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Al-Rukban camp has no doctors, but that could change

Al-Rukban camp, a hastily put together settlement in the no-man’s land between Syria and Jordan, has been all but forgotten by the world.

19 November 2020

AMMAN — Al-Rukban camp, a hastily put together settlement in the no-man’s land between Syria and Jordan, has been all but forgotten by the world. 

At its peak in 2016, al-Rukban had 75,000 residents; today there are only 10,000 living there. The health conditions in the camp are dire as there is virtually no medical care. Children suffer from skin diseases due to contaminated water and much of the population is malnourished due to a Russian and Syrian regime-led blockade which prevents food and medicine from entering the camp. 

In order to provide some form of medical care to the camp, Dr. Zaher Sahloul, the president of Medglobal, a US-based NGO which provides healthcare in hard to reach locations across the world, has proposed going into the no-man’s zone himself and running a clinic on the Jordanian side. 

Though the infrastructure for such a medical mission is already in place—a UN medical point operated in the area before pulling out due to COVID-19 risks in May—political concerns threaten to prevent the project from going through. 

Medglobal needs the permission of both the Jordanian and US government before being allowed into the no-man’s zone. Jordan has not allowed aid to be delivered to al-Rukban via its territory since 2018, as it is “a responsibility that must be shouldered by Syria and the international community,” according to the Foreign Minister of Jordan Ayman Safadi.

Because the US-led anti-ISIS Coalition controls the 55-kilometer demilitarized area known as “al-Tanf” within which al-Rukban is located, any doctor who wants to enter the camp must have permission from the US. 

There is no theoretical problem with a doctor being ferried into al-Tanf by the US military, provided the doctor is a US citizen—which Dr. Sahloul is. However, the US is reluctant to assume any humanitarian responsibility for the camp. 

It is also likely that the US government would have to expend some diplomatic effort to get the Jordanian government’s approval to allow the clinic to operate on its side of the demilitarized zone. 

On October 30, the then-US Special Envoy for Syria Engagement James Jeffrey told Syria Direct that the US State Department was “aware of the [Medglobal initiative] and is looking into it.” He added that it is the Syrian government which must take care of the camp and that the US government “is not going to take on responsibility for the long-term humanitarian care for the camp.” 

Since the camp’s inception, the US has been careful not to assume responsibility for al-Rukban, though it has administered occasional medical care on an emergency basis, as it did in April when it provided two women with c-sections. 

David Adesnik, the Director of Research at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracy, who has been helping push the initiative with the Trump administration, confesses that he is “not optimistic” that Washington will allow Dr. Sahloul in. 

“Generally the Trump administration has treated the humanitarian challenge at al-Rukban as an unwanted burden,” Adesnik said, adding that he hopes there will be greater appetite for engagement in a future Biden administration.

If Dr. Sahloul is not allowed in, the consequences for al-Rukban will be dire. The residents of al-Rukban are suffering from “chronic diseases, asthma and other respiratory diseases, in addition to a lack of reproductive and maternal healthcare,” Sahloul explained to Syria Direct. He also indicated his readiness to provide treatment for COVID-19, though there have been no recorded cases in the camp to date. 

Many of the health problems in the camp have an easy fix, assuming the expertise is available to prescribe the solution. This summer, for example, a water purification project helped clear up skin diseases which had been endemic among the children for some time as a result of contaminants in the camp’s water supply. 

For just $2,000, the project provided two weeks worth of purified water to over 1,000 families. “Imagine what could be done if a government gave just $10,000 a month to the camp,” Simona Jeger, a pharmacist who coordinated and funded the water purification project out of her own pocket, told Syria Direct.  

Further underlining the nature of the crisis is the fact that in July, a new surgical clinic was built in the camp. Though the clinic is relatively well-stocked, no operations have been conducted yet, as there is no surgeon to staff it. 

Pressing medical concerns and the near famine-like conditions of the camp have pushed tens of thousands to leave to regime-held territory, despite fears of arrest, torture and even murder at the hands of state security services. 

Regardless of political considerations, there is an “imperative under international law” to provide humanitarian access to civilians, even if that is done without the consent of governments, Dr. Sahloul said. 

This article reflects minor changes made on 20/11/2020 at 1:30 pm.

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