AMMAN, JORDAN - The U.N. humanitarian chief called for immediate “life-saving” access to 50,000 displaced Syrians stranded on the sealed border with Jordan, as aid officials reported a sharp drop in food supplies in the remote desert camp since Syrian government forces advanced toward the area in the summer.
Black market prices for food have soared and malnutrition is on the rise among young children in the Rukban camp, the officials said.
Mark Lowcock, the U.N. official, told the U.N. Security Council in a Syria briefing that a long-term solution is needed for getting aid to Rukban.
He said that “the best approach is to find a solution from within Syria” - an apparent shift after U.N. agencies held months of largely unsuccessful talks with Jordan about access to the camp.
Speaking to the Security Council after meetings with Jordanian officials on Monday, Lowcock said U.N. agencies are “straining every sinew” to find a way to deliver aid from Syria.
Jordan sealed its border with Syria in June 2016, after a cross-border car bomb by Islamic State extremists killed seven Jordanian border guards.
The pro-Western kingdom has defended the closure, saying its security trumps humanitarian considerations, and that the attack underscored warnings that Rukban has been infiltrated by IS sympathizers.
The international community is reluctant to pressure Jordan, which is hosting a large number of refugees. In all, more than 5 million Syrians fled their country since 2011, including about 660,000 registered refugees in Jordan.
Jordan's foreign minister told European Union diplomats last month that Syria and the international community, not Jordan, bear responsibility for Rukban.
U.N. aid deliveries to Rukban from inside Syria would require permission from the government in Damascus and also pose safety risks for staff crossing front lines.
Since Jordan's border closure, U.N. agencies have only carried out two distributions from Jordan, in addition to a partial one in June.
‘Immediate access critical’
At one point, food was hoisted by cranes from Jordan and dropped off near Rukban. A subsequent system of delivery, through a Jordanian contractor, has repeatedly broken down.
The recent deterioration in Rukban followed a temporary cease-fire for southwestern Syria in early July. As fighting ebbed in the southwest, Syrian government forces and their allies advanced in the southeast.
Commercial food shipments from other areas of Syria to Rukban dropped by about 70 percent since the Syrian government's advances, said Firas Abdel Aziz, a Jordan-based activist for Jusoor al-Amal, a charity that operates in the camp.
The price of bread has doubled, sugar is up six-fold and the cost of rice has tripled, he said.
Lowcock said that “as limited commercial supplies are reaching Rukban, access to food is precarious and the overall situation remains dire.” The situation will become more acute as winter approaches, he added.
While a long-term solution is needed, “immediate access to enable life-saving assistance for the civilian population is critical,” he said.
A U.N.-run clinic continues to operate on Jordanian soil, several kilometers from Rukban, and receives 100 to 150 patients per day, said other aid officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because of ongoing talks with Jordan.
The population size of Rukban has fluctuated, said Abdel Aziz.
In early September, residents of a smaller border tent camp, Hadalat, evacuated the area as Syrian troops advanced, with many fleeing to Rukban. Abdel Aziz said hundreds more families arrived recently from another flashpoint of fighting in Syria's far east.
U.N. satellite images from late September indicated there are close to 10,000 shelters in the camp, an increase of 6.6 percent from three months earlier.