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Satellite image of the Rukban Syrian refugee encampment at the Jordanian berm on Jordan-Syria border, June 24, 2016.  © CNES 2016 / Distribution Airbus DS
Displaced Syrians are trapped as never before. The Rukban camp, a desolate encampment on Jordan’s remote northeastern border known as “the berm,” is a microcosm of Syria’s stranded civilians. They face an immediate threat as the Syrian government forces they fled advance along the border with Jordan.

Media outlets have reported that hundreds of the roughly 50,000 people there are now heading north, leaving the “no-man’s land” at the Syria-Jordan border and going back into Syria to face unknown dangers rather than to stay in a place of known suffering and increasing peril.

Since June 2016, when Jordan sealed its border with Syria, the Syrians in Rukban have been denied the right to seek asylum in Jordan and have had limited distributions of food and periodic cut-offs of water. Without any lawful authority protecting them, they have been at the dubious mercy of a Jordanian-backed militia, the Tribal Army, who appear to have controlled what little access they have to humanitarian assistance.  

Throughout Syria, millions of lives are at stake. In Idlib province, in Syria’s northwestern corner abutting Turkey, 2 million Syrians—approximately half of them displaced people—are hemmed in. They were forced from their homes into Idlib either as the only available place to flee the regime of Bashar al-Assad or transferred there as part of evacuation deals between the Syrian government and local Syrian councils and opposition groups. Idlib province is considered a “de-escalation zone,” based on an agreementamong some of the warring parties in Kazakhstan in May, but de-escalation is a far cry from “safe.”

Civilians there have no real assurances of safety or confidence that the area will not soon become a hot-war zone. In the meantime, armed groups—including al-Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which controls most of the province—exacerbate their misery by interfering with humanitarian aid. But what makes their situation truly dire is a barbed-wire topped concrete wall that blocks access to Turkey and the risk of being shot by Turkish border guards if they try to cross.

And in Lebanon an estimated 10,000 Syrian refugees and militants have returned to Syria since June, under deals negotiated primarily between Hezbollah and Syrian armed groups. Under these agreements, Syrians have returned to both Assad-government-held areas such as Assal Al-Ward as well as rebel-held Idlib—none of which can be considered safe.

Most of these returns have taken place from the northeast border town of Arsal, a restricted-access military area, where refugees told Human Rights Watch the living conditions and constant security raids on their camps were the main reasons behind their decision to head back into Syria. In the majority of cases, the UN Refugee Agency has not been able to interview returnees to ensure that the returns are voluntary. Now, the Lebanese Army is exerting firmer control over this once-porous border, and has arrested Syrians attempting to cross into Lebanon.

This bleak situation should come as no surprise. Syria’s neighbors have been signaling for years the limits of their capacity to host roughly 5 million Syrians, and the levels of international support continue to lag far behind the need. The UN humanitarian appeal for Syria is only 36.6 percent funded, while the appeal to support Syrian refugees in the region is funded at only 38 percent. US President Donald Trump’s order to suspend Syrian refugee resettlement and to ban entry of Syrians combined with the paltry resettlement offers from most European Union members speaks loudly to Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan about the extent of international support they can expect and the silence that will likely greet their pushbacks of refugees and asylum seekers.

But this is a situation that cannot simply be contained. Declaring zones de-escalated doesn’t make them so. In fact, Idlib is looking increasingly like a pressure cooker where civilians are feeling squeezed not only by the near doubling of the population of a province now mostly controlled by an al-Qaeda-linked group, but also by their fears that the Syrian government will turn its sights to the region and they will have no place to flee.

While peacemaking initiatives—including the Russia-, Turkey-, and Iran-brokered talks now in their sixth round in Astana, Kazakhstan—are welcome, the needs of civilians cannot be ignored. De-escalation zones cannot be a pretext for containing civilians trying to escape for their lives. All governments with capacity to support Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey both financially and through refugee resettlement, should do so, including by assisting these countries with screening new arrivals and ensuring their national security. As governments far from the conflict ramp up their assistance to the countries on the frontline, they need also to insist that pushing asylum seekers back to danger is not an acceptable response to war and humanitarian disaster.

When all other human rights have been lost, the last remaining right, the difference between life and death, is the right to flee. The denial of that right can be a death sentence. After more than six years of war in Syria, this cannot be allowed to be the way it ends.

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