Refugees

Al-Rukban camp refugees struggle to survive

By Waleed Abu al-Khair in Cairo

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Al-Rukban camp, in the no-man's land between the Syria-Jordan border, has been the target of a number of 'Islamic State of Iraq and Syria' attacks. [Photo courtesy of Tareq al-Nuaimi]

The daily death of children from malnutrition or disease has become "routine news" for displaced Syrians sheltering at al-Rukban camp in the no-man's land between Jordan and Syria, officials tell Diyaruna.

The camp has come under regular attack from the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS), as a result of which all relief organisations have suspended operations there.

The situation in the camp is "catastrophic in every respect", said Mohammed Ahmed Derbas, deputy chairman of the Tribal Council of Palmyra and member of the board of directors of the Relief Office in al-Rukban camp.

The only medical care available in the camp is provided by a clinic near the border, "which is intended to treat minor or emergency cases only", he told Diyaruna.

"Otherwise, medical care in the camp is totally non-existent, especially care for children, the elderly and those with chronic diseases," he said.

Critical cases are transferred to the Jordanian interior for treatment, he said, but the transport process is difficult and is limited to a small number of cases.

Difficult to access

Al-Rukban camp was established in 2015 to receive Syrian civilians fleeing the ISIS-controlled areas of Palmyra, al-Qaryatayn, al-Raqa and Deir Ezzor.

At first, tents were set up at random in the buffer zone between Jordan and Syria, but the area soon became a permanent campsite for the displaced population, and local tribesmen in particular.

The camp is now home to close to 100,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs), al-Rukban relief worker Tareq al-Nuaimi told Diyaruna.

Last year, after an ISIS suicide bomber killed seven Jordanian soldiers at a military base less than a mile away from the camp, Jordan declared the area a "closed military zone" and stopped allowing refugees to cross its borders.

"The campsite is set in very harsh desert terrain, and the refugees are constantly being hit with sandstorms and the occasional flash flood," he said.

In April, floods and winds toppled dozens of tents and left many families without shelter, al-Nuaimi said.

Additionally, the camp is isolated, with no roads connecting it to other areas, making it hard to deliver food and drinking water to its residents.

Lack of food, vaccines

Jordanian authorities provide the camp with 600 cubic metres of potable water from ground wells delivered by tankers, al-Nuaimi said, adding that this amount is not sufficient "considering that the camp’s population is growing steadily".

The food supplies that reach al-Rukban come from groups operating in the liberated areas in Syria and come in "negligible quantities", Derbas said, noting that the lack of food is having a direct impact on children.

A number of infants die every day due to the lack of food and water, he said, while the lack of vaccines has left children vulnerable to all kinds of diseases.

The Tribal Council of Palmyra is in charge of camp security, Derbas said, and has established a police department manned by about 100 youth volunteers, who resolve disputes that arise between camp residents.

They also aim to detect any attempt by ISIS to infiltrate the camp by mingling with incoming refugees, he said.

"The police department co-ordinates with Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions in the area to intervene in any emergency," he said. "FSA factions provide full external protection for the camp against any attack by terrorists."

'No other alternative'

Despite the situation in al-Rukban, many families still make their way to the camp daily from Deir Ezzor and al-Raqa to escape the fighting that has intensified in their areas.

Fleeing civilians "have no other alternative", camp resident Bassem al-Aqaidat, 40, told Diyaruna.

"The dire conditions have everyone on edge and are causing the eruption of disputes that sometimes evolve into a gunfight," he said.

Food, water and medical supplies are unavailable "except for those who have money", he said, noting that the camp's security situation is very worrying in the absence of regular security forces to maintain order.

As for education, there have been some volunteer attempts to set up makeshift schools in the larger tents, al-Aqaidat said. But the lack of supplies, curricula, textbooks and other necessities has turned them into mere play areas.

"One of the disastrous situations in the camps is the dumping of waste in open areas and open sewage," he added, which has led to an infestation of rodents and insects that multiply in the summer heat and to the spread of diseases.

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