Allegations of torture and mistreatment by Syrian forces have surfaced as people in the besieged Rukban camp along the border with Jordan are moved to government-controlled areas.
The United Nations, in coordination with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC), has commenced the transfer of displaced Syrians residing in the desperate Rukban camp to regime-ruled Homs, where they face the risk of human rights violations, critics say.
While the operation is based on voluntary registration for people who wish to leave the camp, the Syrian Association for Citizen’s Dignity (SACD) said it was “saddened” by the UN’s involvement in the transfers.
SACD spokeswoman Haya Atassi told Al Jazeera the organisation is completely against any attempts to send Syrians back to regime areas because of the lack of safety provisions.
“We are surprised the UN is involved in such activities in areas which are really not safe at all,” Atassi said. “The Syrian regime is not trustworthy. We can’t trust the regime with these people.”
The Syrian government with the support of its Russian ally has blocked aid into the camp since September 2019, forcing some 21,000 people to leave the desperate situation in Rukban.
The estimated remaining 12,000 people are left with next to no food or water and a lack of sanitation in the camp.
According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) spokeswoman Danielle Moylan, 88 individuals have registered to leave the camp as part of the UN-supported mission.
“On September 11, a convoy of five trucks entered Rukban with the sole purpose to support these registered families to voluntarily leave Rukban with their belongings,” Moylan told Al Jazeera in a statement.
“However, while inside Rukban a small group of individuals obstructed the convoy and assaulted a driver. As a result, the mission was cancelled and the convoy immediately departed Rukban.”
A 28-year-old Rukban camp resident, who asked to be identified by his initials IA, told Al Jazeera there were many Syrians protesting at the gates of the camp against the entry of transfer trucks.
“I am one of those people who would never return back to areas under [Syrian President Bashar] al-Assad’s control, no matter how bad my situation gets,” IA, originally from al-Qaryateen village in eastern suburbs of Homs, said.
“I will never return to an area ruled by the criminal regime who still kills civilians and treats them brutally.”
Rukban lies in an arid “no-man’s land” between the border of Syria and Jordan, close to the US military base al-Tanf.
The majority of the displaced Syrians in Rukban fled from the armed group ISIL (ISIS) when it controlled Raqqa in 2014, and once Jordan stopped accepting refugees into the country in 2016 it became a de facto camp.
Living in the camp since 2015, IA explained the conditions in Rukban could not get any worse because of the blockade of aid. On some days, he, his wife, and three daughters do not get anything to eat, and generally, there is a shortage of basic items.
“For example, today we ate rice with some yoghurt on the side, and we thank God for that,” IA said.
Returnees deliberately targeted
The thousands who have already left the camp were sent to “transition centres” set up by the government in Homs, though they more resemble detention facilities where people are interrogated and sometimes forcibly disappeared.
Amnesty International recently documented that some of the returnees were transferred to intelligence centres where they were tortured.
In its latest research on human rights violations in Syria, Amnesty said Syrian security officials detained 10 individuals who returned from Rukban camp, and three were “subjected to torture or other ill-treatment, and two were forcibly disappeared”.
SACD also documented the arrest of 174 people who were sent to “terrorism” courts following their transit from Rukban to the Homs centres, despite Russian and Syrian government safety guarantees.
As Atassi from SACD pointed out, the Syrian regime “really enjoys humiliating” opposition areas and civilians previously critical of it.
“We think the UN in Syria is failing to properly inform Syrians of the situation and their activities in returning Syrians,” Atassi said.
“The research shows a pattern with which the regime treats people coming back from Rukban. These people are not coming back to their homes, they’re going to their death.”
‘Alive or not’
However, the UN says it is ensuring individuals have access to information enabling them to make an informed decision on the move.
“The UN continues to advocate to all parties in Syria to ensure all civilians are afforded their rights, and that any returns are fully informed, voluntary, and dignified,” Moylan said.
IA said he is at an increased risk of being detained if he left Rukban because he joined “the revolution” in 2011 and protested against al-Assad’s government.
“Many of our friends who returned from Rukban were actually detained and until this day, no one knows anything about them,” IA said.
“Some were taken to Sednaya prison and it is still unknown whether they will come out alive or not,” IA added, referring to the Syrian government military prison known for its torture and execution of thousands of Syrians.
The UN said it was aware of reports, including the recent Amnesty research, on detentions and abuse of individuals who returned to government-controlled areas.
Moylan said the UN continues to make every effort to independently verify reports and to follow up with Syrian officials.
“It remains the UN’s position that conditions in Syria are not conducive for large-scale, organized returns,” Moylan said. “The UN is not in a position to make security guarantees and has not made any such guarantees to people living in Rukban.”
There are no follow-up mechanisms for the UN to assess the fate of people they assisted in leaving Rukban and access to the centres are blocked by Syrian authorities.
“The UN at this point in time have the responsibility to inform people that it is not safe to return, rather than facilitating their return,” Atassi said.
“When you’re left between two choices – of either staying in a camp and dying from starvation or cold, or going to Assad detention centres and dying under torture – they choose the lesser evil,” Atassi said.
IA expressed his interest in returning to Homs with his family, “but not with the presence of killers and criminals”.
“Homs is very dear to our hearts. It is the most beautiful city, but without Assad.”