(Washington) – The United States should help Jordan transfer an estimated 70,000 Syrians stuck in appalling conditions at its northeastern border to a safe location, Human Rights Watch said in a letter to President Barack Obama that was released today. The United States should also step up its efforts to resettle Syrians who are living in Jordan and other neighboring countries.

Syrians refugees at the berm between the Jordanian and Syrian borders, January 14, 2016.

© 2016 Reuters
“It is critically important to help Jordan find a solution to move these highly vulnerable people to a safe place where they can be screened for security concerns and protection needs,” said Bill Frelick, refugee rights director at Human Rights Watch. “We are urging President Obama not only to help Jordan increase its capacity to provide asylum, but also to step up efforts to resettle the refugees in the US and to encourage other countries to do the same.”

Jordan hosts 657,000 Syrian refugees. But, since July 2014, the Jordanian authorities have trapped tens of thousands of other Syrian asylum seekers for months at a time in a barren desert area just north of a raised sand barrier, or “berm.” The barrier marks the limit of a demilitarized zone inside Jordan, several hundred meters south of the Syrian-Jordanian border. Until June 21, 2016, Jordan had allowed aid agencies to provide limited food, water, and medical aid to the increasing numbers of people stuck in the area, while they awaited transfer to refugee screening centers.

Since June 21, however, when an explosives-laden truck from the armed extremist group Islamic State killed seven Jordanian soldiers at a border post, Jordan has allowed no one in the berm area to enter farther into Jordan. Between June 21 and August 3, Jordan blocked all deliveries of food and medical assistance, which people in the berm area depend on for survival, to the estimated 70,000 people there, half of them children. On August 3-4, Jordan permitted the UN agencies to temporarily resume limited deliveries.

Jordan has asked the UN to lay out other options for providing assistance to the Syrians at the berm, and various options have been discussed with interested government and UN agency representatives in New York and Beirut. Among the proposals discussed were to move the people at the berm 10 kilometers inside Syria, to allow aid deliveries across the Syrian border or internal conflict lines, or to use air drops or a crane to deliver food and assistance. No agency has announced a practical method to provide aid inside Syria in these remote desert locations.

“Providing sporadic assistance, while necessary in terms of immediate needs, is not a sufficient solution: what is imperative is to bring these people to safety,” Frelick said. “Aid can’t be a substitute for protection.”

In December 2015, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said that Jordan was putting the lives of refugees at risk by trapping them at the berm, including “women …giv[ing] birth in unsanitary and unhygienic conditions, … [people with] respiratory tract infections, gastroenteritis, skin disease… diarrhea, vomiting and acute malnutrition.” Since that time, conditions at the berm have significantly deteriorated.

In the July 28 letter to President Obama, Human Rights Watch urges the United States, which will host a major summit on the Global Refugee Crisis on September 20, to show leadership by working with Jordan, a close ally, to move the stranded asylum seekers to a safe location. The letter says that the United States and other donor governments should provide financial, technical, and logistical support to enable Jordan to transfer asylum seekers from the berm to a secure location and that the US should step up its efforts to resettle or accept Syrian refugees into the US.

One suggestion from Human Rights Watch is to fly some of the asylum seekers directly to places where they would have the right under US law to lodge asylum claims and where they could stay in safety and dignity while undergoing screening.

As of August 1, UNHCR had registered 657,000 Syrians in Jordan. Human Rights Watch has repeatedly called for other countries to increase their assistance to Jordan and to resettle greater numbers of the Syrian refugees living in Jordan. International donors should also step up assistance to Jordan and aid agencies working on the Syria crisis, including through long-term development funding. UNHCR Jordan has received 59 percent of its budget request for 2016.

“The crisis at the Jordanian border gives the United States the opportunity to demonstrate to the world that refugee crises can be managed in compassionate ways that both save lives and provide for greater regional and global security,” Frelick said.