Aid reaches Syria’s Yarmouk camp after nine months

Residents of Palestinian refugee camp in urgent need of sustained humanitarian aid access, according to UN spokesman.

A general view shows a deserted street at the beginning of the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp
Yarmouk has been the site of heavy fighting between government forces and rebel groups [File: Ward Al-Keswani/Reuters]

Humanitarian aid has reached residents of the Yarmouk area on the outskirts of Damascus for the first time in nine months, according to UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestine refugees.

In a statement released on Saturday night, Chris Gunness, UNRWA’s spokesman, said the agency “did not enter the camp itself”, but that it reached the neighbouring area of Yalda, where 900 families displaced from Yarmouk and surrounding areas were in desperate need of humanitarian aid.

 The Piano Man of Yarmouk, and what he left behind

“Although some humanitarian assistance has entered these areas since the last UNRWA distribution in June, 2015, humanitarian needs remain acute,” Gunness said.

Home to Palestinian refugees and Syrians, Yarmouk has been the site of intense fighting between the Syrian government and armed opposition groups, including al Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group.

Once the largest of the nine Palestinian refugee camps in Syria, Yarmouk was home to nearly 200,000 people.

Yet between 5,000 and 8,000 civilians remain in Yarmouk today, according to the Jafra Foundation. 

The UN has been unable to gain access to the camp’s interior since late March 2015, days before ISIL fighters invaded and took control of most of Yarmouk. 

Most ISIL fighters pulled out of the camp’s interior within days, but the group controls many surrounding areas.

Al Nusra Front still maintains a heavy presence inside the camp. 

READ MORE: Evacuation from Syria’s Yarmouk camp paused

After a deal was struck between the Syrian government and opposition groups, efforts to evacuate rebels and their families from the camp collapsed in late December.

Sharif Nashashibi, a London-based analyst of Arab political affairs, said Yarmouk has been “symbolic throughout this conflict because it’s been the scene of a horrendous siege by the government, which caused untellable suffering”.

 Yarmouk residents struggle for survival

Since December 2012, the Syrian army and pro-government Palestinian armed groups have besieged the camp, erecting checkpoints at its entrances and severely restricting the entry of humanitarian goods, including food and medicine.

“The residents of the camp are in such a desperate state that people must just be wanting to get back to their feet,” Nashashibi told Al Jazeera.

Due to the government-imposed siege, hundreds of residents starved to death, while reports told of mass malnutrition and people being reduced to eating stray animals and grass in order to survive.

The UN removed the camp from its list of besieged areas in July 2015, but it was classified again as a besieged area earlier this month.

“Nothing has been arranged in the long term for hope in the Yarmouk camp,” Nashashibi said.

‘Disease on the rise’

The ongoing fighting in Syria started as an unarmed uprising against President Bashar al Assad in March 2011, but has since expanded into a full-on conflict that has killed more than 260,000 people, according to UN estimates.

According to the UK-based Action Group for Palestinians of Syria, at least 3,125 Palestinians have been killed in the conflict.

READ MORE: Palestinians in Syria desperately need Yarmouk truce

Of the more than 526,000 Palestinian refugees registered in Syria, an estimated 42,000 have been doubly displaced to Lebanon, as well as another 17,000 to Jordan.

Upwards of 390,000 Palestinian refugees are displaced within Syria’s borders, including many who are trapped in besieged areas or regions that are rarely accessed by humanitarian groups.

UNRWA’s Gunness said sustained humanitarian access to Yarmouk and the surrounding areas was needed.

“There are clear indications that disease is on the rise, particularly among the most vulnerable such as children. There is an acute lack of medicines to treat them,” he said.

Additional reporting by Patrick Strickland: @P_Strickland_

Source: Al Jazeera