The slice of no man’s land separating war-torn Syria from the comparative stability of Jordan has, for more than two years, been a thoroughfare for refugees. More than a million people have staggered out of Syria and over an earthen berm into Jordan, clutching toddlers, suitcases and whatever documents they could carry.
Last week, however, for the first time since this war began, they apparently stopped coming. An internal email from a leading humanitarian organisation reveals that, in the last five days of September, not a single refugee was admitted into Jordan.
The email, seen by The Times, noted that during this time about 4,000 Syrians became trapped in the no man’s land between the two countries; unwilling to return to the war they fled and unable to reach the sanctuary they sought. Most are women, children and the elderly; the typical refugee demographic. It is not known what supplies they have, nor how they are coping, unsheltered, in the heat of the desert by day and the increasingly chilly nights. Between 500 and 750 displaced Syrians are arriving at the border each day, the email noted, with nowhere to go.
The Jordanian government has denied closing its border. “Jordan maintains an open border policy. Injured people, women, children and others are allowed in. Sometimes due to security situations delays happen but this is left to the judgment of border guards on the ground,” Mohammad al-Momani, the minister of information, said.
Jordan has long advocated a political solution to the Syrian crisis, and has balanced humanitarian obligations with its own security priorities. This has meant maintaining diplomatic relations with Damascus at the same time as it quietly works with the Free Syrian Army rebels along the border to facilitate the crossing over of well over a million refugees.
“We didn’t ask for this war but we’re stuck with it,” Mr al-Momani said. “We are bearing the consequences of this conflict. You can’t just change neighbours.”
Jordan’s border is tightly managed by thousands of border guards, a network of cameras, an air force that is quick to scramble and, reportedly, drones. The kingdom’s well-known rules of engagement call for warning shots to be fired above any intruders and, if those intruders do not stop, they are eliminated.
Petra, Jordan’s state news agency, has reported that an increase in the number of attempted infiltrations was a compelling reason for the country to take part in US-led airstrikes on Isis, but insiders said that few of those attempts had succeeded. Mr al-Momani called the border “one of the best-protected in the world”.
Every move is choreographed. Syrian refugees typically enter Jordan through any of 45 unofficial crossing points, where Jordanian troops reportedly liaise with rebels on the other side by satellite phone, confirming who is crossing and when. Refugees and aid workers say that Jordanian security services are present throughout the process, underscoring Jordan’s commitment to security.
With Jordan’s two big Syrian refugee camps running well below capacity, the country has space for more. Whether it has the appetite is another matter.