Jordan and Israel have been urged to open their borders after a renewed offensive forced some 300,000 Syrians to flee their homes.
Bombing by the Syrian government, backed by Russia, has broken a months-long ceasefire in rebel-held areas of southwest Syria and displaced residents are becoming stranded in ad-hoc camps near the borders.
The United Nations humanitarian agency (OCHA) describes the situation in the camps as “severe”, with a lack of shelter, no regular access to drinking water and healthcare in dusty desert conditions and temperatures of up to 45C.
At least 15 people, the majority of them children, have died at the closed Jordanian border from scorpion bites, dehydration and disease, which is threatening to spread through contaminated water.
The situation threatens to repeat that of 2016, when some 60,000 internally displaced Syrians were stranded at the border with Jordan in a settlement inaccessible to any medical or humanitarian aid and controlled by exploitative criminal gangs.
Then, Jordan called on the international community to support the stranded refugees, but eventually allowed some of them into the country – or at least the heavily restricted conditions of desert refugee camps.
Some 650,000 Syrian refugees are currently registered with the UNHCR in Jordan, but the government estimates that more than double that number are in the country, and the kingdom now insists it cannot take any more.
Jordanian Prime Minister Omar Razzaz has said the country will not receive refugees “under any circumstances” and ministers have said those stranded on the border will be supported in their own territory.
Foreign minister Ayman Safadi told Russia that a ceasefire was needed in southern Syria, calling the situation a cause for “serious concern”.
When interviewed by Human Rights Watch this week, Syrians who fled Daraa province said they wanted get into Jordan, but were being threatened by gunshots if they attempted to cross.
“The house I was staying in was shelled and we miraculously survived,” said one activist, who described his town as “nothing but stones”.
“From there, we fled to an area close to the Jordanian border,” he said. “There is nowhere to go from here.”
As the humanitarian situation at the border worsens, some Jordanians have called on the government to let Syrians into the country, with the hashtag “open the borders” trending on Twitter and users pledging to “share our bread” with those seeking safety.
The Syrian people who come to our borders are fleeing death and terror, they have nowhere else to go! What do we say to the terrified mothers and children? Sorry, #jordan‘s economy is suffering because of you! that is a lie-it is all about corruption! Ah, Humanity!#افتحوا_الحدود
— Asma Jahamah (@Asma_Jahama) 28 June 2018
The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) has also joined right groups in calling for borders to be opened to those fleeing Syria.
“The abject refusal by Jordanian authorities to allow asylum seekers to seek protection not only goes against their international legal obligations, but against basic human decency,” Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said.
Around 164,000 of the displaced people are now close to the Golan heights – an area of Syria now occupied by Israel – while 60,000 are close to the Jordanian border.