PHOTO: Residents queue up to receive humanitarian aid at the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk, in Damascus , Syria , March 11, 2015. (Reuters)
- Founded in 1957 just south of the Syrian capital of Damascus, the Yarmouk refugee camp was home to approximately 150,000 Palestinian refugees prior to the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011. Today, there are approximately 18,000 Palestinian refugees and Syrians remaining in Yarmouk, including approximately 3,500 children. The rest have fled to other parts of Syria or neighboring countries such as Jordan and Lebanon.
- Yarmouk has been besieged by the Syrian army since late 2012, when rebels fighting to overthrow the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad occupied the camp, causing starvation and disease. At least 200 Palestinians and Syrians have starved to death in Yarmouk as a result. On April 6, 2015, the UN warned that residents were subsisting on approximately 400 calories a day, out of a needed 2,000.
- On April 1, 2015, fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) launched an assault on Yarmouk, taking control of most of the camp within a few days, reportedly beheading two of the camp’s Palestinian defenders amidst fears of wider atrocities. Additionally, the Syrian armed forces reportedly began dropping “barrel bombs” on Yarmouk on April 5 in an effort to stop ISIS’ advance on Damascus.
- The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) has been unable to deliver desperately needed supplies since the fighting began on April 1. According to UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness: “That means that there is no food, there is no water and there is very little medicine… The situation in the camp is beyond inhumane.”
- The violence in Yarmouk highlights the dire situation that Palestinians in Syria face as they attempt to navigate the complex political realities of the country and the unrest that has ravaged it over the last four years. According to the UN, approximately 220,000 Syrians have been killed since 2011, including more than 76,000 in 2014 alone. Estimates of the number of Palestinians killed vary. According to Palestinian officials, between 1,000 and 1,300 Palestinians have been confirmed killed, with about the same number missing and unaccounted for, while The Action Group for Palestinians of Syria puts the number of Palestinian fatalities at 2725.
- Prior to the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011, there were approximately 526,000 Palestinian refugees in Syria, living in nine official and three unofficial camps run by the UNRWA, the largest of which was Yarmouk.
- Most of the Palestinian refugees in Syria, including Yarmouk, arrived in the country after being expelled from their homes during Israel's creation in 1948. Most are originally from the northern part of Mandate Palestine, mainly from Safad, Haifa, and Jaffa. For nearly seven decades, Israel has denied them their internationally-recognized right to return, as enshrined in Resolution 194, passed by the UN General Assembly in December 1948, which stipulated: “refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date.”