DAMASCUS, SYRIA - SEPTEMBER 27 : A little girl walks near makeshift tents at Rukban camp, which lies in no-man's-land off the border between Syria and Jordan in the remote northeast, near Damascus, Syria on September 27, 2018. Approximately 60,000 civilians shelter at Rukban camp as it lacks medicines and food since 10 months. (Photo by Imad Gali/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Actually, Jamal (name changed by the editor) was happy when the trucks passed the border of the camp. They were laden with sugar, rice, bulgur, oil and flour, he says. Food that the nearly 10,000 residents of the Rukban refugee camp on the border between Syria and Jordan are having to search for more and more desperately.

No humanitarian aid has reached Rukban since autumn 2019, only the smugglers on the Syrian side and small cultivation sites prevent the refugees – a good half of them children – from starving in the desert.

But for more than a month, the Syrian regime has been cracking down on illegal trade, according to non-governmental organizations. This drives up prices and makes food scarce.

“We bake bread over the fire that we make with leftover nylon, cardboard and trash. This is how we cook bulgur and rice. We don’t have meat, eggs or fish. Many foods are not available. And when something is available, the prices are very high.” A kilo of flour costs 3,000 Syrian pounds, about 1.15 euros, says Jamal.

On June 9, activists watched as food from Jordan entered the camp. NGOs and residents emphasize that this was an agreement with Jordanian merchants and not official humanitarian aid. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Jordan confirms that it is not involved.

The food shortage is not the only problem in the camp. The lack of medicine, jobs and educational institutions is bad, reports Jamal. A clinic run by the United Nations has been closed since the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020.

Doctors are also missing, only a few nurses are still working in the camp. In emergencies, patients often have to go to areas controlled by the Syrian government. That’s what they’re afraid of, says Mouaz Moustafa, director of the NGO Syrian Emergency Task Force (SETF). “The prospect of returning to the regime areas is so crazy that it doesn’t even matter how far the nearest clinic is.”

Rukban is located in a demilitarized area stretching 55 kilometers in the Syrian desert bordering Jordan. An area made up of sand and stones. Dust storms and heat waves plague people in summer, snow and rain in winter.

Pictures and videos from the camp show endless white tents and one-story mud houses on the red, dry ground. People wait at wells with carts and donkeys to fill their canisters with water coming from Jordan.

“The camp is in the middle of the desert and has been under siege since 2019. So the real question isn’t what’s missing there, but what’s available. Because almost everything is missing,” says Mustafa Abu Shams from the Hesar initiative.

“First I lived in a nylon tent with my family, then after about two years we built a small house out of clay, a mixture of water and sand,” says Jamal. The 45-year-old runs a small general store in the camp.

Other local residents work for the Revolutionary Commando Army, a rebel group active in the Rukban area. But many refugees have to rely on the money that relatives send them outside the camp.

Some have been in the camp for years. Like Jamal, who fled to Rukban in 2016 with his five children from a small Syrian town between Homs and Damascus, hoping to resettle in Jordan. But he never left Rukban. When Jordan closed its border after a suicide bombing in June 2016, he remained trapped in the camp. He says he no longer sees a future. “I was an employee, owned a house, a car and a farm, but now I have nothing, not even a refugee card.”

Tens of thousands have left Rukban in recent years. According to NGOs, the Syrian government, with the support of Russia, has been besieging the camp since 2019 and preventing access. “The Assad regime and Russia are cutting off smuggling because they want to force local residents back into areas under regime control,” says SETF director Moustafa. However, according to a report by Amnesty International, Syrian refugees who return home risk arrest and torture.

One solution could be that Jordan opens its border to camp residents. But the government in Amman sees it differently: “The answer to the situation in Rukban is that the camp will be dissolved and the people will return to their homes,” says Foreign Ministry spokesman Haitam Abu Alfoul. And adds that it is up to the UN, the international community and Syria to “ensure a safe return”.

Rukban is on Syrian soil, Jordan cannot “be the simple answer to this problem”.

It is still unclear how private deliveries from Jordan will continue in the future. Apparently, further charges have already been considered, but this is not certain. In any case, Jamal was happy about the convoy a while ago. Something like this should happen again in the future, he hopes. But that Rukban’s problems will be solved is questionable.