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Hundreds of Syrian refugees arrested by Assad regime despite leaving Rukban camp with UN guarantees

Refugees who left the Rukban camp via “humanitarian corridors” have been arrested [Getty]

Date of publication: 10 December, 2019

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Hundreds of Syrian refugees who left the Rukban refugee camp for Assad regime run “reception centres” after a year-long starvation siege have been transferred to prisons and security branches.

Hundreds of people who have left the besieged Rukban refugee camp in the Syrian desert for Assad-regime held territory have been detained by the regime in violation of previous promises and international guarantees.

The Syrian news network Badia 24 reported on Sunday that over 100 people, among them women, were detained in reception centres set up by the regime for the refugees in Homs province. It quoted relatives of the detained refugees as the source of the information and named six of the detainees.

Around 40,000 people used to live in the Rukban camp, which is located near the Syrian-Jordanian border. However, the camp came under a brutal siege by the Assad regime and its ally Russia in October 2018, who demanded that residents leave the camp for regime territory via “humanitarian corridors”.

Russia and the regime stopped deliveries of aid to the camp, forcing people to survive on one small meal a day and causing the deaths of dozens of infants.

Comment: Syrians fled for a reason. Now their safe return is at stake

However, residents of the camp had originally fled to the camp from regime-held territory and feared arrest, torture or execution if they returned. For months they refused to leave, but in the end most residents found they had no choice. Today, only a few thousand people remain in Rukban.

The regime housed the refugees in reception centres, saying that this was a temporary measure before they would be transported to their towns and villages of origin. They were also to be given papers saying that their status was "regularised" and that they would not be subject to any prosecution. The United Nations backed up this guarantee.

However, refugees in the reception centres told The New Arab in October that they had been interrogated and accused of taking part in anti-regime protests and dealing with armed opposition groups.

The Badia 24 news network said that regime security forces had transported some of the detained refugees from the reception centres to security branches and prisons in Palmyra and Damascus, including the infamous Adra prison on the outskirts of the Syrian capital. Other detainees were taken to unknown locations.

 Omar al-Homsi, a media activist still present in the besieged Rukban camp, told The New Arab’s Arabic-language service that the detentions happened on December 3.

“Relatives of the Rukban refugees living in Homs went to visit them in the reception centres but regime security forces told them that they had been transferred to military security branches and prisons, or to courts in Damascus”, he said.

Another refugee in the Rukban camp, Ahmed Mutlaq, told The New Arab’s Arabic service that some people tried to smuggle themselves out of the besieged camp, hoping to reach territory in northeastern Syria held by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.

“Some of these died on the way, or were captured and detained [by the regime]… this route is very dangerous and smugglers demand high prices. People have stopped trying to get out this way because so many escaping refugees have been detained or killed”.

Many of the remaining refugees in Rukban have called on the United Nations to allow them to leave for opposition-held or SDF-held parts of northern Syria, fearing arrest, torture, or execution by the regime, or forced conscription into the regime’s army.

The Syrian conflict broke out in 2011 following the brutal suppression of pro-democracy protests by the Assad regime. More than 500,000 people have been killed and millions more displaced, mostly as a result of regime bombardment of civilian areas.

All names in this article have been changed.

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