Russia calls for closure of Syrian refugee camp at Rukban

Residents reject Russian and Syrian claims that they are willing to leave

FILE - In this Aug. 4, 2016 file photo, displaced people wait to receive aid at the Rukban camp, near the Jordan-Syria border. The U.S. military said Monday, April, 8, 2019 that it is not preventing Syrians from leaving the remote Rukban camp near an American base in Syria and is urging Russia and Damascus to help facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid. Russia has recently called for the camp to be dismantled and accused the U.S. of hindering such efforts. (AP Photo, File)
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Russia has called for the dismantling of the Rukban camp on the Syria-Jordan border, which is home to tens of thousands of Syrians displaced by their country's civil war.

“We are ready to discuss all steps needed to assist Syrian refugees to leave Rukban,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said during a visit to Jordan on Sunday, where he met Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi.

Russia, an ally of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, has long pushed for the closure of Rukban, where about 45,000  Syrians live without proper facilities and face severe shortages of food and medical supplies.

Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi (R) and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov leave following a press conference in the Jordanian capital Amman on April 7, 2019.  / AFP / Khalil MAZRAAWI
Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov leave after a press conference in Amman on April 7, 2019. AFP

“According to UN observers who visited the camp, most of the displaced people there want to return home, including to territories controlled by the Syrian government,” Mr Lavrov said.

But residents told The National they were being pressured to leave against their will.

“We have no other choice but to return home where the regime is in control of our lives," said Khalid Abo Ali, 35. "We left because we feared for our lives and we cannot go back.

“The suffering that we are enduring in the camp is pushing us to leave."

At least 400 camp residents left on Sunday for shelters provided by the government in central Homs province, bringing the total of those who left since March 24 to 1,660 people, the UN says.

Residents blame Russia and the regime for the lack of food and medical supplies, saying Mr Al Assad is stopping aid from reaching the camp. The last aid delivered to Rukban was two months ago.

In a letter to the UN, residents accused the international community of failing to end their suffering.

Mr Al Assad's block on food and aid  led to the deaths of camp residents including dozens of children this year, they said, calling it an act of genocide.

“The silence by the international community is encouraging the regime’s actions and supports the blockade on us,” the residents said.

“We consider you a partner in these atrocities.”

Millions of people have been displaced since Syria's civil war broke out in 2011, and hundreds of thousands have been killed. Many fled to Jordan and other neighbouring countries.

But Jordan closed its border near Rukban, saying there were armed groups operating in the camp. Russia has made similar claims.

"There are a lot of illegal armed groups there and the Americans are gladly co-operating with them, as far as I understand, to help them recover their strength," Mr Lavrov said.

Rukban is in a de-escalation zone set up by the US to protect its troops at Al Tanf military base near the border.

The US military has stressed to Russia the importance of the zone "in clear and unambiguous terms", a spokesman said on Monday.

The US supports UN efforts to improve conditions in Rukban, Col Scott Rawlinson told AP. He said their departure from the camp should be "safe, informed and voluntary".

What began as a popular uprising against Mr Al Assad evolved into a devastating conflict involving other Middle East countries, Russia, the US and Turkey, and extremist groups including Al Qaeda and ISIS.