RUKBAN, Jordan: Displaced people receive vaccinations at the Rukban desert camp for displaced Syrians along Syria’s border with Jordan. – AFP

BEIRUT: A slow death if they stay or possible detention if they leave: the last residents of a Syria desert camp face an unenviable choice ahead of a new "voluntary departure" program. The nearly 10,000 displaced Syrians still living in the Rukban camp, established in 2014 on the berm between Jordan and Syria, are the last remnants of the nearly 50,000 people who lived there a few years ago.

A 55-kilometre radius security zone around a nearby garrison of US-led coalition troops shields camp residents from the Syrian army. But Jordan has largely sealed the border since 2016, leaving residents dependent on rare UN aid deliveries. Not a single humanitarian convoy has entered the area since September 2019. Driven out by hunger, disease and deplorable living conditions, tens of thousands have flocked to government-held areas, risking detention and enforced disappearance by government forces.

With the situation in Rukban rapidly deteriorating, rebels and Syrian army defectors still living in the settlement must decide whether to go along with a fresh round of UN-facilitated departures - a move human rights groups have strongly advised against. "We are caught between two fires. If we go to government-held Syria, we will perish, and if we stay in the camp, we will die a slow death," said an army defector who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons.


"Since 2016, we have been trapped in the desert," said Mohammad Derbas al-Khalidi, head of the camp's organizing committee. Khalidi said there are no doctors or surgeons in the camp, only a small clinic and a team of first responders. Instead of schools, children attend classes under canvas or in mud-brick buildings that need repair, he said. "Many of the teachers sell vegetables or cigarettes in stalls at the market," instead of teaching, Khalidi told AFP.

Since 2019, more than 20,000 people have voluntarily left Rukban, according to the UN, which facilitated the voluntary departure of 329 people, with the help of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent in September that year. Others departed independently, or with assistance from the Syrian government, which has been calling on residents to leave Rukban for more than two years. Earlier this year, the camp committee received a UN plan to resume facilitated repatriations between September and November.

Those who chose to leave would be required to spend at least 14 days in transit shelters in the government-held province of Homs, according to the plan, a copy of which was obtained by AFP. They would only be allowed to leave the shelters if they were granted permission to do so by the Syrian authorities. "The security and safety of individuals" rests with the Syrian government, the document said. Bereft of security guarantees, the UN plan amounts to "collusion" with the Syrian government, Khalidi said. "The United Nations in Damascus is complicit, and it is nothing but a company shipping humans for the regime."

'Detained, tortured'

On September 11, the UN kicked off the latest round of departures by supporting a convoy of five trucks, alongside the Red Crescent. The convoy entered Rukban in response to a request by 88 individuals who had registered to leave, said Danielle Jenni Moylan of the UN humanitarian agency OCHA. "However, while inside Rukban, a small group of individuals obstructed the convoy and assaulted a driver," the spokesperson said. "As a result, the mission was cancelled and the convoy immediately departed Rukban."

When asked about potential risks facing returnees, Moylan said the UN was not in a position to offer security guarantees to Rukban residents wishing to leave. This effectively leaves them at the mercy of Syrian government forces, a concern that prompted Amnesty International to call on the UN to halt all plans for future departures. "The Syrian government considers that people in Rukban are 'terrorists'," said Amnesty's Marie Forestier. "They are targeted when they return... arbitrarily detained, tortured and, in some cases, forcibly disappeared."

Earlier this month, Amnesty published an investigation that documented "horrific violations" committed by Syrian security forces against 66 refugees, 13 of them children, who have returned to Syria since 2017 from several places of asylum, including Rukban. Although the UN stresses that all facilitated departures are voluntary, Forestier said that the decision to leave by some Rukban residents cannot be considered "free" because of the pressures they have faced from accessing health care to securing food and clean water. "In the current situation, there should be no plan to facilitate return," she said. - AFP