Human Rights

Stranded al-Rukban refugees 'dying slowly'

By Noor al-Saleh in Jordan

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Al-Rukban, an informal camp in the no man's land between Syria and Jordan, houses thousands of Syrian refugees who are stranded in the desert. [Photo courtesy of Raad al-Adaylah]

Syrian refugees stranded at al-Rukban camp, in the no man's land between their homeland and Jordan, tell Al-Mashareq they are "dying slowly" in what activists have described as "the most miserable refugee camp in the world".

The informal settlement now houses more than 75,000 people, most of whom fled areas of Syria under "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS) control.

Refugees stranded at the desert encampment endure searing temperatures, no shade and extremely limited access to water, food and basic supplies.

"We are dying slowly here," Syrian refugee Umm Asaad told Al-Mashareq, using a pseudonym to protect her identity.

The mother of seven said she fled Palmyra, along with her husband, but now faces a dire situation inside the closed military zone.

"We have no water and we receive aid every three months," she said.

Activists have described al-Rukban as the most miserable refugee camp in the world, but the claim has been hard to verify as journalists are not allowed in.

Photographs shared by activists and refugees inside the camp show people waiting to fill up plastic containers with water. Others are shown carrying their sick children, waiting to get permission to enter the nearby clinic.

Severe water shortage

As the camp has no permanent source of water, tankers have been transporting it in, but water is still in short supply and some unscrupulous vendors have exploited the situation to sell it at high prices, residents have said.

The shortage of water has coincided with recent high temperatures.

The nearest source of water is about eight kilometres away, according to Mohammad Khader al-Muhyah, head of the Palmyra and Badia tribal council.

Some refugees have been walking 16 kilometres each day in the blistering heat to obtain a gallon of drinking water, he said, noting that the journey often takes more than 10 hours, given the distance and conditions.

Residents have taken to drinking rainwater, which they filter with a cloth.

As a result of its ongoing water woes, the camp has recorded several deaths due to heatstroke or dehydration, including children, he said, and diseases have started to spread.

Deteriorating conditions

"Conditions at the camp were not that bad a year ago," Um Asaad said.

But they deteriorated rapidly after a June 2016 ISIS car bombing that killed six Jordanian soldiers and wounded 14, prompting Jordan to seal its borders.

Before the border closure, refugees would receive food and water from Jordan through international aid agencies, she said. They would climb over the berm, that roughly delineates the border, and pick up supplies on the Jordanian side.

After the ISIS attack, Jordanian Minister of State for Media Affairs and government spokesman Mohammad Momani said the camp had become an enclave for ISIS and that "national security must take precedence".

Al-Rukban was declared a closed area, "yet it does not mean that international organisations cannot find different ways and means to get aid to the people there", Momani said.

The camp is an international problem, Momani has said, and is not solely Jordan's burden to bear.

Jordan needs help

"Jordan has always shouldered its responsibilities in this respect, but the rest of the world also must assume its duties and help those in need," Momani said.

Aid shipments co-ordinated by UNICEF and the World Food Programme are reaching refugees by a crane, with distribution carried out by UN contractors vetted by Jordan’s army and community leaders.

"Yet with no one to administer or protect the camp, Syrian tribal and rebel groups are controlling medical and aid distribution," said Nadia al-Ezzi, a UN contractor who is delivering food parcels to the refugees at al-Rukban.

Inside al-Rukban, inter-tribal violence has broken out over resources, she said, sharing stories and videos from inside the camp that reveal how difficult it is to control the situation and reach everyone.

"Community leaders control everything," she said.

"The last food aid shipment to the camp was sent before Ramadan," almost two months ago, "and it only reached 45% of refugees", tribal council leader al-Muhyah said.

"We help tens, hundreds of refugees, but there are thousands in the camp," al-Ezzi said.

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