The Unintended Consequences of Closing and Restricting Jordan-Syria Border Crossings—by Justin Schon
Posted by Matthew Barber on Thursday, August 14th, 2014
by Justin Schon
“In the interest of our national security, we are prepared to close the border if — God forbid — anarchy breaks out in Syria or we see an unprecedented humanitarian crisis,” Jordanian Minister of State for Media Affairs and Communications and Government Spokesperson Samih Maaytah said in January 2013. This statement may not seem noteworthy for one of Syria’s neighbors, but it did signal increasing concern from the Jordanian government about the growing influx of Syrian refugees. These security fears have only grown over time.
In response to civil conflict in a neighboring state, it is not uncommon for states to close their borders. Border closures are commonly seen as one method to reduce the likelihood of conflict spreading from neighboring countries. In theory, border closures should prevent weapons, supplies, armed groups, and civilians from flowing through the country. For example, Kenya has attempted to close its border with Somalia. However, just as Kenya has proven unable to stem the flows of weapons, Al Shabaab fighters, and Somali refugees, Jordan’s attempts to restrict movement across its border with Syria have achieved little success. Arguably, they have even made Jordan less safe.
Ultimately, it is not possible to completely control a border. Over 600,000 Syrians have entered Jordan since the start of Syria’s conflict in 2011, with several hundred thousand of them having arrived since Jordan began to seriously restrict entry. This seems to have begun around March 2013, when Jordan was accused of closing the crossing at Nassib. Jordan finally admitted in June 2013 that it had closed several illegal crossing points and limited the entry of refugees through other border crossings.
These restrictions did not stop the flow of refugees into Jordan. Even by early 2012, it had already become more difficult for Syrians to enter Jordan. This simply prompted many Syrians to cross illegally into Jordan. These crossings occurred along at least 45 illegal crossing points. With a 231 mile border, much of it located in harsh desert, the Jordan-Syria border is very difficult to secure.
Yet, by May 2013, the Jordanian government had managed to shut down most of these crossings. Now, the best hope for Syrians to cross into Jordan lies in travelling to the East, where Syrians must endure the harsh desert, government checkpoints, bombings, pro-government militias, and Bedouins who often demand bribes to allow fleeing civilians to pass. As one refugee told me, “From Deraa, it can take about 15 days to travel to the desert border crossing near Ruwayshid [city in eastern Jordan]. When people arrive there, they are almost always out of food and water. Many need medical care. But then they have to wait for Jordan to let them enter. This can take one week, one month, or more.”
These controls have prevented many Syrians from being able to leave Syria at all. Those unfortunate enough to be in this position are often forced to live in large displaced persons camps around Nassib, Tel Shihab, and other border towns. This problem is aggravated by the inability of many Syrians living north of Deraa to find out about the border restrictions. Thus, many Syrians go to Deraa, only to learn that they cannot cross into Jordan from there. Instead, they have to go back north to Damascus, then to Sweidah, and then east to the desert border crossing from which they can reach Ruwayshid in Jordan. People without the money to pay for this trip are often left with no options other than staying in the displaced persons camps.
These camps host thousands of people, and sadly have not been safe from bombing by the Syrian government, including barrel bombs. As fighting moves closer to the border, there is an increased likelihood for violence to cross into Jordan. On Monday, August 11, a rocket fired from Syria reportedly landed a few hundred meters from Zaatari. Jordanians have also been hit by stray bullets from fighting along the border. Bold attempts to cross have even forced the Jordanian military to take lethal action, such as when it destroyed trucks with Syrian rebels attempting to enter Jordan in April 2014.
This situation leads to the Jordanian military intercepting as many refugees as they can when they cross the border. Thousands of refugees have been sent directly to the Zaatari refugee camp. Now, with the opening of the Azraq refugee camp, all refugees are sent to Azraq except refugees for whom UNHCR determines there are protection concerns. Regardless, most refugees, understandably, strongly dislike the camps.
Hence, there are many attempts to leave them. The main system that the Jordanian government has implemented to allow people to leave is known as the bail-out system. This system, which I briefly discussed in my previous post, was originally meant to be a compromise between UNHCR and the Jordanian government. For UNHCR, it is a way to give people some freedom to leave the camps. For Jordan, it is a way to facilitate effective monitoring of refugees when they leave the camps.
In practice, refugees have often avoided this system, choosing instead to bribe Jordanian military officers for the opportunity to leave the camps. These refugees do not get registered with the Jordanian Ministry of Interior, and only sometimes register with UNHCR. Therefore, large numbers of people are outside the official system, making them extremely challenging to monitor. It is therefore unlikely that Jordan would be hosting an estimated 100,000 unregistered Syrian refugees, as it currently is, if it were not for the border closures and restrictions. Now that there are so many unregistered refugees, officials fear that there is a serious risk that these unregistered Syrians will become involved in radical groups.
Through its own attempts to maintain its security, Jordan is creating security challenges for itself. Its decision to close and/or restrict entry at its border crossings with Syria has contributed to a situation where there is insecurity along the border and a growing number of unregistered, poorly monitored Syrians. Without such controls, there would surely be more Syrians in Jordan, but they would be easier to monitor. It is also likely that border areas would be more secure. Jordan would be safer as a result.