Conditions for Palestinian refugees in a camp near Damascus have worsened significantly in recent weeks, with fresh restrictions on relief supplies compounding shortages of food, clean water and decent healthcare, according to residents.
“Two months ago, UNRWA used to send food boxes to Yarmouk,” said Abdullah, one of 18,000 people living in the Yarmouk camp, referring to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. “Now there is nothing, we have no food… and it is forbidden for nurses or doctors to enter.”
A year ago this weekend, a haunting photo of thousands of gaunt-looking Palestinians waiting for UN food distributions in Yarmouk’s ruins brought the crisis into the world’s attention – with a global campaign leading the Syrian government to ease their siege and allow some aid distributions for large parts of last year. Yet 12 months on, the camp has disappeared from the headlines and it appears that another blockade has set in.
Chris Gunness, spokesman at UNWRA, said no aid had been delivered since 6 December but the organisation was asking the Syrian government “every day” to allow access. To meet only basic needs, Gunness said, around 400 food parcels a day are needed – with the organization prepared to deliver up to 1,000 if necessary. “We have had no access whatsoever,” he said. “The situation has gradually got worse – [it] was dire and it has got even more disastrous.”
The Syrian government is now not the only obstacle. The area has seen a serious escalation in conflict, with rebel groups clashing and making deliveries difficult even if the Syrian government were to issue permits.
Twice in December UNWRA staff not delivering aid were forced to evacuate after mortar fire landed near them. Gunness said they were calling on all armed groups to agree to a truce to allow humanitarian aid in.
‘A desperate situation’
Inside the camp, residents tell of critical situations. Electricity is intermittent, disease is common and prices of fuel have risen so high that many people cannot afford to heat their homes despite some of the worst storms in recent Middle Eastern history.
A 2014 photo from the Yarmouk Palestinian camp on the outskirts of Damascus. It shows thousands of Palestinians awaiting aid distribution in the camp.
“We can say we have three big problems, the first is food, the second problem is health, the third is water,” Abdullah said. He added that the water to the camp stopped last month, accusing the Syrian government of cutting it off deliberately. Residents have taken to digging holes in roads to access water.
Amina, another resident of the camp, told UNWRA that water prices are now so high that the family are no longer washing. “It is not only about being able to take a shower, but it is also clearing the toilets, or transporting water up four floors of a building.”
The Syrian government has employed sieges across the country to force rebel-held areas. Amnesty International has accused them of deliberately breaching humanitarian law.
Abdullah also said that even if the government were to allow food in again, many residents were scared that they would be detained on the way.
“All the young men who used to go out to receive humanitarian aid were arrested by the regime. More than 150 arrests took place on the checkpoints while people were receiving humanitarian aid.”
Yarmouk was home to around half a million Palestinian refugees before the Syrian civil war began in 2011, but the vast majority have fled to neighbouring countries or elsewhere inside Syria.
In recent months Palestinian refugees living in Syria have been prevented from accessing both Lebanon and Jordan, as part of an increasingly restrictive border policies. Abdullah said that if he were able to escape the war he would rather flee to another part of the war-torn country than go to Lebanon.