Forgotten Palestinians of Yarmouk struggle to survive
BEIRUT - For almost three years, the Palestinians of Yarmouk district on the edge of Damascus have been caught in the crossfire between rebels and government forces and probably thought they had seen it all: a siege of the camp, bombings and an Islamic State (ISIS) invasion.
But now diseases are looming. An outbreak of typhoid among the Yarmouk displaced population is raising concerns that the disease will spread if no serious action is taken.
The alarm for this latest catastrophe in the making was sounded by the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) after its medical teams were granted rare access to Palestinians and Syrians from Yarmouk sheltering in nearby Yalda, Babila and Beit Saham.
Medical personnel in Yalda confirmed 23 cases of typhoid, a bacterial infection caused mainly by contaminated water and food. If left untreated, it can result in death in about 20% of cases.
A UNRWA mobile health unit treated hundreds of refugees from Yarmouk, as well as members of host communities, for various diseases and 150,000 water purification tablets were delivered to local committees to help ensure that residents have access to clean drinking water.
The number of typhoid cases is likely to rise, UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness said. “What we are seeing is the tip of the iceberg… given the catastrophic public situation,” he said. But what worries the UN agency most is that, for the past five months, it has had no access to the estimated 15,000-18,000 people inside the camp.
“We know from anecdotal evidence that the water and sewage system in Yarmouk is largely destroyed… The main water supply into the camp became dysfunctional in September last year,” Gunness said. Before the war Yarmouk was a large thriving district housing, in concrete buildings, more than 160,000 Palestinians and Syrians, including many doctors, engineers and civil servants.
After Syrian rebel groups took positions inside the camp in December 2012, the Syrian Army besieged it, severely restricting access to food, water and other supplies. Last April, an ISIS attack further damaged the camp.
Gunness pointed out that “after aerial bombardments and street-to-street fighting that followed the ISIS takeover on April 1st, the camp (was) largely in ruins with the public infrastructure catastrophically degraded”.
ISIS eventually withdrew, leaving control of most of the camp to al- Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra.
Despite the catastrophic humanitarian situation, those inside Yarmouk are keen on having their children resume school on September 13th, when the UNRWA school year opens in Syria.
Gunness pointed out to the importance of education to Palestinians. At Yarmouk, he said, “some school buildings have been hit and badly damaged. Nonetheless, Palestinians prize education and realise that it is a passport to dignity, however distant a prospect that might be. “Interestingly, there were protests in Yarmouk against the possible decision by UNRWA to delay its school year. Imagine that. In a destroyed refugee camp, which has seen no aid since the end of March, there were protests about schools not opening.”
The United Nations has witnessed, said Gunness, some “grass-roots education with local initiatives to teach children. And for the last few years, the government and groups inside the camp have facilitated the exit from the camp of dozens of children so they could come out and sit for their exams.
“Extraordinarily, Palestinians, including those from Yarmouk, have outperformed Syrian students. That alone offers a ray of hope amid the black hole that Yarmouk has become,” Gunness said.
The situation of Palestinians from Yarmouk has elicited little attention from the world community. It may be that their sufferings are comparable to those of an overall Syrian population going through terrible ordeals with approximately 250,000 people killed in more than four years of war and more than half the population displaced internally or externally.
But the Palestinians of Syria are extremely vulnerable as they have been displaced many times, starting with the creation of Israel on their ancestral homeland nearly seven decades ago. UNRWA’s 2015 emergency appeal for $415.4 million for additional humanitarian aid for the Palestinians in Syria has been funded only 30.8%. One of the main pillars of this humanitarian response is cash assistance to refugees in addition to emergency education and health care.
“We are simply unable to distribute sufficient levels of cash, which might give the refugees a modicum of a sense of stability,” laments Gunness. Almost all 560,000 Palestinian refugees in Syria need assistance.
UNRWA’s view is that development aid will promote stability and security in the Middle East while poverty and desperation might lead some to join armed groups in search of an income.
“Please ask the donors why they are prepared to allow the continued drastic underfunding of our emergency work in Syria, when groups like ISIS are actively recruiting,” Gunness said.
“Development assistance is always cheaper on the tax purse than military expenditure. Make no mistake if UNRWA doesn’t do this work, others will step into the vacuum our underfunding creates,” he warned.