ISIS has infiltrated a refugee camp where 80K people are trapped

AL RUKBAN REFUGEE CAMP — Some 80,000 people are trapped in a scrub land of hopelessness in a forgotten corner of the Middle East.

Huddling in the wind, walled in by desert sandbanks, they have been driven there by war. Abandoned by governments, they are preyed on by the very ISIS gunmen and suicide bombers they fled their homelands to escape.

NBC News was given unique access to the area where Rukban straddles a rocky, arid no man's land along the border linking Syria and Jordan — an important American ally, and a key member of the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS.

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Life in the Rukban refugee camp
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Life in the Rukban refugee camp
A member of the Jordanian armed forces transports a toddler from the informal Rukban camp, which lies in no-man's-land off the border between Syria and Jordan in the remote northeast, outside a UN-operated medical clinic immediately on the Jordanian-side on March 1, 2017. Conditions in the Rukban camp deteriorated sharply after Jordan sealed its border almost a year prior, following a cross-border jihadist attack that killed seven Jordanian border guards in June 2016. / AFP PHOTO / KHALIL MAZRAAWI (Photo credit should read KHALIL MAZRAAWI/AFP/Getty Images)
Syrian refugee patients from the makeshift Rukban camp, which lies in no-man's-land off the border between Syria and Jordan in the remote northeast, cross over to visit a UN-operated medical clinic immediately on the Jordanian-side for checkups, on March 1, 2017. Conditions in the Rukban camp deteriorated sharply after Jordan sealed its border almost a year prior, following a cross-border jihadist attack that killed seven Jordanian border guards in June 2016. / AFP PHOTO / KHALIL MAZRAAWI (Photo credit should read KHALIL MAZRAAWI/AFP/Getty Images)
Syrian refugee patients from the makeshift Rukban camp, which lies in no-man's-land off the border between Syria and Jordan in the remote northeast, cross over to visit a UN-operated medical clinic immediately on the Jordanian-side for checkups, on March 1, 2017. Conditions in the Rukban camp deteriorated sharply after Jordan sealed its border almost a year prior, following a cross-border jihadist attack that killed seven Jordanian border guards in June 2016. / AFP PHOTO / KHALIL MAZRAAWI (Photo credit should read KHALIL MAZRAAWI/AFP/Getty Images)
A member of the Jordanian security forces checks identification cards of Syrian refugees from the makeshift Rukban camp, which lies in no-man's-land off the border between Syria and Jordan in the remote northeast, as they cross to visit a UN-operated medical clinic immediately on the Jordanian-side for checkups, on March 1, 2017. Conditions in the Rukban camp deteriorated sharply after Jordan sealed its border almost a year prior, following a cross-border jihadist attack that killed seven Jordanian border guards in June 2016. / AFP PHOTO / KHALIL MAZRAAWI (Photo credit should read KHALIL MAZRAAWI/AFP/Getty Images)
A member of the Jordanian security forces checks identification cards of Syrian refugees from the makeshift Rukban camp, which lies in no-man's-land off the border between Syria and Jordan in the remote northeast, as they cross to visit a UN-operated medical clinic immediately on the Jordanian-side for checkups, on March 1, 2017. Conditions in the Rukban camp deteriorated sharply after Jordan sealed its border almost a year prior, following a cross-border jihadist attack that killed seven Jordanian border guards in June 2016. / AFP PHOTO / KHALIL MAZRAAWI (Photo credit should read KHALIL MAZRAAWI/AFP/Getty Images)
A picture taken on March 1, 2017 shows a general view of a UN-operated medical clinic immediately on the Jordanian-side of the border with Syria, near the informal Rukban refugee camp in no-man's-land in the remote northeast. Conditions in the Rukban camp deteriorated sharply after Jordan sealed its border almost a year prior, following a cross-border jihadist attack that killed seven Jordanian border guards in June 2016. / AFP PHOTO / KHALIL MAZRAAWI (Photo credit should read KHALIL MAZRAAWI/AFP/Getty Images)
A member of the Jordanian security forces checks identification cards of Syrian refugees from the makeshift Rukban camp, which lies in no-man's-land off the border between Syria and Jordan in the remote northeast, as they cross to visit a UN-operated medical clinic immediately on the Jordanian-side for checkups, on March 1, 2017. Conditions in the Rukban camp deteriorated sharply after Jordan sealed its border almost a year prior, following a cross-border jihadist attack that killed seven Jordanian border guards in June 2016. / AFP PHOTO / KHALIL MAZRAAWI (Photo credit should read KHALIL MAZRAAWI/AFP/Getty Images)
A member of the Jordanian armed forces mans a turret mounted on an armoured vehicle outside a UN-operated medical clinic immediately on the Jordanian-side of the border with Syria, near the informal Rukban refugee camp in no-man's-land in the remote northeast on March 1, 2017. Conditions in the Rukban camp deteriorated sharply after Jordan sealed its border almost a year prior, following a cross-border jihadist attack that killed seven Jordanian border guards in June 2016. / AFP PHOTO / KHALIL MAZRAAWI (Photo credit should read KHALIL MAZRAAWI/AFP/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - A member of the Jordanian armed forces carries a toddler from the informal Rukban camp, which lies in no-man's-land off the border between Syria and Jordan in the remote northeast, through the rain outside a UN-operated medical clinic immediately on the Jordanian-side on March 1, 2017. Conditions in the Rukban camp deteriorated sharply after Jordan sealed its border almost a year prior, following a cross-border jihadist attack that killed seven Jordanian border guards in June 2016. / AFP PHOTO / KHALIL MAZRAAWI (Photo credit should read KHALIL MAZRAAWI/AFP/Getty Images)
A Syrian refugee patient from the makeshift Rukban camp, which lies in no-man's-land off the border between Syria and Jordan in the remote northeast, receives a medical checkup at a UN-operated medical clinic immediately on the Jordanian-side, on March 1, 2017. Conditions in the Rukban camp deteriorated sharply after Jordan sealed the border almost a year prior, following a cross-border jihadist attack that killed seven Jordanian border guards in June 2016. / AFP PHOTO / KHALIL MAZRAAWI (Photo credit should read KHALIL MAZRAAWI/AFP/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - A Syrian refugee from the informal Rukban camp, which lies in no-man's-land off the border between Syria and Jordan in the remote northeast, walks in the rain, as she shelters a young child outside a UN-operated medical clinic immediately on the Jordanian-side on March 1, 2017. Conditions in the Rukban camp deteriorated sharply after Jordan sealed its border almost a year prior, following a cross-border jihadist attack that killed seven Jordanian border guards in June 2016. / AFP PHOTO / KHALIL MAZRAAWI (Photo credit should read KHALIL MAZRAAWI/AFP/Getty Images)
Syrian refugee patients from the makeshift Rukban camp, which lies in no-man's-land off the border between Syria and Jordan in the remote northeast, queue up to visit a UN-operated medical clinic immediately on the Jordanian-side for checkups, on March 1, 2017. Conditions in the Rukban camp deteriorated sharply after Jordan sealed the border almost a year prior, following a cross-border jihadist attack that killed seven Jordanian border guards in June 2016. / AFP PHOTO / KHALIL MAZRAAWI (Photo credit should read KHALIL MAZRAAWI/AFP/Getty Images)
Syrian refugee patients from the makeshift Rukban camp, which lies in no-man's-land off the border between Syria and Jordan in the remote northeast, queue up to visit a UN-operated medical clinic immediately on the Jordanian-side for checkups, on March 1, 2017. Conditions in the Rukban camp deteriorated sharply after Jordan sealed the border almost a year prior, following a cross-border jihadist attack that killed seven Jordanian border guards in June 2016. / AFP PHOTO / KHALIL MAZRAAWI (Photo credit should read KHALIL MAZRAAWI/AFP/Getty Images)
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Officially, it is located in a demilitarized zone. However, the pilot of the Jordanian military helicopter used during a recent NBC News visit wouldn't fly over it for fear of being shot down by ISIS cells in the camp.

Brig. Gen. Sami Kafawin, commander of Jordan's army in the area, told NBC News that militants there "have whole weapons systems ... small arms, RPGs, anti-aircraft."

He added: "They consider the camp a safe haven. We consider it an imminent threat."

President Donald Trump says he wants so-called "safe zones" to keep refugees in or near their own country even as they are displaced by war. It is not clear whether Rukban is what he had in mind, but this makeshift refugee camp offers a stark lesson to those seeking to de-escalate the Syrian civil war and establish secure areas for civilians who've been driven from their homes.

Syrians who left ISIS-held territory found themselves stranded at Rukban when Jordan closed its entire border with the country last year. The country has also blocked much humanitarian assistance from getting into the camp.

Aid agencies have complained for months that they can't gain access the site to provide food and essential supplies. Coordinated by the U.N.'s World Food Program, a monthly delivery by a crane located in Jordanian territory makes up the bulk of what keeps men, women and children alive at the ever-growing camp.

According to UNHCR, some 659,000 Syrian refugees and around 63,000 Iraqis have officially registered in Jordan — a country of about 9 million people. Citing the most recent census, state-run media last year reported that at least 1.26 million people in Jordan were Syrians.

Now in its seventh year, the war in Syria has left an estimated 450,000 dead. Aid organizations believe that around half of Syria's population has been killed or forced to flee their homes in what is the world's worst humanitarian crisis since World War II.

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A glimpse into the land ISIS has lost
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A glimpse into the land ISIS has lost
A billboard (L) with Koranic verses is seen in the historic city of Palmyra, in Homs Governorate, Syria April 1, 2016. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki SEARCH "PALMYRA SANADIKI" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES
An Islamic State flag hangs on the wall of an abandoned building in Tel Hamis in Hasaka countryside after the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) took control of the area March 1, 2015. Kurdish forces dealt a blow to Islamic State by capturing Tel Hamis, an important town, on Friday in the latest stage of a powerful offensive in northeast Syria, a Kurdish militia spokesman said. The capture of Tel Hamis was announced by the Kurdish YPG militia and confirmed by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the country's civil war. REUTERS/Rodi Said (SYRIA - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST CONFLICT)
Tripods and a projector are pictured inside an ancient Hammam that was used by Islamic State militants as a media centre in Manbij, in Aleppo Governorate, Syria, August 16, 2016. REUTERS/Rodi Said
A view shows part of a media centre that belonged to Islamic State militants inside an ancient Hammam in Manbij, Aleppo Governorate, Syria, August 16, 2016. REUTERS/Rodi Said
A tunnel used by Islamic State militants is seen in the town of Sinjar, Iraq December 1, 2015. REUTERS/Ari Jalal
A view shows car parts, which according to Syria Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters were used by Islamic State militants to prepare car bombs, at a workshop in Manbij, Aleppo Governorate, Syria, August 17, 2016. REUTERS/Rodi Said
Iraqi soldiers inspect a vehicle used for suicide car bombings, made by Islamic State militants, in Mosul, Iraq, January 25, 2017. REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed
A captured Islamic State tank and shells are seen at the Iraqi army base in Qaraqosh, east of Mosul, Iraq November 8, 2016. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Rocket-propelled grenades left behind by Islamic State militants are seen at a school, following clashes in Falluja, Iraq, June 25, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
Explosives left behind by Islamic State militants are seen at a school, following clashes in Falluja, Iraq, June 25, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
A member of Iraqi security forces takes a selfie at a building that was used by Islamic State militants in Hammam al-Ali, south of Mosul, Iraq November 7, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
A book belonging to Islamic State militants is seen in Falluja after government forces recaptured the city from Islamic State militants, Iraq, June 27, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
An Iraqi officer displays Russian passports, which he says belong to Islamic State fighters, in Mosul, Iraq, January 25, 2017. REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed
A man who fled the Islamic State stronghold of Mosul shows his marriage certificate issued by the Islamic State militants at temporary court at Khazer camp in Iraq, January 18, 2017. Picture taken January 18, 2017. REUTERS/Ahmed Saad
A member of the Iraqi counterterrorism forces stands by an Islamic State militants weapons factory in Falluja, Iraq, June 23, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A Syria Democratic Forces (SDF) fighter inspects a room, which according to the SDF was used by Islamic State militants to prepare explosives, in Manbij, Aleppo Governorate, Syria, August 17, 2016. REUTERS/Rodi Said
U.S. Special Operations Forces members inspect a drone used by Islamic State militants to drop explosives on Iraqi forces, in Mosul, Iraq, January 25, 2017. REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed
A member of Iraqi security forces inspects a building that was used as a prison by Islamic State militants in Hammam al-Ali, south of Mosul, during an operation to attack Islamic State militants in Mosul, Iraq November 7, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
A mass grave for Islamic State militants are seen in Falluja, Iraq, September 4, 2016. REUTERS/Khalid al Mousily
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Daily gunbattles

The sea of tattered tents, the barefoot women and begging children, along with the burn victims being treated nearby at Rukban are all proof that the desperate crisis is beyond the reach of aid workers.

Last year, an ISIS suicide bomber killed seven Jordanian soldiers at a military base located less than a mile away.

That resulted in Jordan preventing all but a handful of refugees from crossing its borders — and declared the area a "closed military zone."

There have been regular attacks this year and daily gunbattles inside the camp, according to Kafawin. He estimates that up to five percent of its residents — about 4,000 people — may be militants.

Syria's government lost control of this area years ago, and its border posts lie empty. Rebels opposed to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad control the neighboring region.

Yet parties in the war continue to talk about making areas like this into safe zones.

Trump ordered the Pentagon and State Department to examine how to make such "zones of security" actually safe. While the White House has not released information about the plans, it is clear that true safe zones would require lots of money, boots on the ground and planes in the air.

Making such areas secure was also discussed when Trump met Jordan's King Abdullah on April 5. On Wednesday, Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed establishing such areas, according to the White House. And on Thursday, Iran, Russia and Turkey backed the establishment of safe zones in or around Syria — although the U.S. was not part of the agreement, and said it was concerned about Tehran's involvement.

So clearly setting up safe zones would will not be an easy task.

It "needs a lot of effort to do it, to maintain it, to secure it," Kafawin said. "It's difficult to protect. You need a no fly zone, you need 24-hour patrols and you need, for sure, ground forces."

And who will provide all of that?

"I don't think it's possible without U.S. support," he said.

Trump already has a lot on his plate including escalating tensions with North Korea and Russia, and a worsening crisis in Afghanistan.

Last month, he launched cruise missiles against a Syrian military airfield to try to prevent further attacks on civilians. Protecting tens of thousands of civilians with no-fly zones in camps like Rukban is a whole lot harder.

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