A convoy of relief supplies for 45,000 Syrians trapped between the closed Jordanian border and Syrian government front lines did not arrive on Thursday as planned, a UN spokesperson told IRIN. But even if it had, civilians in the isolated no-man’s land camp of Rukban would largely continue to remain cut off from aid, commercial shipments of food, and medical care, in an area where officials and health workers say hunger, disease, and sexual abuse are on the rise.
While the UN no longer lists any part of Syria as “besieged” and classifies Rukban as “hard-to-reach”, a senior aid official familiar with the camp told IRIN that the situation there has “never been as bad as now.”
“It’s hell,” that person added. “It’s very hard to put words on it.” A senior official with another aid organisation said the camp, which began forming in late 2014 after Jordan closed its border to most asylum seekers, is “de facto besieged.” Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity to preserve sensitive working relationships.
Iolanda Jaquemet, a spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross, told IRIN that “prices of basic commodities inside the camp are skyrocketing, food supplies precarious, and reportedly deaths are rising due to the living conditions and lack of health care.”
The UN’s humanitarian negotiator for Syria, Jan Egeland, confirmed earlier this month that a “trickle” of trade that had kept the informal camp supplied from the Syrian side had been cut off, making it “one of the most desperate places in Syria.” Aid workers say the reduced commercial trade with the rest of Syria has increased tension and cut food supplies.
Activists charge that the trade blockade is a deliberate move by the Bashar al-Assad government. Laila Kiki, executive director of advocacy group The Syria Campaign, said “Rukban has been under siege by the regime for months.”
A UN World Food Programme spokesperson, Herve Verhoosel, said Friday that the convoy “had not started” but that efforts continue to get it on the road.
“The big problem is that nobody cares.”
Last week Egeland told reporters “we have been assured that we will have all the green lights and the permits from the government in Damascus to send a convoy with food, with health and sanitation equipment.” The UN and the Red Cross/Red Crescent have been unsuccessfully negotiating with the Syrian government for access to the no-man’s-land border area, known as the “berm”, since 2016.
Civilians in Rukban have received almost no international relief supplies since January, when Jordan permitted food shipments to be dropped across the border by crane. Jordan refuses to allow further supplies to cross its border, saying the camp is Syria’s responsibility. Syria-based aid agencies have been unable to deliver supplies for want of security clearances from armed groups and permissions from the Damascus government.
“History will judge us”
Medical care has also been jeopardised recently. A UNICEF statement noted that two babies who could not be transported to hospital died in early October. The statement about the deaths noted that “history will judge us and the death of children, preventable in many cases, will continue to chase us.”
A resident of the camp, who requested anonymity due to security concerns, said a new arrival date for the delayed convoy had not been announced and that in any case a single shipment would not be of much use. “If these supplies come only one time, what will happen to us after one month, or after 15 days, or after two months? If it’s coming just one time, we don’t need it.”
This month, Russian media reported that Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said he had “serious talks with Russia on the de-establishment of that camp [Rukban]”. Safadi was reported as saying its dispersal would send a signal to Syrian refugees in Jordan that things are improving at home.
For months, Russia has said it was working on proposals to evacuate fighters and civilians from Rukban. IRIN has obtained a 5 September letter and map dated August that were prepared by Russia and proposed a negotiated evacuation of armed opposition and civilians from Rukban. Rebel fighters are mixed in with civilians at the camp. However that plan seems to have stalled in October, triggering the restrictions on trade.
As one of the senior aid officials who spoke to IRIN described the situation, “the big problem is that nobody cares.” The lives of people at Rukban seem, according to that person, to be seen as “completely dispensable” by all parties that could take action.
Water and a modest clinic
Jordan, which already hosts more than 670,000 Syrian refugees, has refused to admit additional refugees or allow anything more than occasional aid deliveries to cross from its territory into Rukban after a suicide attack coming from the camp area struck a Jordanian border post in 2016. Safadi said last year that Rukban was Syria’s responsibility. According to the state news agency, Petra, he said any aid “must be delivered through Syrian territory”.
Clean water is piped to standpipes across the berm – an earth ridge that marks the border. There are no regular food deliveries. A modest clinic funded by UN agencies is accessible at a service area on the Jordanian side of the border.
Because aid officials and journalists are generally banned from entering the berm area, accounts of medical care offer one of the few sources of reliable information about conditions in the camp. Journalists and aid workers monitor the situation from Jordan and Damascus via phone and text messages, and speak with camp residents who reach the clinic inside the Jordanian border.
One of the senior aid officials, who had recently spoken with camp residents at the clinic, said many are “desperate to leave” but don't have money, transport, or a safe destination.
About 250 camp residents are treated daily at the clinic, which is operated by the Jordan Health Aid Society (JHAS), funded by UN agencies. Patients must trek several kilometres on foot to the heavily defended border and then undergo security screening, managed by Jordanian security forces and the allied Syrian militia, the Tribal Army.
JHAS President Yaroup Ajlouni told IRIN he believed conditions were worsening in the camp but said the number of patients had not increased, perhaps because it is difficult to reach the clinic. “I think more cases cannot reach the service area,” he said. The most common conditions treated at the clinic are complicated pregnancies, upper respiratory tract infections, diarrhoea, malnutrition, and trauma.
Jordan allows patients with critical conditions to be treated in Jordanian hospitals before being returned to the camp. Each case requires explicit medical referrals and permission from national security officials in the capital, and hours of delay have become common, aid workers told IRIN.
Ajlouni denied this last point, saying the clinic referred about four cases a day to Jordanian hospitals and that the process happens “so quickly”.
Citing delays and official reluctance to allow patients to reach hospital, the second aid official, who had also spoken with camp residents, said at least three women in the camp had died in pregnancy or childbirth since August. The referral process is “ridiculous” and not practical, the official said. “I struggle to see” the threat that babies or a woman “with a baby coming out of her” could possibly pose to national security, the official added. While statistics are not available and details impossible to confirm, the camp resident also told the aid official that “many pregnant women die here because they need surgery and there is no way to take them to the hospital.”
‘Hidden stories’ of abuse
In addition to inadequate or delayed medical treatment, stories of rape, sexual abuse and exploitation, as well as underage marriage have emerged from the camp. The cases that make it to the JHAS clinic give a partial picture of what is happening. The two senior aid officials familiar with the situation said such cases were on the rise.
The JHAS president, Ajlouni, said “we hear about sex for food.” And last year, he said, a nine-year-old boy was treated for an anal tear allegedly resulting from a rape. Financial pressure pushes parents to marry off young girls, as a wedding elicits a dowry payment and staying single may make girls more vulnerable to assault. A 14-year-old recently gave birth at the clinic, one of the aid officials said. Ajlouni said he estimated early marriage trends by monitoring requests for contraceptive pills from women who asked for more prescriptions than they needed.
Aljouni cautioned that the full scale of abuse at Rukban was unlikely to ever come to light. “Many hidden stories” would not be told given the lawlessness of Rukban, he said. As he explained: “Do you think a woman can tell? Who will punish the guilty man? If the man is a militia and he knows that she has told a story to the UN? Can the UN protect a woman inside the camp?”
Various parties to the Syrian war have vocally blamed each other for the conditions at the camp; negotiations to secure passage for aid are unusually complicated.
A typical relief convoy due to cross Syrian front lines would travel with assurances of safe passage from government and opposition armed groups. Paperwork and inspection of cargo could be demanded at multiple checkpoints. In the case of the planned UN/Red Crescent convoy, however, the journey across front lines also may require that the convoy be vetted by American forces as well as Damascus.
The US base al-Tanf (pronounced at-Tanf) straddles the main road connecting the camp to the rest of Syria and to Iraq and is less than 25 km from the Rukban camp. A spokesperson for the US-led coalition, which is fighting so-called Islamic State, told IRIN that the US intended to verify the relief trucks en route, to “check the security of the [convoy] transport as a precaution but without delay.”
The US has established a “deconfliction zone” within a radius of 55 kilometres around the desert base, and a rebel group it backs called Maghaweir al-Thowra (Commandos of the Revolution) also operates from there. It says US deployment and support to Syrian militia are part of the fight against so-called Islamic State – but are also a bulwark against Iranian influence.
A convoy would also need to contend with armed criminal, rebel, and extremist groups that are active in and around Rukban. The Tribal Army, a militia that has good relations with Jordan, is also present there.
Russia blames the US for blocking humanitarian access and evacuations. The Maghaweir al-Thowra says they are ready to help, and blame Damascus for blocking food and aid.
The US coalition spokesperson told IRIN: “Rukban is a humanitarian tragedy right now, and while not an area of military operations for the coalition, definitely an area of concern from the human perspective.”
One of the senior aid officials interviewed by IRIN described the situation at Rukban even more starkly, calling it “a breakdown of human decency.” Permitting it to continue indicates “no respect for human life”.