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Syria: UN denies trying to return refugees to regime territory

Syrian refugee patients from the makeshift Rukban camp, which lies in no-man's-land off the border between Syria and Jordan in the remote northeast, cross over to visit a UN-operated medical clinic immediately on the Jordanian-side for checkups, on March 1, 2017. Conditions in the Rukban camp deteriorated sharply after Jordan sealed its border almost a year prior, following a cross-border jihadist attack that killed seven Jordanian border guards in June 2016. / AFP PHOTO / KHALIL MAZRAAWI (Photo credit should read KHALIL MAZRAAWI/AFP via Getty Images)
Syrian refugee patients from the makeshift Rukban camp, which lies in no-man's-land off the border between Syria and Jordan in the remote northeast, cross over to visit a UN-operated medical clinic immediately on the Jordanian-side for checkups, on March 1, 2017. [KHALIL MAZRAAWI/AFP via Getty Images]

The UN has been accused of attempting to return refugees in Syria's Rukban camp forcibly to areas held by the regime of Bashar Al-Assad. The international organisation has denied the accusation.

This follows an incident on 11 September when five trucks arrived at the camp on the border between Syria and Jordan. Footage on social media shows them leaving the camp soon after. They carried neither humanitarian aid nor other provisions.

Activists have claimed that the UN-affiliated trucks arrived for the purpose of forcing Syrian refugees to be taken to regime-controlled territory, which some described as a facility in Homs.

According to Farhan Haq, the deputy spokesman for the UN Secretary-General, the aim of the truck convoy was to "aid the voluntary departures of people from Rukban" as part of the organisation's engagement with parties involved in the Syrian conflict to "identify durable, safe and dignified solutions" for the displaced civilians.

He told MEMO that, "A total of 88 individuals had registered to leave, following engagement to inform civilians in Rukban of the conditions they should expect on departure, in line with the UN's long-standing position that any departures must be principled, voluntary and informed."

The spokesman stressed that the five trucks entered the camp "with the sole purpose to support these registered families to voluntarily leave Rukban with their belongings." That plan reportedly changed when "a small group of individuals obstructed the convoy and assaulted a driver." As a result, the mission was cancelled and the convoy immediately departed Rukban. "It is our understanding the drivers are safe and well."

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The UN emphasised that "under no circumstances should any individual engaged in humanitarian activities be subject to intimidation, threats or assault." Despite the alleged incident, the organisation expressed its intention to "continue to fully engage parties to identify and move toward durable, safe and dignified solutions for civilians living in Rukban."

Haq added that the UN will "further continue to advocate for full access to Rukban to provide regular humanitarian assistance… including seeking assurances for the necessary security guarantees for humanitarian staff."

The UN's apparent plans to transport the camp's residents to Homs were leaked last week. This resulted in Amnesty International urging the UN and Syrian Arab Red Crescent not to proceed.

Throughout the ongoing decade-long Syrian conflict, the UN has been criticised by activists and human rights organisations for its coordination with the regime in Damascus. Its cooperation with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, which has reportedly been infiltrated by Assad's security services leading to the diversion of international aid, has also been criticised.

READ: Syria still unsafe for return of refugees, UN probe finds

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