Despite revival in smuggling, Rukban’s markets go quiet

A shop in Rukban on Thursday. Photo by Omar a-Shawi for Syria Direct.

AMMAN: The rows of canvas-ceilinged mud stalls that make up the Rukban settlement’s central market were once crowded from morning till evening with displaced Syrians competing over scarce supplies of food and medicine.

Today, that market is largely deserted.

“The market is nothing more than stores, without any customers,” says resident Abu Samir al-Homsi, who owns a small grocery store in the isolated camp, located in Syria’s southeastern desert.

While the shops in Rukban these days sell everything from fresh fruits and vegetables to legumes and meat smuggled in from government-controlled territory, people aren’t buying. Shopping appears to have stalled as camp residents say they’re struggling to afford even the most basic daily necessities, while a five-day-long road closure into the Rukban area also has left camp residents worried about how much longer current supplies can last.

“Everything is available—except for money,” al-Homsi tells Syria Direct.

Since displaced Syrians first began settling down in Rukban several years ago, many of them fleeing battles with the Islamic State (IS) in Homs province, the makeshift encampment has suffered from a lack of vital supplies. Pressed up against the Jordanian border, with pockets of IS fighters located just kilometers away across the open desert, some 50,000 camp residents have lived in economic isolation for years—struggling to get ahold of essential items including medicine, cleaning supplies and toiletries.

Now, with the hardline Islamist group in retreat and a state of relative quiet in the barren, government-held desert that surrounds Rukban, steadier supplies of food and other products have finally started to enter the camp after years of shortages. But at the same time, shopkeepers describe a complex trail of checkpoints and middlemen originating more than 220 kilometers west in Damascus—a journey that means any goods arriving in Rukban are sold at dramatically higher prices than elsewhere in Syria. 


Rukban residents at the local market last week. Photo by Omar a-Shawi for Syria Direct.

“Before there was money but no products,” camp resident Khudour al-Hussein, who helps run a small aid donation center, tells Syria Direct. “Now there are products but no money.”

“The hungry go to the market and look around, but don’t buy anything,” he adds.

Rukban, a physical and legal no man’s land

The makeshift settlement in Rukban started emerging in 2014, when a few thousand Syrians primarily from the country’s east fled towards Jordan to escape IS. They suddenly found themselves stranded in the desert as the Jordanian government tightened the nearby border. As conflict kept sending Syrians fleeing their hometowns, the unofficial settlement grew to the size of a large town.

Located in a physical and legal no-man’s land between Syria and Jordan known as “the berm,” Rukban is part of a 55-kilometer demilitarized zone previously sketched out by Russia and the US. Humanitarian organizations have faced monumental hurdles in accessing the closed-off camp, and international help is largely limited to occasional cross-border aid drops from Jordanian territory. The last such aid delivery was in January of this year—a full nine months ago.

With few other options, camp residents often relied on informal smuggling networks operating across large swathes of desert. Clashes in the surrounding desert made smuggling goods from Damascus an even riskier and more complicated ordeal.

“Any vehicle that moved in the Badia could be targeted by planes,” says Saeed Seif, a spokesperson for the FSA-affiliated Martyr Ahmad al-Abdo Brigade, which maintains a presence in Rukban.

“[But] in the absence of fighting, trade and smuggling have been revived,” he adds.


A hardware store in Rukban last week. Photo by Omar a-Shawi for Syria Direct.

One Rukban resident who has benefited from the improved smuggling route is displaced father Abu Hamdan who, since April, has made a living off of producing and selling ice cream in the camp.  

Twice a month, Abu Hamdan receives oil, milk, eggs and sugar trucked in from Damascus. Along the way, he says, goods usually pass through more than a dozen checkpoints manned by either pro-government forces or local FSA-affiliated factions—crossings that require “fees” on each vehicle, depending on the kind and quantity of the cargo.

When the goods finally arrive in Rukban, he says, their prices are marked up by as much as 50 percent. On top of this, Abu Hamdan adds another few hundred Syrian pounds to the price, though it is still barely enough for him to make a profit.

“Sometimes we even lose money on the products,” he says. “The income from my work doesn’t help me live a good life.”

‘People don’t have an income, or work’

Abu Hamdan estimates that economic activity in the camp has fallen dramatically since last year. “This recession that we’re living through is having a huge impact on me,” he adds.


The streets of Rukban's market last week. Photo by Omar a-Shawi for Syria Direct.

He and other residents blame their losses on an abject loss of purchasing power, even as goods are entering the camp.

“People are relying on the money that they brought with them to the camp,” Abu Hamdan explains. But after years in displacement, savings have simply run out for many Syrians in Rukban.

“People don't have an income, or work, to help them buy goods,” camp resident al-Homsi says, adding that “aid is less than it was before.”

The lack of personal funds extends to local fighters, as well. When the US cut funding for FSA-affiliated factions operating in the eastern Badia desert last year, hundreds of fighters lost their primary source of income, which had often been used to support family members living in Rukban, Ahmad al-Abdo Brigade spokesperson Seif says.

According to Seif, factions were a crucial part of the local economy—buying food, fuel and other goods from Rukban while at the same time employing camp residents for one-off construction jobs.

“All of this money was circulating and getting spent in the [Rukban] area,” Seif claims.

Making ends meet

While residents say that goods have started to enter the camp more regularly compared with last year, Rukban’s unique economy remains volatile and extremely sensitive to external shocks. 


The local market in Rukban last week. Photo by Omar a-Shawi for Syria Direct.

Meanwhile, routes into the camp still run through government-held territory, and therefore depend on pro-government forces’ willingness to let vehicles pass through their checkpoints.

According to several residents and business owners within Rukban, last Thursday pro-government forces “closed the road” from Damascus completely. It remains unclear how exactly pro-government forces are enforcing the alleged closure.

Rukban’s economic fragility is yet another stress for camp residents, who are already struggling to make ends meet with little outside help. Among them is 42-year-old Abdelrahman Ismael, who supports his wife, five children, mother and sick father with the small income he makes repairing electrical devices.

“What I earn doesn’t even cover a fraction of my expenses,” Ismael says. “If the road closes for one week there are no products left in Rukban, and the traders immediately increase the prices.”

Shopkeeper al-Homsi is also suffering from what he describes as a camp-wide “recession,” one that’s left business at his grocery store going “slowly.”

But it is civilians who are bearing the brunt of the camp’s economic woes, al-Homsi acknowledges. “Those hurt most by Rukban’s economy are the ordinary displaced people.”

This report is part of Syria Direct's month-long coverage of internal displacement in Syria in partnership with the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and reporters on the ground in Syria. Read our primer here.

Ammar Hamou

Ammar Hammou is from Douma city in outer Damascus. He studied journalism at Damascus University and left Syria in 2011.

Omar a-Shawi

Omar a-Shawi resides in the Rukban camp and is a trainee in Syria Direct's displacement reporting project, in cooperation with the Konrad Adenauer Foundation.

Alice Al Maleh

Alice Al Maleh holds a bachelor’s degree in Political Science from University of Copenhagen. She has studied Arabic independently since 2013 and most recently with Sijal Institute in 2017-2018.