Rukban in December. Video courtesy of the Rukban Civil Administration.
AMMAN: Samer’s daughter Farah was born two years ago. She was healthy, her birth normal—despite entering the world in Rukban, a desolate displacement camp in the deserts along Syria’s southern border with Jordan.
And yet, Farah does not officially exist.
She still has no birth certificate, has not received any vaccinations and there is no official medical record documenting her birth date, according to Samer.
Her home, a barren no-man’s land between the Syrian and Jordanian borders, is more of a limbo than a hometown: a sprawl of mud and cinder block homes set up by displaced Syrians fleeing the lightning advances of the Islamic State (IS) in Syria’s eastern deserts after 2013.
Farah’s parents were among the tens of thousands of Syrians who left their hometowns for Rukban. Many were hoping to make it into Jordan for safety via a now-closed border crossing in the desert until an IS-claimed car bombing nearby in mid-2016 led to the closure of the border to the thousands of people then making their way towards the camp.
The surrounding areas on both sides of the border became tightly patrolled military zones. The Jordanian side of the border remains closed to all but exceptional medical cases.
It was here that Farah was born: a liminal desert defined by lawlessness and poverty, where tens of thousands of people survive on any goods smuggled in from government-held areas of the country. International aid deliveries are an an almost once-annual event.
For those hoping to move on with life in Rukban—get married, have children—there is no official or legally recognized way to prove the existence of their new families outside of improvising birth certificates and family ledgers, oftentimes by simply writing their names on torn-up scraps of notebook paper.
As Syria’s war dies down, the lack of any sort of recognized civil documentation in Rukban presents potentially drastic implications for residents hoping to return home. For most, home is now government-held territory—after pro-Assad forces seized back much of the country’s eastern desert from IS.
For children like Farah, the lack of key documents, including birth certificates, could impact their future lives in any number of ways—everything from attending school to getting married and travelling abroad, says Bassam al-Ahmad, director of the Syrians for Truth and Justice human rights monitor.
Children in Rukban camp in November. Photo courtesy of the Rukban Civil Administration.
And while the future of Rukban has never been more in doubt, with geo-politics slowly encroaching around it, observers warn that the children of the camp remain at risk of statelessness for many more years to come, unless the situation is resolved.
“Those in Rukban camp, if things remain as they are, will be facing huge issues in the future; issues of access to education and health services,” says al-Ahmad.
‘You hand out sweets, notify a sheikh and that’s it’
Before the war, the stretch of land around Rukban was a largely forgotten expanse of desert cut through by a single highway running between Damascus and the nearby Iraqi border. The nearest major city was Palmyra, some 145 kilometers northwest. There were no hospitals, no schools, no local government offices.
Following the arrival of tens of thousands of displaced Syrians, mostly from rural Homs province, humanitarian conditions are dire. Communicable diseases are rampant. Water, food and medicine are expensive—when available at all—and the recent closure of a smuggling lifeline into the camp from government territory has residents questioning how much longer they can hold out in the desert.
The surrounding territory is nominally controlled by US-backed rebels operating from a nearby military base, although pro-government forces including Iranian-backed militias as well as remnants of local IS cells are said to maintain a presence in the desert nearby.
Stuck on the Syrian-Jordanian border, and with no one side in Syria’s conflict willing to claim responsibility for the longstanding humanitarian crisis hanging over Rukban, local governance in the camp has always been something of an ad hoc affair. Two separate bodies—the Local Council and the Civil Administration—claim to represent Rukban’s thousands of displaced families, though it is unclear which one actually holds the greater authority.
And though both bodies have taken it upon themselves to unofficially document the camp’s growing population of newlywed couples and newborn children via improvised family ledgers, some residents tell Syria Direct they aren’t even aware of the option.
“I don’t know if the civil administration is doing documentation,” says Samer, Farah’s father. “We don’t have anybody here who can do it properly.”
A makeshift “family statement” released by the camp’s Local Council on a piece of scrap notebook paper. Syria Direct has blurred all names of the family members recorded in the document. Photo provided by a member of the Local Council.
Instead, Samer says, he took to writing out his own documentation in the hopes that it would someday be recognized.
Now 30 years old, Samer—and his wife—married in a religious, non-legally binding ceremony back in Qaryatayn in 2015, shortly before IS overran the town and sent thousands of residents fleeing for safety. There was no time for them to officially register their marriage with local government authorities before being displaced into the desert.
That’s why, when the two arrived in Rukban, they arranged a second, unofficial wedding—gathering together a sheikh and two witnesses from among the camp’s displaced residents, before writing their own names down on a piece of blank paper.
Until now, Samer says, that piece of paper is the only written evidence that his family of three actually exists.
He is not alone. Omar, 32, was married in his rural Homs hometown years before he arrived at the Rukban camp with his wife and child during IS’ offensive. But years inside Rukban meant he and his wife welcomed two more children into their family—neither of whom have received any sort of official birth certificate.
Omar’s second and third children were born, he says, much like other children inside the camp. “You hand out sweets, notify a sheikh and that’s pretty much it,” he says.
“My kids were born in the camp without any evidence or documentation or papers—no stamp to document their existence at all.”
Returning home to civil registry offices in government-held Syrian territory is rarely an option for Rukban residents fearful of harassment by government authorities and the smattering of militia-run checkpoints along the way.
A blank “family statement” issued by Rukban’s Civil Administration. Photo by Omar a-Shawi for Syria Direct.
Children particularly ‘at risk of statelessness’
Camp officials say they are trying to fill the gap, but means are limited.
Shukri Shehab, head of a makeshift medical clinic inside the camp, estimates a rate of around 60 births per month in his facility. There, nurses give new parents signed papers denoting the name and sex of each newborn, alongside the parents’ names.
“This is all that we are able to provide,” says Shehab.
Rukban’s two local councils, meanwhile, sometimes provide residents with “family statement” papers in lieu of the official statements issued by the Syrian government in areas under its control.
But they are a temporary fix, given that the documents are not legally recognized within Syria or outside.
Rukban is just one example of the civil status crisis unfolding across Syria. Displaced families have struggled to maintain legal status as they flee from one area to the next, or into neighboring countries. Meanwhile, family ledgers, real estate contracts and other documents issued by opposition-era authorities have become obsolete—almost overnight in some cases—since the Syrian government retook much of the country in recent months.
According to Zahra Albarazi, a researcher at the Netherlands-based Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion, the risks are many—particularly for children born without official government documentation—even if they aren’t all quite discernible just yet.
“We aren’t seeing the long-term effects yet, as far as access to aid or services [such as public education], because they don’t require those services now,” Albarazi tells Syria Direct, adding that those born in the camp are “at risk of statelessness.”
“At the moment, what we’re seeing is the inability of parents to prove who their children are.”
For Samer, whose daughter remains undocumented two years after her birth in the desert camp, that means there is little he can do to prove her existence—beyond a risky journey back into government-held territory.
The two “contending” camp administrations, he says, meanwhile have few resources to provide him with any concrete help.
“It’s chaos here.”
This report is part of Syria Direct’s Advanced Investigative Journalism Training and Reporting Project in partnership with the Konrad Adenauer Foundation.