Starving for Access in Syria's Yarmouk Camp

  • by Jonathan Rozen (united nations)
  • Friday, January 31, 2014
  • Inter Press Service

UNRWA food distribution Jan. 31, 2014 in the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk, Damascus.  Credit: UNRWA UNRWA food distribution Jan. 31, 2014 in the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk, Damascus. Credit: UNRWA

Responsibility for the plight of the primarily Palestinian Yarmouk population has been almost exclusively directed toward the Syrian government, whose forces control the periphery of the camp.

Approximately 18,000 residents are besieged within Yarmouk as fighting continues around and sporadically within in the area.

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) is presently the only significant organisation operating directly to provide the civilians of Yarmouk with aid. UNRWA has been operating in Syria since 1950, and therefore has a solid and comprehensive logistical system to provide humanitarian support.

But it is not a lack of proper resources that hinders UNRWA's work, the agency says. It is a lack of cooperation from the parties of the conflict to permit safe access to the camp.

"It's clear we are not getting what we need…we can certainly say the cooperation on the ground has been inadequate to date," Christopher Gunness, UNRWA spokesperson, told IPS.

"We continue to work with parties on the ground, in particular the Syrian authorities, to try to get aid in, but what we've got in is wholly inadequate," Gunness said, noting that both sides have said they are aware of their responsibilities regarding the permission of humanitarian aid to those of need.

Between Jan. 17 and Jan. 21, UNRWA was only able to bring a few hundred aid parcels into the camp. On Thursday, Jan. 30, however, Gunness reported that UNRWA had managed to enter Yarmouk and successfully distribute 1,026 food parcels. Aid distribution continued on Friday, and the Syrian government has expressed its intent to facilitate an accelerated distribution process.3

Nevertheless, there are still tens of thousands of people whom this aid did not reach. It is virtually a "drop in the ocean compared with need," explained Gunness. "We need permanent safe and secure access."

The people of Yarmouk face what Gunness describes as "unimaginable human suffering". Children are experiencing various symptoms of malnutrition, such as rickets and anaemia, women have died in childbirth because of a lack of medial care, there is no clean water nor electricity, and aid deliveries have slowed to a trickle. At present, reports indicate that at least 49 people have died of malnutrition and government snipers have targeted people foraging for food in nearby areas.

Getting aid in is on a "convoy to convoy, day to day basis" says Gunness. Presently, Yarmouk can only be accessed via two main routes, both of which are strictly controlled through a series of tight checkpoints. In addition, fighting in close proximity to aid convoys has thwarted successive efforts to deliver humanitarian assistance. In one case, gunfire hit a bulldozer that was clearing debris for the convoy.

On Jan. 17, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) Navi Pillay issued a report describing the humanitarian situation in Yarmouk. In this report, which OHCHR reaffirmed to IPS as still applicable on Jan. 28, Pillay described the situation as "desperate" and indicated that government forces and affiliated militias appear to be imposing "collective punishment on the civilians in Yarmouk", adding that such actions which impede "humanitarian assistance to civilians in desperate need may amount to a war crime", and is certainly against international law.

"Aid access is a priority, but what is needed at this stage is not simply negotiating for weeks to get a few parcels in, what is needed is a paradigm shift … that this is not something you negotiate on, this is a right under international law, Nadim Houry, Human Rights Watch's (HRW) deputy director for its Middle East and North Africa division, told IPS. "What is needed right now is to establish modalities for repeated and efficient humanitarian aid."

Looking forward, talks between the Syrian government and the Syrian opposition have the potential to open Yarmouk to more comprehensive incoming aid and the exit of civilians. Though a deal has not been reached at the Geneva II talks, both sides have discussed relief for besieged areas, notably the Old City of Homs.

The head international mediator for the U.N., Special Envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi, has optimistically called these discussions a positive step forward, necessary for further agreement.

"We want the Geneva II talks to make the issue a priority and to demand that the regime end government sieges imposed on opposition held towns. Humanitarian organisations must have unfettered access to these areas," Geoffrey Mock, Syria country specialist for Amnesty International USA (AIUSA), told IPS.

"Humanitarian access has really been quite limited," Houry said. " have been able to get in , but not the unrestricted access we had asked for."

This kind of restriction has also been experienced by AIUSA, which has only been able to support the Syrian civilians through their presence in neighbouring countries.

The Syrian mission to the United Nations did not response to an IPS request for comment on the humanitarian and human rights situation in Yarmouk, as well as the inability for humanitarian groups to enter the country.

In addition to vital incoming aid, "the civilians in Yarmouk, as is the case for civilians in all besieged areas of Syria, need safe passage out," says Gunness. "We have no choice but to work within the constraints on the ground that we find ourselves having to confront."

© Inter Press Service (2014) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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