AMMAN — Cranes hoisted huge white bags with rice, lentils and dates from Jordan into tent camps on the Syrian side of a border berm — an unprecedented way of delivering UN aid to tens of thousands of displaced Syrians cut off from outside help for almost two months.
The three-day delivery to two makeshift encampments in a remote desert area ended Thursday, UN aid agencies said.
Relief over getting badly needed aid to the Ruqban and Hadalat camps was muted by concern over deteriorating conditions there.
Some camp residents have dug holes for sleeping after selling flimsy shelters for scarce food and water, said a displaced Syrian, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of repercussions if he were to return home.
Aid agencies have said disease, malnutrition and dehydration are on the rise.
This week’s shipment of 650 metric tons of food and hygiene kits was a one-off — Jordan has said it would bar future deliveries from its soil on security grounds.
The international community is scrambling for alternatives, but no viable option has emerged. Sending supplies from war-ravaged Syria appears risky, while UN officials say aid dropped by planes could end up in the wrong hands.
“This should be a wake-up call for everyone,” Shaza Moghraby, a spokeswoman for the World Food Program in Jordan, said of the growing suffering at the berm. “The world has a moral obligation to do something about this.”
Close to five million Syrians have fled their homeland during five years of civil war, most settling in neighbouring Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. Over the past year, it has become increasingly difficult for Syrians to flee the fighting as the country’s neighbors tightened entry restrictions.
The number of Syrians stranded on the Jordanian border, awaiting entry, has grown from a few thousand to more than 75,000 over the past eight months, according to UN figures.
The rapid increase was caused in part by the bottle neck at the border. For months, Jordan was only letting in a limited number of refugees each day, citing the need for stringent security vetting and arguing the two camps had been infiltrated by militants from the extremist group Islamic State.
On June 21, Jordan sealed the border for good after a cross-border suicide attack by the Islamic State group killed seven Jordanian border guards near the Ruqban camp. The closure also halted what until then had been regular aid deliveries from Jordan to the camps.
Jordan said it would not reopen the border, but UN agencies were able to negotiate this week’s shipment of one month’s worth of aid.
Moghraby said deliveries began Tuesday at the smaller Hadalat camp, home to about 7,000 Syrians.
She said two cranes deployed on Jordanian soil, several dozen metres from the berm, lifted large white sacks of food and other goods, each weighing about 750 kilogrammes, and dropped them into pickup trucks on the other side.
Parcels of lentils, rice, dates, bread and other goods were then handed to Hadalat residents by tribal leaders who had previously given aid officials a list of beneficiaries and also received training on how to manage a distribution, Moghraby said.
In a further precaution against aid falling into the hands of war profiteers or militiamen, the distribution was monitored by Jordanian army drones, she said.
“We know that the vast majority are innocent women, children, elderly and sick,” she said of those at the berm. “We just have this one opportunity to distribute aid.”
On Wednesday and Thursday, deliveries reached the larger Ruqban camp, Moghraby said.
Since the Jordanian border closure, already dire camp conditions deteriorated further.
Clean water has become scarce. Camp residents have reported a rise in hepatitis and dysentery, said an aid official, speaking on condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to talk to reporters. Some camp residents were forced to sell their tents for food and water.
The group Doctors Without Borders has estimated that children make up half the population in the berm encampments, and that about 25 percent of them suffer from acute diarrhea.
This week’s shipment was also meant to buy time for the international community to come up with alternatives to aid delivery from Jordan, but all options appear to have serious drawbacks.
Enticing the displaced to move to a more accessible part of Syria would likely mean they’d have to cross one or more front lines. Jordan appears determined not to reopen its border. And resettling those from the berm encampments to third countries would likely draw even larger numbers to the border area.