AMMAN - It should have been a success story: at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, a “Pharmacy of Hope” providing free medicine in one of the world’s most inaccessible displacement camps.
The pharmacy is a project that the Syrian Emergency Task Force (SETF), a US-based NGO, seeks to implement in Rukban camp, where an estimated 12,000 people are stranded in a no man's land between Syria and Jordan with practically no access to healthcare.
However, over a month after announcing the pharmacy’s opening, assistance is yet to come. Speaking to Syria Direct, several camp residents reported hearing about the pharmacy via Twitter but not receiving any information from those running the project in the camp.
A member of the camp’s Civil Administration told Syria Direct that distribution had not started. Part of the delay, he added, may be related to a controversy about the pharmacy’s manager, “who is not specialized in this medical field, and [works] without a committee to supervise his work.”
To address this issue, “a [four-person] committee was formed to manage the pharmacy, including a medical official and a warehouse keeper to control the distribution process," Moaz Mustafa, SETF’s executive director, told Syria Direct.
However, among al-Rukban’s residents, some remain wary of this promised help. Their suspicions are based on previous aid diversion incidents and the feeling that “aid destined for the camp is exploited and does not reach those who deserve it,” according to the Civil Administration member.
Lack of access and coordination
Since Jordan closed its border with al-Rukban in 2016 in response to a terrorist attack on the Jordanian armed forces, the camp has been almost entirely sealed off to the international community. The latest UN convoy (only the third since January 2018) reached the camp through the Syrian side in September 2019. As a result, there are no up-to-date needs assessments for the camp and no coordination mechanisms in place.
Delivering aid from the Syrian side is nearly impossible. Damascus tightly controls humanitarian actors to prevent aid from reaching the regime’s perceived opponents.
Thus, NGOs have so far proved unable to fulfill their role in al-Rukban. In 2017, one exception attracted controversy: operating from Jordan, the INGO World Vision delivered aid through a local militia backed by Jordan. However, the group faced criticism for working with an armed group, including from a local activist who claimed that a portion of the aid was being diverted for profit.
Small donors step up
Although there are two local administrations in the camp, the Civil Administration and the Local Council of al-Rukban camp, neither has the capacity to meet the basic needs of the residents.
Therefore, small private initiatives attempt to fill the vacuum created by the abysmal lack of humanitarian support. In November, for example, an anonymous donor provided tarpaulin to help upgrade tents for winter, as the UN had not delivered winterization assistance over the past two years.
However, such initiatives are naturally limited in scale and scope. “There are donations that come personally to individuals from outside the country,” Muhammad al-Homsi (a pseudonym), a camp resident, told Syria Direct. Yet he regretted that “they reach relatives or friends, and do not reach all those in need.”
Without access to the camp, it is difficult to assess needs and prioritize beneficiaries. “I'm not trying to follow up on everything that is going on on the ground; it's just like a complete maze,” the anonymous donor of winterization items told Syria Direct, adding that “there is always contradictory information from various parties.” This makes it inevitable to rely on a trusted local contact to identify those most in need.
Another drawback is the lack of accountability. “If an agency provides support to someone inside the camp without announcing [the size of the aid], then we cannot hold this person accountable for receiving one hundred food baskets and only distributing fifty,” al-Homsi said.
Donors themselves are left vulnerable: without the proper due diligence measures, donations could unwittingly end up in the hands of blacklisted entities or individuals and constitute a form of financial support violating counter-terrorism laws. “Collecting donations and sending them to the camp may expose us to legal challenges,” Abu Hassan (a pseudonym), one of the donors supporting the camp from abroad, told Syria Direct.
At risk of exploitation
“Since organizations cannot enter the camp, they rely on people who may be at times exploiting the needs of the camp and the humanitarian situation and trying to be first-class beneficiaries, either them or their relatives,” Osama Ibrahim (a pseudonym), a media activist living in al-Rukban, told Syria Direct.
“Among the features of exploitation are people who communicate with organizations or associations from inside the camp to earn their sympathy and raise money from them,” Ibrahim said. While a handful of activists play a critical role in raising awareness about the dire conditions inside Rukban, it is difficult for outside actors to vet their agendas.
This is reflected by Abu Hassan’s experience in the camp in 2019. “Several beneficiaries did not receive their benefits,” he said, “as the person [delivering the aid in the camp] signed on their behalf took their share.” As a result, Abu Hassan had to change his intermediary in the camp.
The situation is rendered more complex by the prevalence of tribal networks. While “certain tribes are large enough to attempt to dominate the camp and its economy,” according to a 2017 analysis by the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs (IRIS), “others [who] are not incorporated under the broader umbrella of tribal representation (...) are not necessarily represented to humanitarian actors.” Groups that dominate smuggling are also susceptible to “capture portions of humanitarian services (...) and profit from them by providing access for a fee,” the report stated.
This also diminishes the prospect of prosecution because "every regional or tribal grouping in the camp stands on the side of the son of [their] clan, even if he is wrong," the Civil Administration member explained.
Stolen aid is better than no aid
All those interviewed by Syria Direct recognized the existence of fraud in the aid sector in al-Rukban. “The whole ‘trade’ within the camp is based on the black market and all the criminality it brings. The instances I know of are simply the tip of the iceberg,” the anonymous donor said.
However, all sources equally insisted that informal initiatives are a lifeline for the camp facing a dire humanitarian situation.
In al-Rukban, obscure pharmacies, malnourished children and ripped tents are the emblems of a large-scale humanitarian failure, of which the newly arrived UNHCR tarps are the latest icon. “The best tarps [we could supply] were from the UN, stolen by regime thugs in UN warehouses, then sold to any shops where people can buy them,” said the donor. “It's absolutely obscene.”
To patch the void left by the international community, all that’s left to the people of al-Rukban is self-organization and goodwill, sometimes at the expense of ceding ground to exploitation and abuse.