Residents of the Rukban camp protest conditions and a regime siege, southeast Syria, October 10, 2018 (Omar al-Shawi)

The 40,000 displaced Syrians still inside the Rukban camp face “unbearable living conditions”, but those who leave after months of siege are threatened by detention, intimidation, and even killing in regime centers.

The displaced have been in Rubkan, in a barren area in southeast Syria on the Jordanian border, since they fled their homes amid Islamic State attacks in 2015.

In a briefing note, the Syrian Association for Citizens’ Dignity, which has a presence in the camp, set out the latest developments with the escalation of the siege and the first departures of about 4,000 Rukban residents since late March.

The siege, imposed when the Assad regime cut routes into the camp last autumn and blocked all but two aid deliveries, was reinforced in early January when the Jordanian Government started building a barbed wire fence around Rukban. In a UN survey in early February, more that 90% of residents said they wanted to leave, but all cited fears about their security and wanted guarantees over their return to home areas in regime territory.

A week later, Russia announced “humanitarian corridors” — military checkpoints — for residents to depart, but none showed up. Moscow stepped up propaganda blaming “militants” and the US military, which have a nearby base at Tanf on the Iraq border.

See also Syria Daily, April 9: 100s Leave Besieged Rukban Camp Amid Russian Pressure

The Risks of Return

The pressure — include Russia’s threat of “liquidation” — and shortages of food and medicine, which have led to scores of deaths since the autumn, finally pushed thousands to leave the camp. The first group departed on March 24, and the most recent transfer was last week.

In two meetings with Russian and regime officials, Rukban’s representatives asked for movement to opposition-held northwest Syria, but the Russians refused and also would not lift the siege. Those who have left have been taken to regime centers in Homs Province, including the Bab Amr neighborhood of Homs city.

The departed are only transferred after checks by regime security services, which take between 10 to 20 days. Men are told they must undergo “reconciliation”, supposedly receiving a six-month waiver from service in the regime’s military.

But the SACD says Russian and regime personnel are interrogating the displaced at the centers, with returnees told to phone relatives and friends in the camp, “Things are fine, treatment is good, and you should all come back.” Regime security forces and shabiha (pro-Assad gangs) reportedly carry out occasionally raids, looking for targeted men.

The statement says two young people were shot and killed by regime personnel in the Deir Balba center. And — in an incident reported by EA’s local sources — three men were slain in the Bab Amr shelter last Wednesday. The SACD says the trio were killed when they defended a woman being attacked by guards.

See Syria Reports: 3 Men Executed by Regime After Leaving Rukban Camp

Najat Rochdi, the humanitarian advisor of the UN’s Syria envoy, said last Thursday that “the UN has not been granted access to the places of return”.

She admitted that the UN has no information about conditions for those who have left, and said:

We got…some guarantees, without being able to verify anything, that there won’t be any persecutions or any security issues for them to return there, but we are still advocating for us to still get access.