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Paul McLoughlin

Syria Weekly: Conditions worsen in Syria's forgotten refugee camp

Rukban camp has some of the worst conditions in Syria [Getty]

Date of publication: 26 April, 2020

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Syrians in Rukban camp remain in grave danger with no aid deliveries to residents and medical services almost non-existent.
Six years after it was first established, Al-Rukban camp in southeastern Syria remains a place in limbo. 

Rukban residents have endured some of the worst conditions during Syria's war, with the camp besieged by Bashar Al-Assad's regime and aid deliveries effectively blocked by Jordan.

It has left residents in the camp alone, having to rely on smugglers to obtain food and fuel with malnutrition and disease increasingly common.

Stranded in the desert camp with no work available, most residents have to rely on family members living abroad to send them money to pay the smugglers.

Edge of famine

Al-Rukban is tinkering on the verge of mass starvation and devastating pandemics.

The recent closure of the camp's only medical point due to a coronavirus outbreak in neighbouring Jordan has made the situation for residents even more precarious. 

Yet its position close to the US-run Al-Tanf military base has granted it a degree of protection from the nearby Iranian militias looking to capture the southern Syrian Desert region, and perhaps prevented regime barrel bomb attacks, which have devastated other parts of Syria.

Following attacks by Islamic State group militants on Jordanian soldiers in 2016, the nearby border was closed with Amman insisting that any aid come via Damascus, which has effectively laid siege to the camp.

Residents have been unable to seek refuge in Jordan due to the border being closed. 

The dangers they would face from Syria's notorious intelligence services makes returning to their homes in regime areas also not an option.

It has left the thousands of refugees inhabiting the camp in no-man's-land with no outside help.

While the extremely rare UN aid drop - via cranes on the Jordan side of the border - have been welcomed, it is simply not enough to keep residents alive.

Jordan recently refused renewed appeals to allow aid to Rukban from its side of the border, insisting the camp's residents were not its responsibility.

"The situation in the camp is very tragic. The camp residents were dependent on the assistance brought by the United Nations, but a long time has passed and since we got aid,” said one camp resident.

"People here do not have work to provide food for their families, and we are waiting for help from some of the donors to the camp, or if there are relatives living abroad that send money for us to buy food."

Devastation

While there have been no cases of coronavirus in Rukban, there are plenty of other diseases in the camp, such as leishmaniasis and scabies. These cannot be treated properly due to medicine not reaching the camp and the complete absence of doctors.

"Jordan has closed the UNICEF clinic at the camp and the border remains closed due to the coronavirus. This means we will die here or choose to return to Assad areas, but this is not safe for us," one resident told The New Arab.

The 12,000 refugees in the camp have no access to medical aid since Jordan closed its border with the families ultimately left to fend for themselves.

It was in these conditions that Nour found herself in when heavily pregnant.

Having fled to Rukban by taxi during the dead of night when the Islamic State group took over her village in Homs province, she had been living with her family in a tent ever since.

In her final weeks of pregnancy, the sole midwife at the camp told Nour she would need a c-section.

With no medical equipment or doctors in the camp and the nearby medical point closed, Nour and her unborn child were left in grave danger.

The Americans in Al-Tanf told Nour's family to take her to Damascus, which was an impossible situation given the number of Syrians who were disappeared when entering regime-run areas.

"There was supposed to be a medical point at Rukban but it was closed. There were no doctors or medical care in the camp… and the midwife [said I] needed extra medical care," Nour told The New Arab. "I was in labour for two days and my condition became dangerous."
 My only hope is to go back to my home - Nour, Rukban resident
Nour's family were able to sound the alarm with activists abroad who put pressure on the Americans to treat her.

Eventually they relented, and medical professionals treated Nour at Al-Tanf military clinic, where she gave birth to a girl.

Tragedy

The situation in Rukban, where Nour and her child are now living, remains as tragic as ever.

Despite Jordan easing its domestic lockdown due to a dramatic drop in coronavirus cases, the medical point and border remains closed with no signs of the restrictions on Rukban being eased.

The last aid delivery to Rukban took place in September 2019 and the UN admitted it is worried about the "high level of food insecurity" at the camp and the fuel shortages leaving residents to burn rubbish, but appear unable or unwilling to intervene.

It has left Nour and her child effectively alone, with no vegetables, baby formula, and other vital supplies available in the camp.
"We have received no help from NGOs, just some money is sent to my father from people we know abroad, which we use to buy food," Nour said. "My only hope is to go back to my home."

Syria Weekly is a regular feature from The New Arab. To get Syria Weekly in your inbox each week, sign up here

Paul McLoughlin is a news editor at The New Arab. 

Follow him on Twitter: @PaullMcLoughlin

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