Abu Muhammad had already made his decision. He could no longer bear living in the desolate Rukban displacement camp in eastern Syria.
When he entered a tent set up this week by UN and the government-affiliated Syrian Arab Red Crescent personnel on a rare visit to Rukban, he already knew how he would answer when a Red Crescent worker asked him whether he would like to stay in the camp or leave aboard an upcoming UN-assisted convoy.
A grandfather in his 40s, Abu Muhammad said he would go back to the government-controlled area of Homs province, where his hometown is located, aboard buses slated to arrive at Rukban in the coming weeks. It was a decision he and his family had made together. Al-Monitor has withheld Abu Muhammad’s real name to protect his identity.
He is among an estimated 11,000 to 24,000 displaced Syrians still trapped in the remote Rukban camp along the eastern Syrian-Jordanian border. They have spent years languishing in a desert no man’s land along the border since fleeing Islamic State attacks on their hometowns in eastern Homs province in 2015. The camp remains an informal settlement, scattered with makeshift mud homes. It sits within what is referred to as the 55-kilometer deconfliction zone of the eastern Syrian desert nominally controlled by a US-backed faction, Maghawir al-Thawra (Revolutionary Commandos Army). The US-led coalition's al-Tanf base is nearby. Outside this pocket are vast expanses of Syrian government-controlled territory.
The UN estimates that some 50,000 displaced people have settled in Rukban over the course of the war.
But those numbers are dwindling. Since March, nearly 18,000 Rukban residents have left the camp aboard the Syrian government’s buses, headed for government-held territory in Homs, according to the latest UN count from August. Hundreds of others have smuggled themselves out of the camp toward Syria’s opposition-held north.
They leave behind sharply deteriorating conditions in Rukban, where vital supplies of food and medicine are running out since pro-government forces reportedly cut off desert smuggling routes into the camp late last year.
Organized aid deliveries are a rare occurrence, with nearly all sides involved shirking responsibility for Rukban. The last delivery came in February, aboard a joint UN-Red Crescent convoy arriving via Damascus.
A new UN-Red Crescent mission to the camp that arrived Aug. 17 spurred widespread criticism from Rukban residents and observers as it reportedly brought no aid supplies despite months of crippling food and medicine shortages.
The mission was to carry out a five-day assessment of displaced Syrians who wish to leave the camp and join others who have returned in recent months to government-controlled Homs, according to an announcement sent via WhatsApp to Rukban residents; the notice was seen by Al-Monitor. The mission was to also assess those who wished to stay behind in Rukban or leave via other means, the announcement said. A subsequent, separate UN-Red Crescent mission is to later bring supplies to those who choose to remain in the camp and also provide a convoy of buses to transport those wishing to leave to Homs.
Residents inside Rukban described long lines at tents organized by town or tribe of origin, where the displaced were asked to register one of four choices with Red Crescent personnel: go to government-held Homs, stay in Rukban, go to Syria’s opposition-held north or be undecided. It is unclear why northern Syria was included in the survey, as Syrian and allied Russian forces have yet to allow an organized passage north.
A UN official in Syria declined to comment on the mission, citing “security reasons” as assessment procedures were still ongoing.
The UN-Red Crescent visit raises “some major potential problems,” said Emma Beals, an independent researcher who has covered issues of refugee return in Syria. Returning camp residents face “well-documented security and protection risks” in government-run shelters set up for recent arrivals from Rukban, amid reports of forced disappearances and other violations against refugees returning to Syria in general.
Exact figures are unclear, though Rukban residents in recent weeks have spoken of ill treatment, including torture, of returnees to Homs as they face prolonged stays in government-run reception shelters set up in former school buildings. There, returnees reportedly undergo security screening and settle their status with the Syrian government before being allowed to set up their lives anew in Homs. Some stay for several days in the shelters, relatives say, while others have reportedly been trapped for weeks or months. The accounts of abuses in the former school buildings are difficult to confirm, as returnees held in the shelters are often barred from access to their mobile phones, according to family members still in Rukban. More than 700 people are estimated by the UN to still be in the Homs shelters.
“The UNHCR’s lack of access to shelters or returnees in Syria means they cannot counsel potential returnees adequately with the information they need, nor can they ensure they are safe later on,” Beals said.
Mahmoud Hmeili, a Rukban resident and spokesman for one of the camp’s makeshift local councils, estimated Aug. 20 that only some 8% to 9% of residents had signed up to return to Homs on the upcoming UN-facilitated convoy. Al-Monitor could not independently confirm his count.
Among those ruling out a return home is Ziad, a camp resident in his 20s who asked that Al-Monitor use a pseudonym to protect his identity. Like other young men in Rukban, he fears compulsory military conscription for the government if he goes back to Homs, and has heard from those who have made the trip back home of ill-treatment in the reception shelters.
When he went to one of the Red Crescent tents to register his own decision, he told aid workers that he had chosen to stay behind in Rukban. The procedure he describes comes despite language in the WhatsApp announcement that appeared to imply that only residents with a desire to return to Homs would need to register their names with Red Crescent personnel.
Ziad and other residents said everyone living at Rukban had to visit the registration tents even if they, like him, did not want to go to Homs. In exchange, those choosing to stay in Rukban were to receive cards to use to receive aid supplies in the subsequent UN-Red Crescent mission in the coming weeks.
“I had to register [my decision to remain in Rukban] in order to get the aid card,” Ziad told Al-Monitor.
Residents who spoke with a reporter in recent weeks say they are suspicious of Red Crescent personnel because of the aid agency’s close ties with the Syrian government.
No clear solution is yet in place for those choosing to stay in the camp. Some residents have pushed for a safe passage to opposition-held northern Syria, where they feel they will be safer from political reprisal, while hundreds of others have simply gone north via a men’s only motorcycle smuggling route led by bedouin guides. Both options are largely out of reach for most remaining residents.
But staying behind means forging survival in the desert encampment as basic supplies continue to run out.
Rukban’s displaced face “an impossible choice,” says Beals, “Between the security services that have detained returnees and thousands of other Syrians, or to remain in a dire IDP camp with no way out.”