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UN ‘ready to facilitate’ evacuations from Rukban camp in southern Syria

The United Nations will 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 Rukban camp, said Panos Moumtzis, U.N. Assistant Secretary General, Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for the Syria Crisis.

“We want to make sure it happens in a voluntary way,” he told AFP during an interview in Beirut on Friday, August 30, describing the situation in the settlement as “abysmal.”

According to Moumtzis, around 12,700 people remain in the isolated Rukban camp near the At Tanf base on the border with Iraq that is used by the U.S.-led Coalition against Islamic State.

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 U.N. says.

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.

Mark Lowcock, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, told the U.N. Security Council on Thursday that the mission “informed everyone in the camp about plans for future assisted voluntary departures and assessed the needs of those wishing to stay.”

“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.

“As per our agreement with the Syrian authorities, another mission is planned to Rukban within the next couple of weeks to facilitate the transport of those who said they wanted to leave Rukban for shelters in Homs,” Lowcock said.

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

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

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

‘Desperately needed assistance’

Rukban has not received an international NGO aid delivery since February, and 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, Moumtzis said.

“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 yoghurt, 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 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 on Jordanian soldiers claimed by ISIS.

Aid from areas held by the Syria regime to the camp – in a region where the U.S.-backed Jaysh Maghawir al-Thawra (MaT) group is also present – requires permission from Damascus.

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

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

With reporting from AFP

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