This past June, the United Nations removed Yarmouk refugee camp from a list of what it terms “besieged areas” in Syria. The reason for this shift, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), is due to the availability of humanitarian aid via drop-offs at government checkpoints in nearby suburbs. The recategorization means that the Syrian regime is released from blame, at least by the UN, for the conditions in Yarmouk, and it also likely means a decrease in what is already only a trickle of aid going into the camp.
Yarmouk used to house 150,000 Palestinians in addition to more than 600,000 Syrians. Despite its nomenclature, Yarmouk wasn’t really a camp; it was an urban district that had developed since its establishment in 1957. It had one of the largest markets in Syria and a number of established civil society organizations and Palestinian political movements. A significant percentage of its population consisted of people with university degrees.
When the Syrian crisis started, Palestinians in Yarmouk tried to stay neutral. This policy succeeded until December 2012, when the Syrian government bombed the camp, causing tens of casualties and giving the Syrian opposition the excuse to enter Yarmouk. By June 2013, the camp was under siege by the regime and its allied Palestinian faction, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC). The constant fighting prevented goods from entering the camp, and with residents reduced to eating dogs and cats, almost 200 people, including children, died of starvation between June 2013 and January 2015.
While almost all of the neighborhoods around Yarmouk hold truces with the regime, attempts to establish a truce for Yarmouk have failed. By April 2015, ISIS, facilitated by Jabhat al-Nusra, had invaded the camp, and only one Palestinian armed group that opposes them now remains: Aknaf Beit al-Maqdis, which is affiliated with Hamas.
Out of the 150,000 Palestinians in Yarmouk, only approximately 8,500 are still living in the camp. These residents continue to suffer from both the regime’s siege as well as that of the armed groups fighting each other. As recently as April 9, after the seizure of the camp by ISIS, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon stated: "In the horror that is Syria, the Yarmouk refugee camp is the deepest circle of hell. After more than two years of a merciless siege, 18,000 Palestine refugees and Syrians are now being held hostage by [ISIS] and other extremist militants. A refugee camp is beginning to resemble a death camp.”
UNOCHA defines a besieged area as one “surrounded by armed actors with the sustained effect that humanitarian assistance cannot regularly enter and civilians, the sick, and wounded cannot regularly exit the area.” Based on this definition, Yarmouk remains besieged. Civilians inside the camp are unable to move in or out with any regularity, with multiple armed factions controlling checkpoints in the area. Since April 2015, no emergency medical case has received permission to be evacuated. Only a small number of students were allowed to exit the camp to sit for school exams in Damascus in May. In this exceptional case, those leaving required permission from parties to the conflict on both sides of the checkpoint.
Under these conditions, injured or wounded persons suffer greatly from a complete absence of medical care. Many of those who could have been treated if allowed to leave have become amputees due to the lack of even basic medical supplies or training. Inside the camp, freedom of movement is also highly restricted due to the presence of armed militias, the threat of sniper fire, and indiscriminate shelling.
Regardless of delivery of humanitarian aid to government checkpoints in nearby areas—the reason UNOCHA gave for reclassification—the thousands remaining in Yarmouk are essentially trapped, and distribution is not taking place inside the camp. Further, the armed groups put conditions on the aid. For example, those from Yarmouk who obtain their aid at a government checkpoint must traverse armed groups’ checkpoints on the way; the armed groups only allow them to take 1 kg of sugar and 1 kg of rice back to the camp at a time. As such, they must leave the rest of their packages of food with IDPs from Yarmouk in the area around the government checkpoint and then make the treacherous journey back to fetch another small amount at a later time.
In addition, all humanitarian organizations inside Yarmouk, including Jafra Foundation, a Palestinian aid organization that had been based in Yarmouk since 2005, have evacuated. No relief foundation has been allowed to directly enter the camp to distribute food or non-food items since the start of the complete siege in July 2013. This includes the United Nations branch responsible for aiding Palestinian refugees, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), which has not been in the camp since December 2012. (Instead, UNRWA distributes relief at nearby government checkpoints.)
According to Wesam Sabaaneh, Director of Jafra Foundation, “The [UN] reclassification is not consistent with the reality on the ground…We are concerned [that this] will have severe humanitarian implications for a population that is already in extreme and dire need and is worn down by almost three years of siege.”
Despite the explanation of aid availability, it is unclear why UNOCHA made the reclassification; indeed, UNOCHA spokesperson Amanda Pitt had no comment on why the UN had reclassified the camp, saying that “for the time being, Yarmouk is not considered besieged but it remains an area of highest concern.” The reclassification calls into question the accuracy and efficiency of UN agencies and other INGOs working on the Syrian conflict.
Further, in early September, armed groups in the area announced that they will be closing their checkpoints again; this means that residents of Yarmouk will not even be able to procure their small share of assistance. Jafra Foundation called an urgent meeting with other NGOs on September 6 to put pressure on the groups to allow entry and exit from the checkpoints. The NGOs formed a civil committee to negotiate with the groups; it remains to be seen whether the committee will be able to make any headway.
Yarmouk is not the only Palestinian area in such a condition. Khan al-Shieh camp outside Damascus is enduring a similar situation. It has been under siege since May 2015, when the regime cut all roads from the camp to Damascus, approximately 15 miles away, preventing 12,000 Palestinians inside the camp from leaving. Meanwhile UNRWA is distributing assistance in a city around three miles from Khan al-Shieh.
Thirty thousand Palestinians are also trapped inside Qudsaya district (17 miles northwest of Damascus), including families from Yarmouk. According to Jafra Foundation, since July 25 food and medical supplies have disappeared from the markets, with bread especially unavailable. Electrical outages occur regularly, and most families in the area rely on humanitarian relief for sustenance. But no humanitarian convoy has been allowed to enter the area for a month and a half. These two areas are also not termed “besieged” by the UN.
Read moreover, Palestinians have been prevented from fleeing to Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. The Syrian regime issued an interior order to officers manning checkpoints from Damascus to Aleppo to send any Palestinian heading to the north back to where he or she came from. Accordingly, tens of Palestinians who have tried to flee to Turkey have been stopped at the checkpoints and either arrested or returned.
In reality, all Palestinians in Syria are besieged. And the only way for Palestinians to flee Syria is by boat toward EU countries. Thousands of Syrians and Palestinians have attempted this, and while some have made it, thousands have drowned.