Hundreds of people who were displaced during the conflict now reside in a camp west of the town of Aara in the rural western part of Suweida governorate and work on a local farmland. Because the camp hosts displaced people who work, many NGOs have cut down on aid for its residents, while government institutions have ignored its existence altogether, despite its harrowing conditions.
According to The Syria Report’s correspondent, more than 3,000 registered, displaced people live in the town of Aara – 2,000 of whom rent homes in the town or on farms in the town’s hinterlands and some 1,000 live in the camp. There are about 200 tents in the camp in summertime and 150 in winter, as some residents migrate to warmer areas during that time of year.
These displaced residents work on Aara’s irrigated farmland, tending to crops such as tomatoes, potatoes, wheat, barley, chickpeas, and olives, and are a vital workforce in the rural parts of the Suweida governorate.
The camp was established in 2006 when families from Hassakeh governorate settled to work on irrigated farming projects in the town. After 2011, many displaced people from Daraa, Rural Damascus, Hassakeh, Deir-ez-Zor, and Rural Aleppo fled to Aara to escape battles in their hometowns. Between 2016 and 2018, around 20,000 displaced people were living in Aara.
In 2018, when the regime regained control of Daraa and Rural Damascus and the Islamic State group retreated from Northeast Syria, many displaced people in Aara returned to their hometowns. However, around 200 families, or 1,000 people, stayed behind because their homes were destroyed, and they sought to maintain their agricultural jobs in town. Camp residents pay about SYP 5,000 per tent monthly.
The Aara camp is on private land owned by town residents and is divided into several sub-camps, each named after its zaim, or social leader. For example, there is the Abu Khalil Camp, the Abu Hussein Camp, Abu Zeid and the Abu Yasser Camp. Most of these zaims are from the first wave of farm workers who settled in the area. They collect the monthly rent, make deals with various project owners and farmers, set daily wages for workers, and assign workers to various projects. In return, they receive a portion of the workers’ pay.
The camp lacks even the most basic public services, such as drinking water and sewage networks, according to The Syria Report’s correspondent. Only nine plastic drinking water tanks were provided over the past several years by the Syrian Red Crescent, which is also responsible for overseeing water provisions. However, the Red Crescent has stopped providing the camp with drinking water over the past three years, forcing residents to start buying water themselves. The camp also has no bathing facilities or toilets, forcing people to relieve themselves in the open.
Electricity is only available in the tents belonging to the camp zaims, who can pay for line extensions and monthly subscription fees from neighbouring farms. Displaced residents cannot access heating supplies, forcing most to gather plastic materials from nearby garbage dumps to burn for warmth in winter.
There are also around 350 children (under the age of 14) in the camp, only 25 of whom have received, or are receiving, some form of voluntary elementary education from a local NGO. Some children began working on the farms with their families at only seven or eight years old.
According to the correspondent, aid to the camp has significantly dwindled since 2018. The Red Crescent, which used to provide monthly aid baskets to each family, began providing the baskets every three months. Many other local NGOs that used to grant aid to the camp have stopped. Still, some camp residents prefer staying there rather than returning to their destroyed hometowns.
Camp residents say they fear new disasters with the onset of winter, such as the torrential rains of recent years. Their biggest worry, however, is the spread of infectious and chronic illnesses, especially after several cholera cases were recorded in the camp in October. In November, there was an outbreak of scabies among children in the centre, prompting the Health Directorate and the Red Crescent to send medical teams to sterilise the camp and provide treatment for 45 infected children.