Ramadan has just begun and, whereas for hundreds of thousands of families in refugee camps a decent iftar meal is a luxury, for people in Rukban camp, at the Syrian-Jordanian border, it is simply a dream. The situation in Rukban has long ago passed the limit of human acceptability and its residents are once again asking for a solution to be found quickly.
There is a place in the desert that has been forsaken by the world. It’s called Rukban Camp. Hunger, disease and deplorable living conditions are only some of the problems afflicting its inhabitants. People either live in tents or mud houses, there is scarcity of food and water, there are no schools and the only clinic that used to serve people in the camp, located on Jordanian territory, was closed in 2020. Although the camp has often been mentioned in the news, not many know its history nor its current conditions.
Where is Rukban Camp located?
Rukban camp lies in a deserted area called “the berm” at the Syrian-Jordanian border, not far from the Iraqi border. The camp is inside a 55- km long demilitarized zone between the two countries, basically a “no man’s land” controlled by the US whose soldiers are stationed in Tanf Base, not far from the camp and by a Syrian opposition group, the Maghawir al Thawra.
Who are the people living in Rukban Camp?
It is estimated that between 6000 and 8000 people live now in Rukban, although it is hard to determine it precisely. There are no documents nor an official census of the people living in the camp, and especially the children born in the camp “do not officially exist.” The people living in the camp are only a part of the original 40.000 who arrived in 2015.
Although there are people from all parts of Syria, most of Rukban’s residents came from Eastern Homs, Palmyra and especially the town of al-Qaryatain. In August 2015 the town was seized by ISIS after launching an offensive which resulted in the Battle of al-Qaryatain. This caused a wave of refugees that pressed against the Jordanian border. Most of them were also opposers of Bashar Assad’s regime and defectors from the dictator’s army, thus fleeing from multiple enemies. When they arrived in Rukban, they thought that would be a temporary solution before entering Jordan, but things turned out differently.
What’s the current humanitarian situation?
There is currently no official aid reaching Rukban camp. On one side, Jordan first sealed the border in 2016 after a terror attack in which, Jordanians claim, a few people coming from Rukban — according to them ISIS infiltrated — were also involved, and then again in 2019, officially for Coronavirus. On the other side, there’s the Syrian regime, Russia and Iranian militias, who are making it difficult for aid to reach the camp. To complicate the matter, unfortunately, most agencies operating for the UN are based in Damascus.
The last humanitarian convoy entered Rukban Camp in September 2019. Since then, food and other first necessity goods need to be smuggled into the camp at very high prices. Today, 5 liters of oil cost 95000 Syrian pounds, the equivalent of, more or less, 27 dollars. One kilogram of rice costs 4000 pounds. Just a few weeks ago, the bakery needed to stop working as there was a shortage of flour. The amount that has just arrived will barely suffice for two days. Water comes from Jordan but sometimes the provision is interrupted and camp inhabitants need to turn to dirty water.
The only way to help the inhabitants of the camp is by sending money that will be used to buy food and other important items that smugglers bring to the camp. But how long can this go on?
Actually, as said in the beginning, the area is under the military control of the United States which, however, denies any responsibility on Rukban Camp, claiming its sole purpose is fighting ISIS and Iranian presence in the area. Many say, nevertheless, that the US mandate covers also the protection of civilians, making aid to Rukban perfectly feasible.
SARC and UN encouraging return to regime areas
The horrible limbo of “responsibility” in which the camp has been now stuck for years has compelled thousands to go back to regime areas. To tell the truth, many of these returns do not seem to be completely voluntary. If they haven’t been fully forced, they have been strongly encouraged. As denounced by the Syrian Association for Citizens’ Dignity (SACD), instead of sending trucks of aids, in the last two years, the UN and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent based in Damascus have been sending empty buses to move the camp’s residents to areas controlled by the Syrian regime. In most cases, camp residents have welcomed these buses with rocks and sticks, rightly considering these envoys as an insult. In other cases, people, exhausted by the harsh living conditions or in need for medical care, have accepted to go back.
Once arrived in areas controlled by the regime, however, Rukban residents, viewed as “terrorists” by the Assad gang, are most likely to undergo ill-treatment, arrest and torture. In a research led by Amnesty International, we read:
“[Quarantine] Shelters have been used by Syrian authorities to detain and interrogate returnees. Some of these returnees were then transferred to intelligence centers where they were arbitrarily detained and, in some cases, tortured and forcibly disappeared. […] Quarantine requirements in government-controlled facilities will essentially give the Syrian authorities 14 days to interrogate returnees.”
Out of 66 cases (out of which 10 from Rukban) documented in the research, the Syrian regime detained all 10 individuals coming from Rukban. Just in December 2019, SACD denounced the arrest of 174 people coming from Rukban directly from the “IDP shelters” in Albyada and Der Balba (Homs). Those who were arrested were directly taken to “terrorism courts” despite having been previously reassured on their safety.
Yet, it is not just the threat of detention that hinders many Rukban residents from going back. In the end, they cannot accept to go back and live under the same regime that has provoked the country’s collapse, has slaughtered hundreds of thousands of civilians and sent millions of people in exile. As Emad Ghali, a resident of the camp and one of the most prominent activists of the Rukban Network has said in an interview with SACD: “I’d prefer to die here a million times, rather than going back to live among murderers who have killed innocents.”
It is not easy to find a solution for Rukban Camp residents. As complicated as it might seem, the problem can be reduced to one main issue: Syria is not safe. The regime has repeatedly invited refugees, even opponents, to return, offering the chimera of a reconciliation that –we know well — is a deadly trap.
In the US, a group of lawmakers, including Reps. Newman, Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), and Andre Carson (D-Ind.) have urged the Biden administration to address the humanitarian catastrophe taking place at Rukban Camp. In a letter, Newman and the other signatories claim that under international law the US has obligations to help civilians as well. As of now, the Biden administration has replied that, although increasing humanitarian access is among its top priorities, it is the responsibility of the Syrian regime and Russia to ensure aids reach Rukban.
On the other hand, activists from the Rukban Network are trying to pressure the Jordanian government to open a humanitarian crossing to allow organizations to enter the camp and provide humanitarian and medical assistance to camp residents. Most surely, SARC and the UN must stop collaborating with the Assad regime and must stop organizing risky forced returns.
In the meantime, people living in Rukban Camp have comprehensibly lost trust in the international community: “We have lost hope” says again Emad in his interview, adding “I don’t want to say anything to the international community anymore. […] We wish for Rukban to be like any other camp in Northern Syria. […] Nothing more, imagine our dreams.”
Credit for all photos goes to Rukban Network twitter account.