Forty Thousand Syrian Refugees Remain Trapped in a U.S.-Created No Man’s Land
SOURCE: THE NEW YORKER
BY: RAZINA ALI
After months of negotiations, a convoy of sixty-seven aid trucks recently crossed a stretch of desert in southern Syria controlled by the Syrian government and its Iranian allies, before entering territory administered by a small, U.S.-backed rebel group. The trucks carried food, medicine, and winter coats for a fetid refugee camp known as Rukban, home to some forty thousand civilians who have been trapped in a strip of land wedged between Syria and Jordan, and cut off from the outside world since 2015. It was the first aid to reach the camp since January—and the new supplies should only last a month. No one knows when, or if, another shipment will arrive.
Rukban lies in a thirty-five-mile-wide internationally-recognized demilitarized zone created by the United States and Russia, though neither Washington nor Moscow takes responsibility for it. It is populated by Syrians who fled the violence of both the Bashar al-Assad regime and isis, and until the recent delivery, the Syrian government had refused to allow aid convoys to pass through its territory to reach the camp. Jordan has blocked humanitarian organizations from reaching the area, too. Aid organizations always tell us,
“ ‘We are doing our best,’ ” Mahmoud Qassem Almaili, a resident of the camp who serves on its civil council, told me over the phone recently. “But it’s all only promises.”
United Nations officials say that Rukban’s residents live in “dire” conditions: hunger and the threat of malnutrition are growing; there are a hundred and fifty urgent medical cases but not a single certified doctor there to treat them; last month, two children died awaiting medical care; and reports are circulating of child marriages, child soldiers, and prostitution. In a conflict known for its staggering humanitarian crises, camp residents feel that Rukban is a symbol of the international community’s inability—or unwillingness—to help Syrians.
By the time the camp was established, in 2015, Jordan had already tightened its borders following an influx of some six hundred thousand refugees. Civilians arriving at Rukban found themselves trapped between the two countries. Some returned to regime-held areas in Syria, risking retaliation from loyalists and forced conscription into the Army. The remaining forty thousand have tried to establish a semblance of a home in the desert—building mud houses, a market, and schools.
Over the years, smugglers from Syrian cities such as Palmyra and Al-Dumayr have brought in medicine and necessary food items—rice, flour, olive oil—but have sold them at high prices. Residents have made meagre incomes from intermittent construction work or by joining armed opposition groups. Omar Al-Abdullah, a twenty-three-year-old who moved to the camp in 2015 from Raqqa, told me that he joined Jaish al-Ashair, a rebel group backed by Jordan and one of the main factions controlling the camp. At first, Al-Abdullah received a hundred dollars in salary a month. Meanwhile, Maghawir al-Thawra, a separate rebel group, known as mat, which controls the territory immediately outside of Rukban, received support from the United States, some of which found its way to camp residents.
But last year the Trump Administration decided to stop providing arms and support to rebel groups fighting the Syrian government. mat, which helps battle isis, remains the sole Syrian opposition faction to receive U.S. support. Other international funding for Syrian opposition groups has also begun to dry up. Fighters with Jaish al-Ashair have not received salaries for six months, Al-Abdullah told me. He estimates that the families of a hundred and fifty of the group’s fighters that live in the camp now have to find other sources of income. “I don’t work, but my brother does,” he said. “He transports water from the source, five kilometres from the camp, and sells the barrel for fifty cents.” There are few other ways to generate income. “Most people don’t have money,” Ahmed Sgera, a thirty-three-year-old grocery-store owner who has lived in Rukban for four years, told me on Whatsapp. “Their savings are running out.”
As the Syrian regime has reconquered rebel-held territory across the country, with support from Russia and Iran, it has adopted the same siege tactics toward Rukban that it has used in other areas. The government has tightened smuggling routes to the camp, driving up food prices. Some believe it allowed the recent relief convoy to pass due to pressure from Russia, as humanitarian conditions worsened in Rukban. But Syrian and Russian officials insist that because the U.S. is in charge of the demilitarized zone, it is responsible for the camp’s deteriorating state. Recently, Colonel General Mikhail Mizintsev, of the Russian National Defense Control Center, likened the conditions in Rukban to those in the concentration camps in the Second World War. “Why, in these conditions, the world community, which cares so much about human rights, continues to persistently keep silent about the humanitarian disaster in the Rukban camp?” he said.
The camp lies just miles from the U.S. coalition’s military base in Al-Tanf, from which the American military coördinates artillery strikes against isis and trains mat fighters. For the past four years, the U.S. has argued that it is not responsible for conditions in the camp but has said that is doing what it can to help residents. Colonel Sean Ryan, the spokesman for the U.S-led coalition, pointed out that mat fighters helped provide security for the recent humanitarian convoy to Rukban. When I asked him if the coalition would consider providing aid to people in Rukban, he said that the United Nations had not asked it to do so. Ryan agreed that the failure of the international community to improve conditions in Rukban made it a potential breeding ground for isis recruits. But he argued that a division of labor exists between the “military” mission of the U.S.-led coalition and the “humanitarian” responsibility of the United Nations. “The goal of defeating isis is the No. 1 priority,” Ryan told me. “The coalition definitely didn’t start the camp and inherited it in the location. We’re doing what we can for it not to become a bigger deal.”
A humanitarian worker based in the region told me that the Trump Administration could do more. “The U.S. and European countries could put pressure on the Jordanian government to allow people in—but there’s no political will to damage their relationship with Jordan,” the aid worker, who asked not to be named, told me. “The U.S. could provide assistance themselves, but they are reluctant to create a situation in which the population relies on them.”
Meanwhile, Jordan, which initially allowed humanitarian workers to deliver aid to Rukban, restricted access in 2016, after isis fighters attacked a Jordanian Army checkpoint in the area. Due to international pressure, the Jordanian government has allowed some aid to the camp, but not directly. The last aid delivery to Rukban from the U.N., in January, involved a convoluted process: Jordanian officials gave permission to the U.N. to drop packages of food and other items into the camp by crane, which allowed the government of Jordan to continue to claim that it had not had direct contact with the camp or its inhabitants. (The Jordanian Foreign Ministry did not respond to requests for comment regarding current conditions in the camp.)
The emergence of a sprawling refugee camp has exposed holes in the international legal framework designed to require states to care for refugees. It is unclear whether the people in Rukban are refugees—therefore becoming Jordan’s responsibility, or “internally displaced people,” meaning they are the responsibility of Syria. Because the American military established a presence nearby, the U.S. could be considered an occupying power, making the residents of the camp the responsibility of the United States. Almaili, who is part of the civil administration body in Rukban that distributes aid, told me that states use this legal ambiguity to circumvent responsibility. He said that aid organizations in Damascus tell them that “the regime is preventing us from providing food for you.” Jordanian officials say, “We are a poor country and can’t do anything.” Meanwhile, Almaili told me, the camp’s civil administration has no relationship with the U.S.
Jordan, the Syrian regime, and the U.S. are currently in negotiations about how to end the current crisis at the camp. Any agreement would likely include people returning to regime-held areas or being sent to one of the few parts of Syria that are still controlled by rebels. Like past conflicts in Rwanda and Bosnia, as well as current conflicts in Yemen and the Congo, Rukban illustrates the international community’s utter failure to force states to abide by international law and protect civilian lives. Fadwa Baroud, a U.N. official based in Damascus, told me that the U.N. is pushing for a long-term solution “for the civilians in Rukban who are living in the harshest of conditions.” Until then, the U.N. is advocating for a second aid convoy. But, she said, access requires facilitation with and permissions from the states and armed groups that hold power on the ground. The United Nations, ostensibly the only international organization that can provide aid to people in Rukban, is beholden to states that have little incentive to help the people living there. A Syrian journalist in Jordan put it succinctly. “Everyone wants to remove the camp,” he said, but nobody wants responsibility for the people in it.