Yarmouk Camp for the Palestinian refugees, established in 1957, is located 8 km south of Damascus city and currently populated with 700 HHs (600 of which Palestinian HHs); 400 of which are returnees. Prior to the Syrian crisis 2011, it was a home to the largest Palestinian refugee community in country. As of June 2011, there were 220,000 refugees living in Yarmouk. Due to the narrow space and the enormous number of refugees, the population density in Yarmouk camp was too high that it reached 10 persons per a meter square.
Most Palestinians who came to in the camp fled Palestine in 1948 from Al-Galilee, coastal cities, Tiberias and Al-Houla. Most of population is from cities of Haifa, Jafa, Acre, Nazareth, Safad and northern villages in addition to families from Gaza Strip, Lodd, Ramallah, Hebron and Jerusalem.
Although Yarmouk is an unofficial camp not recognized by UNRWA, it has come to be defined as one of the few ‘urban’ camps resembling more closely a permanent city quarter than a refugee camp.
Over time, refugees living in Yarmouk have improved and expanded their residences. The homes have been transformed from temporary makeshift houses to permanent cement structures that have created a more urban atmosphere and a sense of permanence. Other spaces such as cemeteries become sites where commemoration is “performed, collective memory is reinforced, and national identity is constructed, both formally and informally.
After the current crisis erupted in Syria, the Palestinians, like the Syrians, were exposed to its devastating repercussions on the fabric of their community, especially in the camps, and their social wellbeing and various facets of their daily lives. This has forced them either to become displaced within Syria, in search of relative safety, or to flee outside Syria, for the same reason.
Under this state of relative neutrality, Palestinian camps in the north, south, and around the capital Damascus (particularly Yarmouk RC and Khan Eshieh RC) turned into safe havens for Syrian refugees fleeing the fighting. This truly embodied Syrian-Palestinian brotherhood at the popular level.
Before it was completely thrown into the conflict, Yarmouk RC was a model of that state of “positive neutrality.”
Over the time, Yarmouk camp became the scene of intense fighting between the Armed Opposition Groups and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command (PFLP-GC) supported by Syrian Army government forces on the other. Subsequently the Syrian air force targeted Palestine Mosque and Al-Bassel Hospital in December 16, 2012 causing the death and injury of dozens of civilians. This was followed by a wide wave of displacement from the camp as a result of which about 190 thousand residents fled to other areas of Syria, or abroad. Some have made their way to Gaza.
Hence, the AOGs and armed Islamic groups controlled the camp while the pro-Syrian regime Palestinian factions PFLP-GC, and Al-Intifada supported by Syrian troops posed a tight siege on the camp, setting military checkpoint on the main entrance (at the northern zone). Those who stayed (20-30 thousand) have been living since July 2013 under a full siege that killed 187 people, because of starvation and the lack of medical care. The besieged civilians were forced to eat dogs and cats to stave off death, according to a legal fatwa (Islamic advisory opinion) on October 14, 2013, after they had reached the stage of “compulsion to perish.” The camp was the first area in Syria after the crisis, whose residents resorted to such an act after 90 days of the stifling siege.
Yarmouk has been witnessing fierce daily clashes as all of area has been shelled by mortar, artillery, and missiles in addition to bomb cars causing death and injury for many civilians and vast destruction of buildings and possession.
Life in Yarmouk has grown increasingly unbearable for desperate civilians who find themselves starving and trapped in a downward cycle of suffering with no means of escape. Prices have skyrocketed with a kilo of rice costing up to US$100. The camp has also had its electricity power supply cut since April 2013.
Months later, the efforts (advocacy campaigns and appeals) that were held by local and international NGOs with other civil and political parties, a limited access to food parcels was allowed. On many occasions human assistance distribution process was suspended due to the eruption of armed clashes between GoS forces and AOGs which caused the death and injury of a number of people at the distribution point. Within the same context, many civilians including students and human activists were kidnapped by the security forces during the distribution process.
Many attempts have been held seeking to reach an end to the trapped 18.000 civilians’ tragedy as an agreement between armed groups and relief foundations representatives inside the camp on one hand, and PFLP-GC and Syrian security on the other was held including the left of the siege, main services to return to the camp, non-Palestinian militants to withdraw from the camp and restore its neutrality and that the displaced residents return to their homes.
ISIS’ Entry Into the Camp
On April 1, 2015, ISIS elements stormed the Yarmouk camp, in coordination with Jabhat al-Nusra, whose members facilitated ISIS entry from Al-Hajar Al-Aswad area.
Violent battles took place with Aknaf Beit al-Maqdis, a Palestinian armed opposition group that controlled Yarmouk, before ISIS entered and controlled 80% of the camp with Jabhat al-Nusra, as the Aknaf retreated to opposition-controlled areas in the southern region Yelda-Babilla-Beit Sahem.
Upon its entry, the ISIS carried out campaigns of intimidation of the people, where dozens of civilians were kidnapped, detained and/or assassinated, in addition to imposing a curfew on the population, which led to depriving them of access to water, food and health care, especially for the wounded who fell as a result of the clashes. The group also stormed the headquarters of relief institutions and looted their contents and pursued its activists who sought refuge in the neighboring town of Yelda. They pursued media activists as well.
As a result of ISIS’ entry into the camp, about 9,000 residents fled to Yelda, Babilla and nearby Beit Sahem, where many of them lived in collective shelters.
Since the beginning of the crisis and during the years of the siege imposed on the camp, Jafra Foundation has worked to serve needy families with severe shortages and even complete shortage of resources and services. Its work included providing food and health aid, shelter, waste management services, water distribution, agriculture, alternative education for children, in addition to psychosocial support programs, child-friendly centers and other services.
Notably on 23 April 2018, GoS forces and allied armed groups launched a military offensive on IS-held areas of Yarmouk camp, Tadamun, Qadam and Hajar Al Aswad. Apart from the ground offensive, GoS and GoR (Government of Russia) warplanes have been targeting the areas with aerial sorties, causing an estimated destruction of 80% of the camp. The offensive has also triggered an IDP influx of 700 households to nearby Yelda town, leaving 100-150 HHs inside the camp.
On 19 May 2018, local sources reported that IS and GoS had reached an agreement on a ceasefire in Yarmouk Camp. Next day, 1700 IS fighters and their families (from Yarmouk camp, Hajar Al Aswad, Tadamon and Qadam neighborhoods) evacuated on 20 buses to Badiya (Rural Deir El Zor) and East Suweida. Additionally, 500-600 civilians were evacuated to Idleb. On 21 May 2018, GoS forces and aligned armed groups entered the camp.
Field estimations carried out in the aftermath of the Syrian Government’s regaining control over the area in May 2018 indicated that over 80% of the camp is devastated in action. According to the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) analysis, 5,489 buildings were found out destroyed in Yarmouk.
However, contrary to statements released by several influential bodies, such as UNWRA, stating that the area of Yarmouk and South Damascus is uninhabitable for returnees, the Jafra Foundation ascertains otherwise based on a local field visit by its staff to the camp. Whilst we acknowledge the scale of destruction, some areas remained minimally affected and were adequate for civilians to return, requiring minimal rehabilitation of infrastructure and provision of services. Those areas represent around 20% of the camp.
Jafra Foundation for Relief and Youth Development maintains presence and ability to operate programs in the camp; efforts are currently focused on advocating for the prompt approval for returnees, thus maintaining Yarmouk as a Palestinian camp, known as the main hub for Palestinians prior to the conflict. Jafra foresees that civilians will be able to return gradually, whilst facing the tedious procedure for security approvals and background checks. Notably, as the case in other GoS controlled camps and gatherings, the Jafra Foundation with liaise with local authorities, mainly the GAPAR (General Authority for Palestine Arab Refugees), to ensure proper coordination, sustainability of the projects and protection of the beneficiaries.
Since the end of the hostilities in mid-2018, the camp has been subjected to a systematic looting of private and public property. Trucks loaded with furniture, doors and windows of houses and shops have been seen exiting from the camp. Iron was also extracted from destroyed buildings and power wires… etc.
Around 700 HHs comprise those who remained in the camp are subjected to heightened security measures, and movement restrictions.
On November 11, 2018, the Syrian Council of Ministers issued a decision stipulating that the governorate of Damascus replaces the Yarmouk municipality – which was affiliated with the Ministry of Local Administration – with its rights and obligations, and that the employees of the Yarmouk camp local committee who are in charge of their work are at the disposal of the governorate of Damascus.
The decision sparked widespread discontent, as observers considered it an undermining of the camp’s political and national privacy, as Yarmouk would become like any of the other Damascus governorates. It would loss the feature of a camp and get the name of the “Yarmouk region” instead.
On May the 2nd, 2020, GoS forces started building a large metal gate with a dome at the camp main entrance. Local activists said the GoS were probably setting up a security checkpoint to control the civilian movement in/out similarly to those installed in other Palestinian refugee camps such as Sbeinah and Husseinyeh. The new step was criticized by many as it would expose the civilians to additional restrictions and blackmailing actions.
In June 2020, Damascus Governorate announced an organizational plan for Yarmouk camp, which sparked a wave of popular discontent, as many considered it an end to the camp and a violation of the political and national privacy of Palestinian refugees in Syria.
Largescale official and popular objection to the reorganizational resulted in eventually the governorate to announce the abolition of the plan. According to resources, the plan would have remarkably changed the demographic and architectural identity of the camp.
By November 2020, the Syrian government announced the official start of registering the names of those who were welling to return to Yarmouk. Notably, several hundred families were allowed to return after obtaining the approval of the security services.
So far, UNRWA talks about the return of 1,200 families to Yarmouk (Palestinian and Syrian families are distributed among several neighborhoods in the camp, most notably Al-Ja’una neighborhood, Ain Ghazal, Al-Taqaddum, Haifa, Sab’ Al-Seba’i neighborhood, and Ihsan Kam Almaz) living among the rubble, perhaps around unexploded ordnances, and in poor conditions. Families suffer from great difficulties in securing basic necessities, such as bread, drinking water, and fuel for heating or making food, in addition to the lack of transportation to pickup them to and from outside the camp to buy the basic needs.
UNRWA pointed out that 25% of the Agency’s health centers are currently unusable, and the it has lost 40% of the classrooms of its schools in Syria, where the facilities have either been completely destroyed or severely damaged since the start of the conflict in the country.
Many houses are at risk of collapsing and falling due to the cracks that were damaged as a result of the bombing of the camp by the Russian aircraft and the artillery of the Syrian forces.
The camp is devoid of hospitals, schools, and shops such as bakeries, gas distribution centers, and food items, which are among the most important requirements for the normal life of the population, in addition to the lack of communications and transportation network, which constitutes a major obstacle to residency. The camp is free of services and service institutions.
More than 200 children under the age of 15 live in difficult conditions in the Yarmouk camp in Damascus, the scenes of destruction and the rubble of houses have become a nightmare engraved in their minds, which has created psychological problems that have greatly affected their well-being and life.
According to UNRWA, 16 school buildings and 7 health, development and vocational headquarters in Yarmouk camp need major repairs and rebuilding. Before the outbreak of events in Syria, the camp included 8 government schools and 28 UNRWA schools operating on a 2-shift basis. The number of students in the camp is estimated at 150 receive their education in four UNRWA schools in the Al-Zahira area outside the camp. UNRWA, under the supervision of the General Authority for Palestine Arab Refugees, provides transportation to pickup them to and from their schools. The students suffer from the instability of being transferred outside the camp’s borders to receive their education.
The people complain about the loss of health, social and service care, as the camp is devoid of hospitals, pharmacies or medical and health personnel, after it included dozens of hospitals, dispensaries and medical clinics. In September 2020, UNRWA announced the deploy of a mobile medical clinic to Yarmouk camp to treat patients, as it operates every Wednesday during the month. In the camp, there is the “Yarmouk Martyrs” clinic, which provides first aid and treats emergency cases.
For its part, the Palestinian Liberation Army rehabilitated its “Hilweh Zeidan” medical center, and announced the reopening of the “Martyr Raja’ Abu Amasha” clinic after its rehabilitation.
As for the situation of electricity, in the camp there is only one line, which is often cut off, and it does not provide electricity to all inhabited areas, in addition to the poorness of the current, as the power supply does not exceed 90 volts and can only be used to operate a lighting. Moreover, the electricity supply in the area of Damascus is scarce and does not exceed 4 hours per day. The electricity line, to a limited extent, feeds some of the camp’s alleyways, and it has been extended through external cables to the area northern and western areas of the camp (Rama Street, West Yarmouk and Al-Ja’una), and lines to the Saffuryah Avenues and surroundings.