UNHCR Special Envoy Angelina Jolie travelled to the Jordan-Syria border overnight on Wednesday-Thursday to meet frightened and exhausted Syrian refugees who had just completed the perilous crossing to safety in Jordan.
“What I saw last night is a dramatic example of the plight of hundreds of thousands of Syrians who have been uprooted by the fighting and are in a desperate search for safety,” Jolie said Thursday on her second mission to the region in three months.
“Civilians inside the country are being targeted. Many of those trying to flee are exposed to extreme danger right up to the border itself. I appeal to all sides in the conflict to do all they can to ensure the safe passage of these innocent civilians.”
Nearly half a million Syrians fleeing intensified fighting have been registered in neighboring countries since the conflict began. Hundreds of thousands more are unregistered, but are expected to come forward for help in the next few months as their resources become depleted.
Since Jolie’s last visit in September, the number of registered refugees in the region has increased by more than 200,000 and in Jordan alone by nearly 50,000. The sprawling Za’atri refugee camp north of Amman has doubled in size.
Upon arrival in Amman on Wednesday night, Jolie travelled immediately to the border, about an hour’s drive north of the capital. In a briefing with border officers, she praised Jordan for welcoming Syrian refugees despite serious social and economic strains.
“The incredible compassion shown to these traumatized refugee families by the Jordanian border guards tonight was extremely moving,” she said, noting that the troops were on duty along the tense frontier 24 hours a day, seven days a week. “Jordan has welcomed the refugees even though it has placed a huge burden on the country. The international community needs to show more solidarity and to support Jordan and the other countries in the region who continue to keep their borders open.”
The Special Envoy spoke with several refugees who had just fled across the border in total darkness to two remote border reception stations overlooking a broad plain straddling the frontier. The distant thud of artillery could be heard north of the border, where the lights of Syrian towns were visible. In all, 328 refugees arrived in Jordan during the night. Around the region, some 2,000 refugees flee to neighboring countries daily.
“We had a beautiful, hospitable country,” one refugee told Jolie. “We always helped one another. Now, there’s nothing left and we can’t even help each other.”
Medical staff at the border post said at least six of those who arrived overnight had to be hospitalized, some with bullet wounds. Jolie was stunned by one medic’s account of a wounded child who had lost his leg. “It was extremely upsetting to hear the story of an eight-year-old boy who upon arrival in Jordan explained to doctors that he had asked his family to carry his severed leg along on the journey in hopes that it could be reattached,” she said.
“I’m sickened by how long and how bloody this conflict has become, devastating a nation and the lives of millions of innocent civilians, and threatening to destabilize the entire region. I call on the international community to do everything possible to find a solution to this tragedy and support the struggling humanitarian operations both inside Syria and in Jordan and the other surrounding countries.”
On Thursday, Jolie visited Za’atri refugee camp, where those who arrive nightly at Jordan’s remote border crossings with Syria are transferred. UNHCR and its partners are in a race against time to prepare the camp and its more than 30,000 residents for winter, along with hundreds of thousands of other refugees throughout the region.
Among the refugees she visited in the camp was a family of eight she had met the night before at the border, shortly after they had crossed from Syria. They had already been provided with a tent and an aid package of household items ranging from warm blankets to kitchen utensils. Although their tent is not designed for winter weather – that will come later – they were nevertheless thankful for the help they had received on their first day in the camp.
“We’re very grateful for what we’ve received, and even more grateful to finally be in a safe place,” the head of family said. “Now we’re eager to find out about schools for the children.”
The Special Envoy viewed a number of the winter projects under way in the camp, where overnight temperatures are dropping to freezing. Tents are being reinforced and better insulated to protect against the weather, including the addition of “porches” where gas heaters are being placed. Some 30,000 high thermal blankets are being distributed, along with winter clothing.
A storm drainage system is being built and a layer of crushed rock spread throughout the camp to channel water away from shelters and prevent mud and standing water. In addition, more than 1,300 prefabricated shelters have been erected and another 1,300 should be in place within three weeks.
“Winter is already here and UNHCR and its partners still lack 50 per cent of the funds needed to get everyone through the next few difficult months,” Jolie said.
“Despite all the good work being done so far, it’s clear here on the ground that all the resources are now stretched to the limit. This is going to be a very tough few months. Winter can be harsh here, even dangerous for refugees who may already be weakened by their ordeal. Many have been brutalized in unimaginable ways. They deserve all the support we can give them.”
Angelina Jolie and her partner, Brad Pitt, made a donation of US$50,000 Thursday afternoon for the purchase family tents for refugees. Later Thursday, Jolie was scheduled to conclude her mission with meetings with Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour and Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh.