ruqban. In this piece of dry, hot desert, where the curtains are made of plastic sheets, international organizations provide the bare minimum for survival. But today they are blocked from entering Ruqban. That’s the order from the Jordanian government, which has declared the area a “closed military zone” after a June 21 attack claimed by ISIS. A militant blew himself up at a military base one kilometer from Ruqban, killing seven Jordanian soldiers and wounding 13.
And just like in Europe, Turkey and Lebanon, the government has pointed the finger at the flows of desperate people, among the 1.2 million of whom ISIS terrorists could be hiding. With this justification, the Hashemite monarchy closed most border crossings in 2013, leaving only Ruqban and Hadalat open. Both are so far from inhabited areas that it’s impossible for refugees to move. Only by paying smugglers from local tribes (the same ones who sell medicine and basic necessities at exorbitant prices), some families were able to leave.
Since Monday, the area has been reinforced. The government has promised zero tolerance for any movement in the area. No mention of the Free Syrian Army fighters, weapons in hand, who continue to enter Syria through Ruqban after training with the CIA. Yet food trucks and water tankers from Ruwaished, the nearest town, are not allowed. “These continue to be denied access,” said Red Cross spokesman Hala Shamlawi on Friday. “We are concerned about the people trapped there.”
That concern has already grown into an emergency: It’s been a week since the 70,000 refugees have received supplies, and water is running out (each person received only a little previously: 1.5 liters per day in a place that regularly exceeds 100 degrees). And as food runs out, 30,000 children are at risk of starvation. “Rations will end in a few days,” said Dina el Kassaby of the World Food Program.
Before Jordan abandon entirely Ruqban the situation was already pushing the limit: Doctors Without Borders calculated 1,300 malnourished children in a place without a clinic or schools. Scorpions dash between the makeshift tents, and rats scurry through the garbage. The last time aid arrived a month ago, they brought enough for two weeks. Then the attack stopped any kind of flow. International agencies have been negotiating for days with Amman, which so far has only allowed them to send some water cisterns.
The situation is so dramatic that some are taking the most extreme decision: return to Syria. “We are receiving stories of people who have decided to return to Syria because of the terrible conditions in this remote and desolate desert,” Human Rights Watch researcher Gerry Simpson told Al Jazeera. Or ask Doctors Without Borders put it: Risk dying of war or risk dying of starvation. “This is a huge failure of the international community.”
But as Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh told Western nations on Wednesday, national security takes precedence over humanitarian emergencies. That’s a language Europe understands. But even the Jordanian government spokesman took a poke at European hypocrisy. “We welcomed 200 refugees a day in the past. We don’t have to show our credentials to anyone when it comes to hospitality. We are ready to transfer them to any country that wants to accommodate them. We’ll even use our own planes.”