The largest Palestinian refugee camp in Syria has been “transformed into a death camp” as Assad regime forces press ahead with a major offensive against Isil fighters who control the area, the UN has warned.
The Yarmouk camp in southern Damascus has seen a week of intensive fighting as Syrian forces and allied militias attempt to crush one of the last rebel-held pockets of territory in the Syrian capital.
More than 5,000 civilians have fled the area in the face of intense shelling and aerial bombardment. Many of the civilians, both Palestinian refugees and Syrian locals, are now sleeping in the streets after being displaced from their homes.
“Yarmouk was a refugee camp that had already been transformed into a death camp, and even in that state it has just experienced a week of really intense fighting,” said Christopher Gunness, a spokesman for the UN Relief and Works Agency (Unrwa), the agency for Palestinian refugees.
“Things have become unimaginably brutal for the civilians there,” he said
Thousands of homes have been destroyed in the fighting over the last week and there is no running water in the area, Unrwa said. The area’s last functioning hospital has also been taken out of commission by bombing, according to the agency.
Before the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011, Yarmouk was home to around 160,000 Palestinian refugees – people who had been displaced from their homes in modern-day Israel during the 1948 war, and their descendants. More than 100,000 Syrians also lived in the area.
Fighting in the camp broke out in 2013 as some Palestinian factions sided with the Syrian regime and others with the rebels. The Syrian military placed the camp and the surrounding area under siege.
Fighters from Isil entered the area in 2015 and quickly defeated other rebel factions, subjecting the remaining residents to a brutal rule similar to that in Raqqa and other areas controlled by the jihadist group.
The camp is in a strategic location near one of the main southern roads into Damascus and rebel forces have often used it to shell government areas in the centre of the city.
Regime forces have long been eager to stamp out opposition forces in Yarmouk. Following their victory in capturing the rebel-held eastern Ghouta last month, regime troops have moved their focus towards Yarmouk and the surrounding neighbourhoods.
The Palestinian refugee population of Yarmouk had dwindled from around 160,000 in 2011 to just 6,000 last month, according to UN estimates. It may now be a fewer than 1,000 as people fled the fighting of the last week.
Dozens of Palestinian refugees and local Syrian civilians have been killed in the recent fighting. Unrwa called for civilians to be allowed safe passage out of the area and for humanitarian groups to be given access.
Unrwa says it needs $235 million this year for services for Palestinian refugees still in Syria and those who have fled. It has so far raised $70 million – a shortfall of $165 million.
There were around 560,000 Palestinian refugees in Syria before the outbreak of war in 2011. Around 120,000 have fled abroad, including 32,500 to Lebanon and 17,000 to Jordan, according to Unrwa.
The agency has been suffering a severe funding shortfall after the Trump administration cut around $300 million earlier this year. The US has long been the agency’s largest contributor and it is now racing to close the shortfall through alternative donors, mainly Arab Gulf states.
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