In February, the Russian Ministry of Defense and Syrian authorities announced the creation of “reception centers” and humanitarian corridors to returning residents—internally displaced Syrians—of the Rukban camp in eastern Syria to government-held areas. Russia’s action seized on a recent UN intention survey that indicates Rukban residents’ preference to return home. The Syrian government and its Russian partner’s plan to facilitate the departure of those who want to leave the camp has sparked international controversy. The camps’ residents themselves face a difficult choice, stay and starve—as the camp faces a blockade, or leave risking violence and repression under the Syrian regime.
Before the camp’s access to humanitarian aid was blocked, it had been severely restricted. Humanitarian access to the camp was cut off in 2016 when Jordan closed the border following a string of deadly attacks. Responsibility for providing humanitarian aid to Rukban then shifted from UN actors in Amman to Damascus-based UN agencies. In November 2018, following months of intensive negotiations among Syria, Russia, Jordan, the United States, and the United Nations, Rukban received its first aid delivery from UNHCR Syria. A second UN convoy was then delivered in February 2019. Since then, however, the Syrian government has refused life-saving UN assistance to its roughly 40,000 residents. Calls for Russia and Syria to permit humanitarian access to Rukban have fallen short. While actors push for the voluntary relocation of IDPs stuck at Rukban as a way out of the crisis, the majority remain without access to immediate aid. Although at least 13,100 civilians have reportedly returned to government areas since March, some 30,000 remain within the camp according to the UN.
The future of the camp remains the object of intense U.S.-Russian negotiations. The Trump Administration’s decision earlier this year to keep troops in Syria meant an indefinite troop presence in Tanf, within the 55km zone around the camp, complicating Russian efforts to restore eastern Syria to Assad. With stalled progress in U.S.-Russian negotiations, Russia and Syria moved to extend their presence in the east on the pretense of helping Rukban residents go home.
The Russian repatriation plan raises significant problems for Rukban residents. Firstly, the plan does not offer any formal security guarantees to address residents’ concerns of fears of forced conscription, arrest, or detention1. The Syrian government announced its plan following the release of a faulty UNHCR survey in February, announcing that most Syrians wanted to return home. The agency failed to include any reference to the “significant protection concerns” that residents’ also widely expressed. Residents’ concerns over returning to government areas were not addressed until nearly two weeks later by OCHA.
Remaining in the camp is also a risky option as conditions have worsened since Russian and Syrian forces have cut off all major routes into the camps—even smugglers are no longer able to bring food into the camp2. Many residents feel Russia and Syria are manufacturing a worse humanitarian crisis at Rukban to drive out the remaining majority3.
The UN’s role in ensuring that the process of return and reintegration are in line with international laws has also been greatly diminished. Their limited access to the camp hampers their ability to effectively monitor the return process. Effectively, Russia and Syria control the return process with limited transparency and limited accountability.
If U.S.-Russian negotiations resume, they could generate sustainable options beyond just repatriation. Since the Trump Administration announced plans to withdraw from Syria in December, Rukban IDPs have called for a variety of options including relocation to northern Syria or Jordan. Relocation to northern Syria would likely mean ending up in Turkish-controlled northern territories and the SDF-held northeast, where IDPs would be out of reach of the Syrian government.
The viability of any such option hinges on approval from a broad range of actors, who often fall on opposite sides of the conflict, and solving the technicalities of transportation, security, and housing in areas of resettlement. The process of voluntary relocation to nongovernment areas would undoubtedly be a significant undertaking. Most examples of IDP relocation in Syria, cases like Ghouta and Yarmouk, were hardly voluntary. Most often, they were offered by the Syrian regime upon surrender at the close of a protracted blockade or military campaign. Ensuring relocations are safe, voluntary, and dignified would require multilateral negotiations to create necessary safeguards and employ monitors to oversee the process. But, as observed with the debate over humanitarian access to Rukban, there is no political will to reach a sustainable solution from all sides.
Another important consideration are the conditions of the communities to which they would relocate. In Idlib, a full-scale Syrian/Russian military operation is ongoing, displacing hundreds of thousands of civilians. In the northeast, tensions remain high as the United States tries to stave off a Turkish intervention into Kurdish-dominated regions. Furthermore, another humanitarian crisis is looming at the Al-Hawl refugee camp which also demands the attention of the United States and its allies.
More broadly, though the fighting has slowed (with the exception of Idlib) across Syria, the Syrian people remain in protracted suffering, as the political situation grows more complicated. Rukban is only one of numerous ongoing humanitarian crises where civilians are stuck between the national interests of international actors. As the Syrian government steadily extends its authority over Syria territorially, politically, and administratively, its authority is likely to be extended over humanitarian operations to these crises. This will afford the Syrian regime a significant degree of power over the long-term outcomes of displaced Syrians across the country. For IDPs fearing return to regime areas, this paints a bleak future.
Jesse Marks is a Fulbright fellow to Jordan and Middle East researcher, based at the University of Cambridge.
1 Author Interview with Rukban Resident, 1/20/2019, 3/22/2019, via Whatsapp
2 Author interview with Rukban Resident, February 17-22, 2019, via Whatsapp
3 Author Interviews with Rukban Resident, February 17-22, 2019; March 1, 2019; via Whatsapp