On the desolate eastern edge of the Syria-Jordan border, where six Jordanian soldiers were killed in a suicide attack launched from Syria on Tuesday, hundreds of miles from the nearest town, a humanitarian crisis is gathering speed.
Here, in the demilitarised zone that runs between Jordan and Syria like a narrow belt, more than 60,000 Syrians have gathered around a remote border outpost called Ruqban, one of the last crossing points where Jordanian border guards had admitted small numbers of refugees. After Tuesday’s suicide attack, that border is now closed.
With more people arriving than leaving, refugees have piled up where the demilitarised zone meets the closely-guarded Jordanian border. Desperate for food and water in a parched, wind-beaten desert, the Syrians at Ruqban have become a global humanitarian talking point.
In September 2015, satellite images showed 2,000 people camped out just north of the sand berm (a low defensive bank) that separates Jordan proper from the demilitarised border area. Most were women and children. By the end of the year, it was 12,000, and by late January 2016, satellite images showed 20,000 people marooned in the desert.
Under pressure from agencies, the United States and a number of EU governments, in early spring Jordanian authorities began admitting more refugees from Ruqban, and increasing the amount of food, water and medical aid available to the people still north of the berm. But by then, the situation had changed.
What began as a humanitarian issue has spiralled into a security crisis as the number of people at Ruqban has ballooned beyond all expectation. Pushed from their homes by air strikes, destruction and insecurity, Syria’s displaced have been pulled south in hopes of aid, entry to Jordan, and the safety they believe comes with being on a neighbouring country’s frontier, safe – from bombs, shelling and barrels – in its shadow.
But at Ruqban, that safety is an illusion. The people on the berm are no longer just vulnerable would-be refugees. Around them, a parasitic ecosystem has taken root: the smugglers who drive the displaced south through regime-held Syria, merchants and profiteers selling food and medicine at vastly inflated prices, bandits, warring tribes and militants of various stripes.
As the size of the settlement has grown, any control Jordanian authorities once had over it has vanished. Legally prevented from entering the demilitarised zone, Jordanian border guards can only go as far north as the berm. They and aid workers operate from positions on this chest-high mound of dirt, peering into a seething, chaotic settlement the size of a small city, powerless to control it.
“It’s absolute chaos, a totally unacceptable situation,” said one aid worker with access to the area. She, like other humanitarian staff interviewed for this article, spoke on condition of anonymity through fear of impacting her organisation’s access to the area.
“We’re abandoning the most vulnerable to that mess, women and children and female-headed households to that mess, and they’re being eaten alive by the most powerful. These people are being treated like bait for criminal gangs, or like criminals themselves,” she said.
For the Jordanian government, Ruqban’s descent into chaos is a concern for the kingdom’s own stability.
“This situation raises security concerns, not only because of Daesh elements, as our credible information indicates, but also the expected lawless environment of tens of thousands of people,” Jordanian government spokesman Mohammad Al Momani told me.
According to Jordanian security sources, that credible information includes tip-offs about batteries and other bomb-making supplies being positioned near the border, and confiscated mobile phones loaded with ISIL photos, videos and even nasheeds [a capella lyrics] as ringtones.
Jordanian security sources say the government relies heavily on “human surveillance” to find out what is happening deeper into the two-kilometre-deep demilitarised zone between the Jordanian and Syrian berms, and on the far side of the Syrian berm, where recent satellite images show a marked increase in the number of structures.
Aid workers say they are also using a catapult-launched surveillance drone, likely a Shadow model, flown from the Ruqban military base just 2km south of the border.
“Every shot, every fracas on the berm, and the drone is launched,” said an aid worker who has worked at the berm daily for several months.
According to aid workers and to refugees who have been admitted to Jordan from Ruqban, shots and fracas are increasingly common as people fight over resources.
There are just four water spigots at Ruqban, fed by a fleet of at least 40 water trucks sent up on daily runs to the border. People queue all day in the sun to fill plastic buckets and bottles, but as the day wears on and tempers fray, it is common, refugees say, for scuffles to break out over places in the queue, and for those brawls to lead to inter-tribal fighting and full-on rioting.
Even on days that pass without incident at the spigots, the water sent up isn’t enough for the number of people on the berm. According to aid workers, the amount trucked up daily, divided by recent population counts, is five litres per person per day, whereas the international humanitarian standard is 22 litres per person. In the heat of the desert, a lactating woman needs eight litres per day at a minimum – and Ruqban, with a population of more than two-thirds women and children according to United Nations data, has around double the average incidence of pregnant women. There is simply not enough water to go around.
Due to fighting, there often isn’t enough food to go around, either.
“There was a lot of physical fighting in the men’s lines at the berm. During meal distributions, the families with lots of shabab [teenage boys] would eat because their sons would attack the food distribution point, the crowd would surge, and this slow, fat dad wouldn’t eat,” said Mediyan Mazouk, pointing at his own ample frame. He, his wife and their four children spent July 2015 through January on the berm before being admitted to Jordan’s Azraq Camp.
“The most chaotic times at the berm were when they were distributing food and water,” he said.
With word spreading of long waits at Ruqban and a need for cash to buy basics, more people are coming with a bit of money to spend on necessities for sale through the network of black-market traders clustered around the Syrian berm.
Um Tarek, a mother of six from Reef Aleppo, now at Azraq after spending two-and-a-half months at Ruqban, told me she had bought pain-relief tablets and fever medication for her children for 350 Syrian pounds (Dh6) at the berm – the same medication she would have paid 100 or 150 pounds for at home. She spent her last cash on it.
According to refugees at Azraq and from photos and video of the area, most of the goods for sale at Ruqban are around twice the price they would have been at home in Syria. Fresh lamb, for those with the money, is available for 1,200 to 1,500 pounds per kilo – compared with 700, normally.
Mediyan explained the desperation that drove him to pay these prices over five-and-a-half long months.
“You don’t have any choice: you have to buy it. He could be selling it to you for 300 or 500 pounds, but you have to buy it, because it is the only tomato,” he said.
The economics of life at Ruqban underscore how unlike a refugee camp it actually is. Whereas a primary principle of refugee camps is the provision of safety, at Ruqban there is no safety: not from smugglers and traffickers, not from militants and inter-tribal violence, not from the teenage boys who would rush a weaker person alone in the queue and prevent him and his family from eating.
While authorities police the berm they stand on, they cannot enter the camp to address the security and health and safety disasters which refugees say are taking place: rampant leishmaniasis (skin disease transmitted by sandflies), dig-your-own latrines with human waste everywhere, six-inch rats and no access to shovels to bury the dead deep.
Ruqban fails to meet many of the basic humanitarian requirements of a refugee camp. It also fails on another front: proximity to military activity. Ruqban is 2km from a Jordanian military base of the same name, where Jordanian, British and US Special Forces provide support to an opposition group called the New Syrian Forces, which is battling ISIL less than 15km from the berm.
Last week, there were three Russian air strikes on the New Syrian Forces, shattering any illusion of safety the residents of Ruqban may have had. Then on Tuesday, a car laden with explosives drove into watchtower 22, just 5km from Ruqban, detonating and killing six Jordanian troops. Another 14 were injured in the attack – the worst yet in this area.
For the aid workers trying to cope with a spiralling crisis, the increasing militarisation of the area has made for what one NGO head called a “really spooky” operation.
“There is just no security up there,” she said, echoing what dozens of aid workers and officials told me.
Yet from her and her colleagues’ perspectives, roving militants, inter-tribal violence, satellite signals jammed by the local military base and Russian air strikes within earshot could be just the start. Things, they say, could still get a lot worse.
“You think it’s bad now – wait until the heat of August, when it’s not 60,000 people on the berm, but 100,000. Then we will know true chaos.”
Sara Elizabeth Williams is a freelance journalist who focuses on Syria, Jordan and Lebanon.