UN to ‘facilitate’ evacuations from Syria desert camp

In this file photo taken on March 01, 2017 Syrian refugee patients from the makeshift Rukban camp, which lies in no-man's-land off the border between Syria and Jordan in the remote northeast, queue up to visit a UN-operated medical clinic immediately on the Jordanian-side for checkups, on March 1, 2017. The United Nations said on August 30, 2019, it will help evacuate civilians from an "abysmal" Syrian desert camp near the border with Jordan, after a mission last week determined who wanted to le

The United Nations said Friday it would help evacuate civilians from an “abysmal” Syrian desert camp near the border with Jordan, after a mission last week determined who wanted to leave. “We are ready to facilitate” evacuations from the Rukban camp, said Panos Moumtzis, the U.N.’s Syria humanitarian chief.

“We want to make sure it happens in a voluntary way,” he told AFP during an interview in Beirut, describing the situation in the settlement as “abysmal.”

According to the U.N. official, around 12,700 people remain in the isolated Rukban camp near a base used by the U.S.-led coalition fighting Daesh (ISIS).

The Syrian government and key backer Russia said in February they had opened corridors out of the camp, calling on residents to leave.

More than half of the original population has left in the past months, the United Nations said.

The U.N. and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent sent a mission to the camp last week to determine how many people remained inside and who wanted to leave, the U.N. official said.

“A little bit more than a third of them want to leave,” Moumtzis said.

“The vast majority want to go into government-held areas and some others want to go to the north,” held by the opposition, he added.

Some 47 percent of surveyed camp residents said they wanted to stay, citing reasons including “security concerns” and “fear of detention.”

Rights groups have warned that civilians returning to government-held territory have faced detention and conscription.

Those fleeing to the rebel-held north might face violence in the Idlib region, where Russian and regime bombardment have killed more than 950 people since April.

Although Rukban has not received aid since February, the latest U.N. mission did not deliver any relief items beyond “a minimal number of health supplies,” Moumtzis said.

But last week’s visit is only the first part of a “two-step” plan - the second of which will involve aid delivery, according to the United Nations official.

“The next mission - I hope very quickly - will go back and deliver the desperately needed assistance,” he said, without providing a specific date.

Conditions inside Rukban are dire, with many surviving on just one simple meal a day, often bread and olive oil or yogurt, according to one resident.

Abu Ahmad al-Dirbas Khalidi, the head of an opposition-run civil council in the camp, said the U.N. has vowed to deliver food aid by the first week of September.

Evacuation buses will be allowed to enter the camp after this aid is received, Khalidi said.

A second batch of medical aid and other non-food relief items will follow the first round of evacuations, the local council head later told AFP.

“The situation is desperate,” Moumtzis said, describing Rukban as one of the hardest places to reach in Syria for humanitarian actors.

Neighboring Jordan has largely sealed its border in the area since 2016, after a deadly attack claimed by Daesh on Jordanian soldiers.

Aid from areas held by the Syrian regime to the camp - in a region where U.S.-backed rebel forces are also present - requires permission from Damascus.

In February, a humanitarian convoy of 133 trucks delivered food, clothes, health care items and medical supplies to the camp’s residents.

The Feb. 6 delivery was just the second in three months.