Former residents are told to return to protect their rights
Syria is urging Palestinian refugees to return to the war-ravaged Yarmouk refugee camp in southern Damascus from which many fled during the country’s seven-year-long civil war. The camp, however, remains severely damaged, raising questions as to why the government is calling on the refugees to repopulate the area.
In 2012, fierce clashes between Syrian regime forces under President Bashar al-Assad and Sunni rebel groups pushed most residents— roughly totaling 160,000—out of the camp. In 2015, Islamic State (ISIS) fighters moved into the district only to be pushed out last May, when the Assad’s forces retook it.
As the civil war appears to have turned decidedly in Damascus’ favor, Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal al-Miqdad announced earlier this week that his government had prepared a plan for the return of all Palestinian refugees to the camp.
“There are efforts to remove the mines left by the armed groups in Yarmouk, especially by ISIS,” al-Miqdad recently stated in a television interview. He stressed that “there is no objection to the role of the Palestinian Authority or the United Nations Relief Works Agency which cares for Palestinian refugees in the reconstruction of Yarmouk camp.”
Samer Abu Madal, a Palestinian researcher and expert on refugee affairs, told The Media Line that Yarmouk has been “completely destroyed and needs heavy construction repairs, which haven’t begun yet.
“There are no ingredients of life at the camp; the facilities and infrastructure are totally demolished. Only the terrorist groups were removed. I personally visited the camp recently and can say it needs to be totally rebuilt.”
Syria’s call for Yarmouk inhabitants to re-enter their homes is intended to bolster their identity and status as refugees, and underscore their claim regarding the issue of a Palestinian right of return to property abandoned in 1948. Abu Madal explained that, “It’s important for the refugees to return so they can protect their rights and cause. While some families have managed to do this, they are living in very difficult circumstances.”
Moreover, Abu Madal added, “the Syrian foreign minister [al-Miqdad] accused countries of obstructing the return of the refugees to their homes despite the presence of adequate facilities,” though the minister did not mention them by name.
Last year, despite strong opposition from international observers, as well as American lawmakers, the Trump administration decided to cut its multi-billion-dollar foreign aid budget, which included more than $200 million earmarked for reconstruction projects in Syria and another $200 million for UNRWA-administered aid programs in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Following in the footsteps of the U.S., Israel recently commenced a similar campaign to end UNRWA’s operations in east Jerusalem.
A senior Palestinian official who was not authorized to speak to media speculated to The Media Line that Washington’s reduction of funds for the agency is a preparatory step to a complete cut, adding that “very soon UNRWA won’t have any American aid left.”
From his side, Ahmad Hanoun, the head of the Department of Refugee Affairs, conveyed to The Media Line that the refugees’ return is a necessity, especially since the situation in the camp has become more stable.
“There is a clear targeting of Yarmouk, which is the capital of the Palestinian diaspora,” Hanoun said, adding that the refugees’ return forms a strong message to all of the parties and countries that are trying to terminate their case and status.
This is why PA President Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Liberation Organization showed a special interest in Yarmouk, Hanoun explained. Abbas “gave us clear directions to provide possibilities and facilitate the return of the refugees. A Palestinian delegation headed by Azam al-Ahmad and other officials visited the camp during the summer to understand its state.”
According to the Syrian committee that oversees the removal of armed groups from the area, 20 percent of the houses in the camp are completely destroyed, while the rest are either habitable or in need of repairs.
Yarmouk was established in 1957 for Palestinians who fled their homes during the 1948 hostilities that led to the creation of the state of Israel. From a mere tent camp, it eventually mushroomed into a bustling neighborhood on the southern fringes of Damascus. It was considered one of the largest Palestinian refugee communities in Syria.
UNRWA recently declared that 16 schools in the camp are badly damaged, along with many other buildings. It also stated it would not fix any of them unless the government officially allowed residents to return.