Stay and Starve, or Leave and Die
Jordan is dumping refugees on U.S.-held territory near Syria, and the United States is refusing to care for them as conditions worsen.
Over the past three months, dozens of Syrians who had been living in Jordan were escorted into military vehicles, driven through stretches of arid desert past several security checkpoints, and dumped into a U.S.-controlled no man’s land, known as a “deconfliction zone,” along the Jordan-Syria border. Their ultimate destination: Rukban, an informal refugee camp that sits within the U.S.-protected zone. Rukban is known for its dire humanitarian conditions, an airtight blockade surrounding it, and an apparent deadlock among Jordan, Russia, Syria, and the United States as to who is responsible for the thousands of civilians who inhabit it.
“It feels as though I’ve been wiped out of existence,” said Alaa al-Hassan, a 30-year-old Syrian brick mason who requested to go by a pseudonym for his safety. Hassan said he was deported from southern Jordan to Rukban in September. In an email statement this month, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) confirmed that, since July, Jordan had transferred 36 Syrians to Rukban, including 12 individuals deported for “security reasons” along with some of their family members. The latest deportation documented by UNHCR occurred on Oct. 6, and included two refugees.
According to Hassan, he was not given any specific reason for his transfer, nor was he afforded any due process rights. Now that he is in Rukban, he sleeps on the floor of an empty shack owned by another civilian. Supplies in the camp are depleted, and like many others in Rukban, Hassan has no source of regular income. In fact, the situation is so bad, according to Amnesty International, that some deported refugees have opted to return to government-controlled areas in Syria, where they risk persecution, imprisonment, and death. In turn, the population in Rukban has dwindled in recent years, from roughly 45,000 in 2018 to an estimated 10,000 to 12,000 today. But that doesn’t make things any easier for those who are sent there.
“It’s an impossible choice,” Marie Forestier, a Middle East researcher at Amnesty International, said over the phone in September. According to Forestier, these deportation cases constitute a clear violation of international human rights law on the part of the Jordanian government, particularly those prohibiting refoulement, the practice of sending refugees and asylum seekers to countries where they risk facing persecution. “One of them told me, ‘I would rather die here in Rukban’”—where residents have no reliable access to sufficient food and water—“‘than risking my life by going back to Syrian government-controlled areas.’”
The deteriorating conditions in Rukban can be attributed, in part, to the fraught political wrangle for control over the 34-mile strip of land in which the camp is located. Situated in a key strategic foothold where the Jordanian, Syrian, and Iraqi borders intersect, the U.S. military presence in the area is centered on the al-Tanf military base, 15 miles from the camp, which headquarters a coalition of garrisoned U.S. soldiers and Pentagon-backed Syrian rebel groups.
Following an attack by the Islamic State in 2016, Jordan closed its border and restricted humanitarian access to the camp; the Syrian government and Russian allied forces have ceaselessly blocked aid to the area in a perceived effort to force coalition forces out, and the United States, which notionally has control over the area, has done close to nothing in terms of providing direct humanitarian assistance to the people of Rukban. “It’s like a microcosm of the Syrian conflict,” Sara Kayyali, a Syria researcher for Human Rights Watch who documents violations of humanitarian law in the region, said over the phone in September. “Everyone is sympathetic to the plight, but no one is actually taking responsibility to save these people.”
Last month, Shihab Shukri, a nurse who has been living in Rukban since 2016, shared stories of those who remain in the camp: a one-year-old child dying after two weeks of persistent diarrhea; families baking bread over a fire fueled by used diapers and old shoes; pregnant women forced to journey to government-controlled Syria to undergo necessary cesarean sections. In a single month last year, eight children under five years old in the camp reportedly died because of freezing temperatures and inadequate medical care in the wintertime. “It’s like we are living in the Middle Ages,” he said. “Food, medicine, education—these are all basic essentials. Here in Rukban, we are deprived of all that.”
Like countless other discussions concerning Rukban, the issue of whether the United States should be delivering aid to the camp’s population is a highly contentious one. When asked about it in an interview last year, the U.S. special envoy to Syria, James Jeffrey, said that “the military is a little tired of having everybody else in the U.S. government constantly turning to it to do civilian things,” and on a separate occasion, he told an audience at the 2019 Aspen Security Forum that feeding Rukban’s civilians may give the impression of a long-term presence in the region, which the United States cannot commit to.
Robert Ford, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Syria from 2011 to 2014, has taken issue with Jeffrey’s line of reasoning, citing both legal and moral obligations to refugees living in an area that has been controlled by the United States for the past four years and will be for the foreseeable future. “It may or may not be true” that the United States is going to leave the region soon, Ford explained recently, “and I personally have advocated getting out of Syria, but as long as we’re there, we have this obligation.”
In a legal analysis of the situation, Ford and Carolyn O’Connor, a Yale Law School graduate who specializes in litigation related to refugees and displaced people, cited Article 55 of the fourth Geneva Convention, which states that occupying powers in international armed conflicts have a duty to ensure food and medical supplies to a population if resources in the areas they control are inadequate. According to Ford and O’Connor, the United States has met every threshold that would trigger the Geneva Convention mandates in this case: It is in an international armed conflict with Syria (as ruled by the International Committee of the Red Cross in 2017), it qualifies as an occupying power (as that term is defined in the 1907 Hague Convention and the Defense Department’s Law of War Manual), and resources in Rukban are certainly inadequate.
“It behooves American policymakers to understand that if you’re going to send the U.S. military into a space for whatever political, military, national security mission, this is one part of the cost that you’re going to have to bear,” added Ford. “It’s flabbergasting to me that the Americans refuse to accept this.”
Mohammad Darbas, head of the civilian local council in Rukban and a resident of the camp for the past five years, agrees. “An eight-year-old child wouldn’t buy their excuses,” Darbas said in a recent interview. “This is a mark of shame on all the allied forces and every nation that claims to be a friend of the Syrian people.” Others in Rukban, such as Emad Ghali, a 28-year-old civilian journalist who takes on the essential role of delivering news from within the camp to the outside world, are grateful for the security protections the United States provides, but wish for more life-saving aid. “Honestly, without their presence, we would be easy targets,” Ghali said. “But we ask them to look at us with an empathetic eye and provide aid—only as much as their responsibility requires them to.”
Although the United States has made clear that the primary mission of al-Tanf is to ward off regional security threats—and officials have repeatedly deferred to that focus as a reason for their reluctance to provide aid to Rukban—there is no evidence to suggest that military personnel have taken action to prevent these purported security-related deportations to the camp. Multiple sources in Rukban, including Darbas, have claimed that U.S. forces were made aware of Jordan’s deportations as soon as they began taking place in July, and as they continued to occur in the months that followed.
“If the United States were to take a concerted effort to get more humanitarian assistance to the camp via their presence in Tanf, I’m sure they would be in a position to work with the Jordanian government to ensure that additional deportations that might contribute to instability in the camp do not take place,” said Hardin Lang, vice president at Refugees International, in an October interview. Lang, a foreign-policy and national-security expert who has led studies on military stabilization efforts, explained that by taking on a more active role in addressing Rukban’s humanitarian crisis, the United States could be well positioned to bring a strong degree of international pressure to end these deportations.
For now, those deported to Rukban face an unthinkable decision: Stay and starve, or leave and risk death. Fearing forced conscription back in Syria, Hassan, the brick mason who was deported to Rukban in September, has decided to stay in the camp. Along with the rest of its remaining residents, he is bracing for wintertime—a notoriously fatal season in Rukban—and counting down the days until his supplies run out.