As people from the Rukhban camp besieged on the Jordanian border were moved to government-controlled areas, allegations of torture and ill-treatment by the Syrian army have surfaced.
Critics say the United Nations and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) have begun to transfer the displaced Syrians living in the desperate Rukhban camp to the regime-ruled Homs, where they are at risk of human rights violations. .
Although the operation was based on the voluntary registration of people wishing to leave the camp, the Syrian Civil Dignity Association (SACD) said it was “sad” at the UN’s involvement in the transfer.
SACD spokeswoman Haya Atasi told Al Jazeera that due to the lack of security regulations, the organization is completely opposed to any attempt to send Syrians back to the regime.
“We are surprised that the United Nations is involved in such activities in areas that are not safe at all,” Atassi said. “The Syrian regime is not credible. We cannot believe in a regime with these people.”
The Syrian government, with the support of its Russian allies, has blocked assistance to refugee camps since September 2019, forcing about 21,000 people out of the desperate situation in Lukban.
It is estimated that the remaining 12,000 people have almost no food or water, and the camp lacks sanitation facilities.
According to Danielle Moylan, spokesperson for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), 88 people have registered to leave the camp as part of a UN-supported mission.
Moylan told Al Jazeera in a statement: “On September 11, a convoy of five trucks entered Lukeban with the sole purpose of supporting these registered families to leave Lukeban with their belongings voluntarily. Kerban.”
“However, within Rukban, a small group of people obstructed the convoy and attacked a driver. As a result, the mission was cancelled and the convoy immediately left Rukban.”
A 28-year-old resident of the Lukeban refugee camp asked for his initials IA to be confirmed. He told Al Jazeera that many Syrians protested the entry of transfer trucks at the entrance of the refugee camp.
“I am one of those people who will never return to the region under the rule [Syrian President Bashar] Al Assad’s control, no matter how bad my situation is,” said IA from the village of al-Qaryateen in the eastern suburbs of Homs.
“I will never return to an area ruled by a criminal regime that still kills civilians and treats them cruelly.”
Rukban is located in the arid “no man’s land” between the Syrian and Jordanian borders, near the US military base al-Tanf.
Most of the displaced Syrians in Rukban fled the armed group Islamic State (ISIS) when Raqqa was controlled in 2014. Once Jordan stopped accepting refugees into the country in 2016, it became a de facto refugee camp.
Having lived in the camp since 2015, the IA explained that the situation in Lukeban will not get worse due to the blockade of aid. Sometimes, he, his wife, and three daughters cannot eat, and there is a general shortage of basic things.
“For example, today we ate rice with some yogurt beside it, and we thank God for that,” IA said.
Returnees deliberately targeted
Thousands of people who had left the camp were sent to the “transition center” set up by the government in Homs, although they were more like detention facilities where people were interrogated and sometimes even forcibly disappeared.
Amnesty International Recently recorded Some returnees were transferred to an intelligence center, where they were tortured.
In its latest research on human rights violations in Syria, Amnesty International stated that Syrian security officials detained 10 people who had returned from the Rukhban camp. Three of them “suffered torture or other ill-treatment, and two were forced to disappear.”
SACD also recorded 174 people who were sent to the “terrorism” court after crossing the border from Lukban to the Homs Center, despite the security guarantees provided by the Russian and Syrian governments.
As SACD’s Atassi pointed out, the Syrian regime “really loves to humiliate” opposition areas and civilians who previously criticized it.
Atasi said: “We believe that the United Nations in Syria failed to properly inform the Syrians of the situation and their activities in repatriating Syrians.”
“The research shows a pattern of the regime’s treatment of people returning from Lukeban. These people will not return to their homes, they will die.”
‘Alive or not’
However, the United Nations says it is ensuring that individuals have access to information so that they can make informed decisions in action.
Moylan said: “The United Nations continues to advocate to all parties in Syria to ensure that all civilians get their rights, and any return is fully informed, voluntary and dignified.”
IA stated that if he leaves Lukeban, his risk of detention will increase because he joined the “revolution” in 2011 and protested against the Assad government.
“Many of our friends who came back from Lukeban were actually detained, and until today, no one knows any news about them,” IA said.
“Some people were taken to Sednaya prison, and whether they will come out alive is still unknown,” the IA added, referring to the Syrian government military prison, known for torture and execution of thousands of Syrians.
The United Nations says it is aware of reports of detention and abuse of individuals returning to government-controlled areas, including recent amnesty studies.
Moylan said that the United Nations will continue to make every effort to independently verify the report and follow up with Syrian officials.
“The position of the United Nations remains that the situation in Syria is not conducive to large-scale, organized returns,” Moylan said. “The United Nations cannot provide security guarantees, nor has it made any such guarantees to the people living in Lukeban.”
The United Nations has no follow-up mechanism to assess the fate of those who helped leave Lukban, and the Syrian authorities prevented them from entering these centers.
“The United Nations has a responsibility at this time to inform people that it is not safe to return, not to facilitate their return,” Atassi said.
“When you are faced with two choices-either stay in the camp, or starve to death or freeze to death, or go to the Assad detention center and die under torture-they will choose the lesser evil,” Atassi said .
IA stated that he is interested in returning to Homs with his family, “but there will be no killers and criminals present.”
“Homs is very important to us. This is the most beautiful city, but there is no Assad.”