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Thousands of Syrian refugees left stranded near Jordanian border

Syrian refugees wait to cross the Jordanian Hadalat border from their makeshift camp near the city of Ruwaished on Jan. 14, 2016.

Annie Sakkab

The desolate fringe of northern Jordan is no place for a child. The winter sun beats down light, but little heat, and the wind burns hands and cheeks. A fine, gritty dust sticks to teeth and tongue. It is no place for pregnant women and nursing mothers, for the wounded and old and infirm, but they are here in their thousands, having hit a dead end on their flight from Syria's war.

About 17,000 Syrian refugees are stranded at a handful of settlements in the demilitarized zone in the far-flung eastern desert where Jordan and Syria meet. Nearly 1,000 more arrive each week, many from northern and eastern Syria, places like Homs, Hama, Raqqa and Deir ez-Zour – cities that have been hammered by Russian and coalition air strikes since late September.

The Jordanian border force, which controls the area where refugees have gathered, attributes the rapid increase – from 3,000 people in mid-September to nearly 17,000 this week – to Russia's aerial campaign in Syria.

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"The more attacks and air strikes there are, the more injured people and refugees there are," said Brigadier General Saber Taha Al-Mahayreh, the head of Jordan's border forces. "These people didn't come over a long time. They came in a short period of time, when attacks intensified."

The Syrians seek admission to Jordan, but few get it. While Jordan officially has an open border policy, the kingdom has reached its own limits to the number of Syrians it can host: 1.4 million Syrians on its territory or the equivalent of 20 per cent of its population.

"Jordan remains committed to its open border policy, while taking needed security measures to ensure that citizens and refugees are protected," government spokesman Mohammad Al Momani said. "Jordan's security is the first priority for the kingdom."

Jordanian officials fear admitting these refugees would draw more. Jordan's Azraq refugee camp is barely at 25 per cent capacity, and many of those in it soon vanish into the community – which Jordanian security forces do not want.

But humanitarians say Jordan could, and should, do more. Andrew Harper, the head of the UN's refugee agency in Jordan, said a war zone, or a demilitarized zone adjacent to it, is no place for a refugee camp.

"If you have a camp set up in an insecure area, it would be impossible to provide the necessary protection and assistance. To do this, we need constant access, which, due to the extreme location and insecurity, is not so simple," he said.

Hadalat, a crossing point a three-hour drive through the desert from Amman, illustrates the urgency of the issue. It is home to 1,300 Syrians, mainly from southern Daraa province and Damascus. A splay of tents haphazardly pitched in a rocky stretch of desert, Hadalat has no latrine or sewage system. Refugees remain on the northern side of an earthen berm, and border guards and aid workers distribute food, water and information from the berm, which they are legally prevented from passing.

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On Thursday, 64 Syrian refugees were granted entry to Jordan from Hadalat. Border guards said it had taken three weeks to complete the first stage of their health and security screenings, and many in the group of mostly women and children had been camped on the other side of the berm for several months.

Among them was a woman with blood pressure problems, along with mothers young and old, and dozens of children: Jordanian policy, citing security risks, is not to admit unmarried men over age 18.

The newly arrived refugees, wind-burned, dirty and exhausted, were quick to defend conditions on the other side of the berm.

Israa Al Naser, a mother of two from Daraa, had waited three months for entry, and was bound for Za'atari camp to be reunited with her parents and siblings. She began to cry as she spoke of her relief.

"My biggest fear was that I would spend too much time here and not get to see my family," she said. "For three months, I have stayed in a tent, only washing my children's heads and hands, for fear they would catch a fever and get sick."

Ms. Naser said she and her children had not wanted for food or blankets, but, like other refugees admitted in her group, some of her answers to questions from journalists had a rehearsed quality. Awaiting transport to the next processing centre, a group of women rested and held children clutching juice boxes. One young mother in niqab said there was "no care" for the refugees on the far side of the berm. A friend seated nearby elbowed her and said, "Watch out!"

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"Everything was fine," she corrected herself. "We had everything we needed."

At Ruqban, 100 kilometres east of Hadalat, conditions are markedly worse: 16,000 people have gathered here and, according to a Red Cross situation report made available to this newspaper, at least five people died in the first week of January, including a baby girl with hypothermia. Diseases, including leishmania and scabies, are rampant. At least 16 lactating mothers had no milk, and 200 women were reported as being in their last trimester of pregnancy.

Speaking this week on CNN, Jordan's King Abdullah II said of the refugees gathered along the berm: "Part of the problem is that they have come from the north of Syria, from Al Raqqa, Hasaka and Deir Ezzor, which is the heartland of where [the Islamic State] is. We know there are [Islamic State] members inside those camps."

The UN's Mr. Harper disputes this. "Refugees fleeing terrorism should not be lumped together as terrorists," he said.

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