AZRAQ REFUGEE CAMP, Jordan — About 8,500 Syrians are still locked up behind barbed wire in a no-go section of Jordan's second-largest refugee camp — despite initial assurances in 2016 that the arrangement is temporary, a coalition of aid groups said.
The Jordan INGO Forum, an alliance of 60 non-governmental groups, asked Jordan to expedite security screenings, saying that at the current pace it would take until October 2020 to empty out Azraq camp's fenced-in "Village 5."
The forum also called on Jordan to lift other restrictions on Syrian refugees, including on movement from camps to Jordanian towns. It said close to half of Azraq's residents had been forcibly transferred there from elsewhere in Jordan, including refugees caught in police checks without proper papers.
Forum coordinator Yannick Martin said Tuesday that the international community must commend Jordan for its efforts in hosting refugees, but that "a frank dialogue needs to take place on continuous restrictions of movement that Syrian refugees face."
Jordanian Information Minister Mohammed Momani said security vetting is up to the task and that refugee camps were set up to allow international aid agencies to provide the best possible services.
About 20 percent of Jordan's 665,000 registered Syrian refugees live in three camps, the rest in host communities. Jordan says the actual number of Syrians in the kingdom is 1.3 million.
Jordan has said its policies are dictated by security concerns, including external and internal dangers posed by militants, mainly Islamic State extremists based in neighboring Syria and Iraq.
The kingdom sealed its border with Syria in June 2016, after a deadly cross-border attack by IS, leaving tens of thousands of Syrians stranded in a remote desert area on Jordan's doorstep.
Jordan also argues that it shoulders a disproportionately heavy refugee burden, and that the international aid it receives routinely falls short of pledges made by donors.
"Jordan has taken more refugees than the whole continent of Europe," Momani said. "So it's really unjustified and unacceptable for anyone to question or criticize the way Jordan is dealing with the refugees which we think is second to none in comparison to all countries in the world."
Visiting European leaders have gone out of their way to praise Jordan's contribution, especially since a 2016 policy shift toward trying to encourage refugees to remain in the region and to slow their influx to Europe.
German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier echoed such views after a visit to Azraq on Monday.
Asked by The Associated Press about Village 5 and Syrians stranded in harsh conditions on the border, Steinmeier said that "much can be improved, much needs to be done through international aid, but I believe it's not justified to come with big complaints against Jordan."
"Of course, we have spoken repeatedly in the past with Jordan about the need to provide aid to those on the (border) berm, but I believe we should show restraint with complaints about countries like Jordan, which truly carry the biggest burden of the refugee influx from Syria," said Steinmeier, whose country is the second largest donor to Jordan, after the United States.
In Azraq, Steinmeier toured a near-empty supermarket just a few hundred meters from Village 5. Jordanian security agents, many in civilian clothes, kept away refugees except for a few who had been selected for media interviews.
One of the chosen, a 32-year-old woman, said she appreciates the safety of Azraq and the chance to send her three children to U.N. schools, after moving around Syria for four years to escape the fighting. "We're fine here," said the woman only gave her first name, Radhiya, fearing for the safety of relatives who remain in Syria.
On the sidelines, out of earshot of the security agents, a 57-year-old woman said she has been unable to contact relatives in Village 5. "We don't know what the situation is there," said the woman who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of repercussions.
Other Azraq residents said life improved after the camp was hooked up to electricity from a solar power plant last year. Satellite dishes have popped up on the roofs of some pre-fab trailers, and many shelters now have refrigerators and TVs.
About 8,000 of Azraq's 36,000 residents have work permits, enabling them to leave the camp, according to the report by the aid groups, published last week. Others must apply special permits that allow them to get out for a few days.
Village 5, ringed by barbed wire, was set up in early 2016, as part of a compromise under which Jordan agreed to allow entry to more than 21,000 stranded Syrians from the border area.
They were to be held separately in Azraq for a while and undergo stringent security checks before joining the general camp population. The temporary arrangement was meant to address Jordan's concerns that IS militants are trying to enter Jordan posing as refugees.
"A year-and-a-half later, the screening process has proven long, tedious, opaque and irregular," the report by the aid groups said. It said residents of Village 5 — 8,580 at the end of December — were "increasingly desperate, unsure of what lies ahead."
Aid officials said Tuesday that 979 Syrians had been moved to Village 5 from other areas of Jordan in 2017, updating the figure of 797 in the report.
The report said forcible transfers raise "increasing concerns of the area's use as a detention facility."
Su reported from Amman, Jordan. Associated Press writer Sam McNeil contributed reporting from Azraq, Jordan.