Displaced Syrians angry at UN over empty aid lorries

People in Rukban camp protest at attempts to drive them to government-held areas

When five lorries entered a remote Syrian settlement near the Jordanian border to relocate dozens of displaced people who wanted to leave, they were met instead by an angry mob.

The drivers were told to pick up people who had registered to leave the area, known as Rukban camp, and take them to a government-controlled part of Syria.

Activists in the camp told The National that many of those who signed up needed urgent medical care.

The UN should know that most of us would rather die before going back to government-held Syria
Imad Abu Sham, activist

Although the mission was supported by the UN and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, the mob attacked the drivers and pelted the lorries with rocks.

People were angry that the convoy had not brought aid to the camp. The vehicles left with no passengers.

“People in the camp have a right to be angry with the UN, Red Crescent and the regime, but they shouldn’t have behaved that way," said Mr Shukree, an activist in Rukban who declined to give his last name.

"They shouldn’t have taken out their anger on the truck drivers."

Assad's 'starve or kneel' ultimatum

Rukban is a man-made humanitarian catastrophe.

It has little to no food, water, medicine or general supplies. Jordan has barred the displaced from entering and the Syrian government has denied aid convoys access.

This is part of what experts and activists say is the Syrian regime's strategy of weaponising humanitarian assistance in the 10-year conflict.

Since the start of the civil war in 2011, the Syrian government has recaptured large areas of the country through a now tried-and-tested model.

Syrian forces surround an area and block off supplies. They then use artillery and air strikes on populated areas and starve out any resistance.

When opposing forces surrender, they and any civilians who do not want to return to government rule have been taken by bus to other opposition-held areas.

Rukban, which is nominally controlled by the Mughawir Al Thawra rebel group, received its last convoy of aid in September 2019.

The camp used to receive periodic relief through Jordan until Amman sealed the border following a terrorist attack by ISIS in 2016.

At the time, 75,000 people languished in Rukban, but fewer than 10,000 are there today. Most of those who left organised their own departure, while those who remain depend on small donations from abroad.

After last week’s failed attempt to take people from the camp, human rights groups and activists accused the UN of aiding what has been termed Damascus’s “starve or kneel” strategy.

The UN was said to be enabling civilian transfers to government centres where returnees risk being detained, tortured or killed.

Asylum seekers at risk

Danielle Moylan, a representative for the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, told The National that the agency supports only voluntary returns.

She said the lorries were supposed to take 88 people who had registered to leave to a Covid-19 quarantine centre in Homs, Syria’s third-largest city.

Ms Moylan said that only those parties who control territory in Syria were responsible for guaranteeing safety and security.

“The UN is not in a position to make security guarantees and has not made any such guarantees to people living in Rukban who wish to leave,” she said.

“Rather, the UN has worked with partners to ensure Rukban residents have access to information and counselling to enable them to make an informed and voluntary decision on their departure from Rukban and return [to government areas].”

Civilians in Rukban said that the UN and Red Crescent told them to call a Red Crescent hotline to ask if they were wanted by the government before registering to leave the camp.

The National tried several times to call this number but there was no answer.

Sara Kayyali, a Syria researcher for Human Rights Watch, said such a hotline may not be accurate or impartial owing to the Red Crescent's relationship with the Syrian government.

The organisation works closely with security services and its senior board is chosen by Damascus. Ex-Red Crescent members claim that government agents have posed as volunteers to infiltrate the organisation.

“From our perspective, there should be very little faith placed in these hotlines and this is for a couple of reasons," Ms Kayyali said.

"First, any reconciliation that requires people to check if they’re wanted has always been very ad hoc, not systematised and not something that is comprehensive.

“We have documented many cases where people have checked if they’re wanted or not. They have double-checked, paid the right bribes and checked with multiple agencies, only to then return to government-held Syria and be arrested.

"That’s because being detained and mistreated in Syria is truly an arbitrary practice."

Earlier this month, Amnesty International published a report saying that the Syrian authorities had targeted returnees who sought asylum abroad.

The rights group interviewed 10 people from Rukban, all of whom were detained after returning to government-controlled areas. Three were tortured and two were disappeared.

The National contacted one of the people who reportedly registered to leave Rukban earlier this month but they denied having done so.

Activists say that those who registered through the Red Crescent hotline are now too afraid to speak to the media for fear of government retaliation when they eventually return.

A media activist in Rukban, who goes by the name of Imad Abu Sham, said that he believes most people in the camp would prefer to go to Jordan if it was an option.

But Jordan, which already hosts more than 658,000 registered Syrians, is not admitting any more displaced people.

Last year, the authorities in Amman deported dozens of Syrian refugees to Rukban in a move that was condemned by rights groups.

Despite being cut off from the world, Mr Abu Sham says he is mostly angry at the UN.

“How could they send those trucks without sending any aid,” he asked The National.

“The UN should know that most of us would rather die before going back to government-held Syria.”

Updated: September 27, 2021, 8:26 AM