Thousands flee Syria's Rukban camp after brutal regime siege

More than 40 per cent of the residents have returned to regime-controlled areas, UN says

(FILES) In this file photo taken on March 1, 2017, Syrian refugee patients from the makeshift Rukban camp, which lies in no-man's-land off the border between Syria and Jordan in the remote northeast, cross over to visit a UN-operated medical clinic immediately on the Jordanian-side for checkups. In a desert camp along Syria's border with Jordan, nearly 50,000 displaced people struggle to eke out a living. There are no clinics, no nappies and little food -- welcome to Rukban. / AFP / KHALIL MAZRAAWI
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More than 40 per cent of Syrian civilians who sought refuge in an isolated desert camp on the border with Jordan have been forced to leave because of the lack of food, medicine and other essentials, the United Nations said.

The Rukban camp, located close to the Tanf US military base in the desert area where the borders of Syria, Jordan and Iraq meet, used to house to about 40,000 people displaced by fighting in Syria's civil war. But their numbers have been dropping sharply with rising levels of hunger and poverty in the camp.

“Over 17,000 internally displaced Syrians, as of July 21, have now left Rukban, having lived in the remote location for years,” the UN said in a report.

Nearly 25,000 women, children and men remain stuck inside, it said.

The camp's residents have not received any aid since February because of a blockade imposed by the Syrian government and its ally Russia, who say Rukban is being used as shelter by militant groups.

"Over the past two years, only two humanitarian inter-agency convoys have reached Rukban:
November 2018 and February 2019," the UN said.

The lack essential goods, including baby formula, has led to a rise in cases of severe disease and an increase in infant mortality, the report said.

Residents of the camp told The National that more than 70 per cent of those who fled went to places such as Raqqa, the former capital of the ISIS group's self-declared caliphate before it was retaken by US-backed Syrian militias.

"They left because of the camp's dire condition as well as the intimidation by militias affiliated to Syrian President Bashar Al Assad," Abu Mahmood, spokesman for the camp residents, told The National.

“I can guarantee that 6,000 civilians will remain inside the camp in defiance to what Bashar Al Assad’s regime is doing to his own people,” he said.

Those remaining in the camp say they wish to be taken to opposition-held areas in north-western Syria. They sought refuge in Rukban after fleeing Russian air strikes on towns in the eastern Homs desert several years ago.

“We are under siege, we have no food, medicine or diapers for our children; they are dying of sickness and disease and lack of nutrition and there is no one that can help us,” said Iman Al Kheir, a camp resident.

“We cannot survive in these conditions, we need international help," she said. "No one is showing us any mercy.”

Many residents say they face an uncertain fate at the hands of the Syrian authorities if they return to their homes in government-controlled areas.

"People are enduring and living in these horrific conditions because they don't want to go back to regime-controlled areas," Abu Khalid, a resident of the camp, who has two children, told The National.

Civilians have lost hope and trust in the UN and other humanitarian organisations, and say that Jordan has not offered them much assistance, Mr Abu Mahmood said.

“We the Syrian citizens, who own this land, are asking the international community to take charge and intervene in Rukban to save our lives,” he said.

Residents are demanding safe passage to rebel-controlled areas in the north-west or for the the Al Waleed border crossing, also known as Al Tanf, to be opened to either allow them to cross into Iraq or allow the flow of humanitarian and medical aid to enter the camp. Jordan has closed its border since a terrorist attack on its forces near Rukban in 2016.