Thousands of Syrian refugees trapped in desert

  • Date October 16 2014
  • Publication The Times

Aid workers say thousands of Syrian refugees are trapped in no man’s land at the Jordanian border, and fear that many have been sent back to their war-ravaged country.

Last week an internal email from a leading humanitarian organisation claimed that 4,000 Syrians were stranded in the desert between the two countries without food, water or shelter. This week a second email said the group, mostly women, children and the elderly, had grown to 6,500. It expressed fears that a large number of refugees were being sent back to Syria, in a gross violation of international law.

Over the past week about 950 of the trapped Syrians are thought to have crossed the earthen berm that marks the beginning of Jordan, but fewer than a hundred reached the Azraq or Zaatari refugee camps. The rest, the email said, are thought to still be undergoing security screening or have been sent back to Syria. “We’re trying to work through the sequence of events and find out where everyone is,” an aid worker said.

Jordanian authorities have denied accusations of forcible deportation. “Any time Syrian refugees are sent back it is done in line with regulations agreed with international organisations. There’s a form they fill out declaring voluntary return,” said Mohammad al-Momani, the minister of information.

However, Paul Foreman, the head of the Jordan operation of Médecins Sans Frontières, accused the government of obstructing its work. “We sent a team to the border to treat patients and assess future treatment for the stranded population. But 30km away my team was turned back by security forces,” he said.

One of those stranded in the desert, Mr Foreman said, is a young woman, pregnant and with an infant, who is trying to find her five-year-old child wounded in the war who was taken to Jordan alone, months ago, for surgery.

International law prevents the child going back to Syria unaccompanied, so his mother set out across the desert at the start of October, the only option she had to reach her child. She has not been heard from in more than a week.