Rukban, an informal settlement for Syria’s displaced people in a US-protected zone in southern Syria, has been left without humanitarian aid for the past five months after the Syrian government blocked humanitarian access to the encampment through its territories.
A total of 7,735 tents scattered along a stretch of desert on the Syrian-Jordanian border are home to about 11,000 people – only a quarter of the 40,000 inhabitants the camp had five months ago. Trapped with very limited access to drinking water and healthcare, hunger and poverty have forced many to leave despite the risks of arrests by regime forces.
“Most of those that remain in the camp are wanted by the regime, their security situation is dangerous, yet as a result of the hunger and the miserable living conditions, people have two choices: killed by hunger or killed by the regime,” a source inside the camp said according to Foreign Policy.
Conditions in the settlement
Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, Chair of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, told the UN Human Rights Council in July that the people in Rukban are “trapped … languishing in a wasteland”.
The United Nations called conditions “desperate,” “catastrophic” and “no place for a child.”
Dubbed the “Triangle of Death” by activists, an estimated 80 per cent of Rukban’s 25,000 inhabitants are believed to be women and children and according to Pinheiro, women and girls in Rukban have been disproportionately affected by rampant sexual and gender-based violence, child marriage, and exploitation.
The situation of children is particularly extreme: of the camp’s thousands of children, many of whom lack civil documentation and are effectively stateless, at least half lack access to basic education.
There is no sewage system and water pollution, high temperatures, unsafe human waste disposal and garbage accumulation have led to major health issues such as diarrhea, fever, bronchitis, bowel inflammation, skin allergies and urinary infections. UNHCR said diarrhea and acute respiratory infections are the camp’s leading causes of morbidity.
Aid deliveries have always been sporadic, but for the past five months, they have been cut off completely.
“Food, basic medicine, and other life-saving supplies are no longer available,” Pinheiro said.
Only two deliveries have reached Rukban since early 2018. Damascus denied the UN’s March 17 request for a third convoy, without citing a reason. The UN made another request on May 9. It was not approved.
The population of the camp has reduced to a quarter of the more than 40,000 who lived there five months ago due to the move to block supplies.
“Thousands of internally displaced persons have now fled Rukban out of desperation, taking the risk of arrest by regime forces,” reported Etana, a leading Syrian policy research group based in Amman that gathers information from civil and military sources.
The group estimated that, as of July 23, there were about 11,000 people in the camp, compared to a UN estimate of 41,000 in February.
The blame game
A State Department official told CNN the US is “pursuing every possible avenue to deliver aid to Rukban.” But so far Washington has not directly provided aid to the tens of thousands stuck in the settlement, even though the US has protected the area since 2016 and the camps are located only ten miles away from an American military base. Instead, the US are blaming Russia and the Syrian government.
“Rukban is another example of the Assad regime’s consistent practice, with Russian support, of facilitating the suffering of its own people while using the situation as a propaganda tool to deflect the blame for its own inhumane behavior,” Pentagon spokesperson Cmdr. Sean Robertson told CNN in a statement.
The camp is neither completely outside of Syria nor fully inside of Jordan, putting residents in legal limbo between IDP and refugee status, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center. This has also been a challenge for humanitarian groups.
“No side is taking responsibility for these people,” Aron Lund, a Syria expert and fellow at the Century Foundation, a non-partisan think tank, said.
In a statement, Najat Rochdi, Senior Humanitarian Adviser to the UN Special Envoy for Syria, said: “Urgent meaningful and concrete actions are needed. It’s not only a humanitarian imperative, it’s a duty.”