There are lots of tragic stories in Syria, but few match the sheer horror and hopelessness of the internally displaced civilians in this southeast Syrian camp, which is protected by a nearby U.S. military outpost from the Bashar al-Assad regime as well as Russian and Iranian forces. There are no roads out and no roads in. The last U.N. aid convoy arrived with a month’s worth of food over a year ago. The Assad regime and its allies are using starvation as a weapon of war, which is a war crime. The U.S. military recruits partner forces from the camp, but the U.S. government won’t feed the residents.
There used to be over 30,000 people in the camp, who fled there from all parts of Syria. Thousands have since returned to regime-held areas (the only option other than starvation), where they faced detention, torture, conscription or execution. Subsisting on smuggled morsels, the remaining residents have waged a public campaign to beg the United States and the international community for help. But it has fallen on deaf ears.
Now, to make matters worse, the Jordanian government has been forcibly repatriating refugees from camps inside Jordan, dumping them in Rukban with no food or aid, according to camp leaders and activists. By doing so, they are potentially exposing the thousands of existing residents to a pandemic they have no means to deal with.
“We fear that they carry covid-19 or other sicknesses to our camp, which is isolated and doesn’t have any outbreaks right now,” one Rukban community leader, who goes by the name Abu Khalid al-Homsi, told me. “And if coronavirus does come to our camp, we have no way to protect ourselves. It would be a catastrophe.”
Over the past month, the Jordanian government has dropped off several dozen Syrian refugees who had been in Jordan for years, he said. They came from the Azraq refugee camp and a camp called the Third Village. Rukban residents are hearing there could be several hundred more deported out of Jordan and arriving in Rukban in the coming weeks.
“None are quarantined by Jordan before they send them to us. Jordan sends no aid whatsoever,” Homsi told me. “There is no aid from the Americans to the camp. We have no humanitarian aid or medical aid or any sort of aid. Thank God we don’t have any covid cases.”
The Jordanian Embassy did not respond to a request for comment. The Jordanian government has not communicated with the Rukban camp residents, who are scrambling to isolate the new arrivals while trying to find them shelter and food at the same time. Jordan closed the U.N. clinic on their side of the border in March due to the pandemic. Residents were told to call an emergency medical “hotline” in Jordan, but no one has ever picked up or responded.
Since the U.S. military controls the area the camp sits on, it has a moral obligation and a practical interest to provide lifesaving humanitarian assistance to the residents. The U.S. troops feed the Syrian men fighting with them, who are watching their families starve. The U.S. military is not an aid organization, but it is simply the last resort for the people of Rukban. The State Department blames the Russians and Moscow blames the United States. Meanwhile, nobody does anything to save these starving people.
“The U.S. government must discourage deportation of Syrian refugees in Jordan to Rukban, if for no other reason [than] to prevent the risk of bringing covid-19 to this vulnerable population, which happens to be in close vicinity to U.S. service members,” said Mouaz Moustafa, executive director of the Syrian American Task Force, an American nongovernmental organization. “The U.S. government has so far failed to provide sustained humanitarian aid to the desperate people there.”
Jordan’s deportation of refugees to the Rukban camp is just the latest in the residents’ long list of crises. But now that Jordan has clearly shown it cares nothing for these people, the United States is the last remaining country that might. If we stand by and allow the pandemic to kill those who survived all the other horrors, we will be forever complicit in their cruel fate.