By Vijay Prashad. This article was first published on Frontline.
The number of refugees in West Asia riddle the imagination: there are millions of them. Conditions in Syria are deteriorating rapidly now, pushing more and more people to the country’s frontiers. By VIJAY PRASHAD
WEST ASIA is a land of refugees. Five million Palestinian refugees currently live outside their lands, dispossessed to create the state of Israel. A sixth generation of Palestinian refugees now live in camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. During the United States’ occupation of Iraq since 2003, Iraqis crossed in the hundreds of thousands into Iran, Jordan and Syria. Many remain in these countries, even in Syria, despite the instability there.
Little about contemporary Iraq raises the confidence of its people. In one week in January, as fighting intensified in the Anbar province, 65,000 people fled the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi, joining the 1.3 million Iraqis who were already displaced inside their country. Adrian Edwards, spokesperson for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), said that many civilians were unable to leave the conflict areas, and those who had fled were taking refuge with families or in schools, mosques and hospitals “where resources are running low”. With the fighting in Anbar becoming intense, 14,000 displaced people made their way to the Kurdish province in the north where they had to be accommodated in an area already overwhelmed with Syrian refugees. There are officially a quarter of a million Syrians in Iraq.
Numbers riddle the imagination. Tables of refugee figures released by the U.N. refugee agency belittle the individual stories of trauma. What is one to make of this new number released by it to highlight the tragedy of the Syrian refugees, that by late January in 2013, the agency had registered 554,855 Syrians, whereas a year later the number rose to 2,420,058? Incidentally, half of the refugees are children. These numbers, shocking as they are, are much higher on the ground. In Lebanon, the government estimates that there are over a million Syrian refugees, this in a country of only four million people. “My country cannot cope with the Syrian refugee crisis,” said former Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati. Lebanon’s fragile economic situation and its tense political environment are endangered by the Syrian crisis.
Conditions in Syria are deteriorating rapidly, pushing more and more people to the country’s frontiers. The obvious danger is the war. The U.N. stopped offering an official casualty figure. It is now impossible to verify how many people have been killed in the war, with each side offering its own politically convenient numbers. One consequence of the war has been the destruction of the Syrian economy. Since 2011, Syria’s gross domestic product has dropped by 45 per cent, its currency slipped by 80 per cent, and its water supply trickled to half. If you add the insecurity and danger of the war to the collapse of the economy, it is no surprise that almost half of Syria’s population has been displaced.
Those who are able to get across the border live a tenuous life, but at the very least they are away from the war zone and are able to scratch out a living from the relief provided by the U.N. and non-governmental organisations as well as their own ability to earn a little money. Matters are dangerously desperate in parts of Syria where the war continues to dominate everyday life.
The city of Homs is besieged by the Syrian government as the rebels have taken refuge in the old part of the city, and the Palestinian neighbourhood of Yarmouk is also in a perilous situation, with starvation stalking the population. By October 2013, things had come to such a pass in Yarmouk that Imam Salah al-Khatib issued a fatwa allowing residents to eat cats, dogs and donkeys, animals shunned as food by Muslims. This is not “religiously permitted”, said the Imam, “but it is a reflection of the reality we are suffering”.
The U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which is tasked with the provision of humanitarian relief for Palestinians, was not able to enter Yarmouk to provide food, education and medical care for months on end. It reports that several of its staff cannot be located, and a number of them have been killed, including Susan Ghazazweh (born 1956), a teacher at Abbasyyeh School since 2001, who was shot in December 2013, and Muhammed Ashmami (born 1974), an attendant at two UNRWA schools since 2007, who was hit in the head when a shell exploded on Palestine Street in Yarmouk. “The staff are losing heart,” said a senior UNRWA official, as they send “horrifying reports” from Yarmouk.
Yarmouk was set up as a camp just south of Damascus in 1957 for Palestinian refugees who fled the Israeli armed forces in 1948. But as its population grew, the camp sprawled to become a large neighbourhood, which was absorbed into the city. At its peak, about 150,000 Palestinians lived in Yarmouk.
Two women that I met in Beirut—Um Ahmad and Um Nidal—spoke fondly about Yarmouk, desperately about its destruction, and with hope that someday they might return to it. “We do not wish to live in Lebanon,” said Um Nidal, who is one of the more than 50,000 refugees in Lebanon registered with the UNRWA. Living in a tent with little opportunity for work, Um Nidal said that she had left a nice apartment, a decent job as a teacher and a safe place to raise her four children. Indeed, Syria had been a favoured destination for Palestinian refugees.
Unlike other Arab states, Syria gave Palestinians full rights in its Law no. 260 (1956), where Palestinians were “considered as originally Syrian in all things covered by the law with the right to employment, commerce, and national service, while preserving their original nationality”. The right to return to Palestine (enshrined in the 1948 U.N. Resolution 194) is sacrosanct. Short of that, Syria allowed Palestinians to study, work and hold government jobs— that is why the Syrian government’s General Authority for Palestinian Arab Refugees agency was often headed by a Palestinian. This is unusual in the Arab world.
Yarmouk itself has an interesting history. When it was built, the U.N. gave the Palestinians materials to build their own homes. As Louis Gendron, a UNRWA official wrote at that time, “the refugees have largely benefited from [building their own homes], inasmuch as they have developed their sense of responsibility and also have, in living in their own homes built by themselves, regained the sense of dignity, which they definitely lose when they are herded in big army-type camps.” It was in such a home that Um Ahmad lived before she was forced to flee Yarmouk.
People like Um Ahmad did not want to leave their homes. Until 2013, the UNRWA found many Palestinians coming to the Lebanese border to collect some funds before they turned back home. The UNRWA’s Regional Director, Ann Dismorr, told this writer in September 2013 that her agency did not have the funds to manage the flood of refugees or to provide cash payments at the border. Since then the scale of the crisis has worsened. Yarmouk itself is rubble, vanquished by modern armaments. It was imperative to get out if one could. People in Yarmouk began to die of starvation. On January 28, 2013, a four-month-old baby, Leila Khaled Da’dou, named after the famous Palestinian militant, died.
Palestinians could not be immune to the Syrian civil war. Over the years, the Syrian government’s tentacles entered the Palestinian camps through its chosen instrument, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC).
In 1968, Ahmad Jibril, an ex-Syrian army man, broke from the Marxist PFLP taking with him fellow Syrian army veterans to form the GC. Jibril was keen to forge a close relationship with Damascus, in the same way as the Palestine Liberation Front (PLF) was Iraq’s instrument in the Palestinian struggle. A close relationship with the Syrian government marked the PFLP-GC, whose fighters patrolled the frontlines of the Syrian-Israeli demarcation line and controlled life in some of the Palestinian camps. It was inevitable when the rebellion broke out in 2011 that war would enter the camps and that the PFLP-GC would side with the government.
In June 2011, protesters in the Yarmouk camp burned down the headquarters of the PFLP-GC. Their immediate grievance was that the PFLP-GC did not adequately commemorate the anniversary of the 1967 defeat of the Arabs by Israel and that the PLFP-GC was more attuned to the interests of the Syrian government than that of the Palestinian people. Nothing was clear-cut in 2011 and 2012, as all Palestinian factions joined to create a 2,000-strong force to protect Yarmouk. This would morph into the Popular Committee-Yarmouk Refugee Camp (PC-YRC), although some rebels now say that the PC-YRC was always an instrument of the Syrian government. The story is very difficult to unravel.
Rebel groups created the Liwa al-Asifah (the Storm Brigade), whose commander said in October 2012: “Now [the General Command] are targets for us, targets for all the Free Syrian Army. All of them with no exceptions.” Car bombs, kidnappings, gunfire, shelling—all this took hold as 2012 slipped into 2013. The GC is said to have abandoned Yarmouk after great loss of life by December 2012, when, as the UNRWA’s Christopher Gunness told me, “armed groups moved into the camps and the government responded by attacking and besieging the camp. By about June of 2013, the restrictions were very tight.” The Syrian government shelled and bombed the camp, and the rebel fighters shelled their besiegers. Yarmouk became a war zone. Before the fighting, 150,000 people lived in the area; now, at the most 20,000 people remain.
None of the U.N. agencies on whom the residents had come to rely could gain access to Yarmouk. Nor could they reach hundreds of thousands of other civilians trapped in the battlefield, whether in the old city of Homs or in Hassakeh, in eastern Ghouta or in Darayya. Jens Laerke, spokesperson for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), told me that they could not ascertain who was “blocking” access to these areas. “It is essentially up to the belligerent parties on the ground to come up with an agreement which makes it possible for an aid convoy to take place,” he said.
The U.N.-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi had hoped agreement on humanitarian aid would be a simple confidence-building measure between the Syrian government and the opposition in the January 2014 Geneva II meeting. It was not to be. Both sides indicated an interest but then failed on an agreement. The situation in Yarmouk was desperate, as was that in Homs. A few days after Geneva II, however, UNRWA convoys were able to enter Yarmouk and distribute food parcels and medicines (including polio vaccines). Gunness pointed to the context of these deliveries. “Residents, including infants and children, have been subsisting for long periods on diets of stale vegetables, herbs, powdered tomato paste, animal feed and cooking spices dissolved in water,” he said. “Infants are suffering from diseases linked to severe malnutrition, including anaemia, rickets and kwashiorkor, a condition caused by lack of protein.”
The World Food Programme airlifted 400 tonnes of food to Qamishli in northern Syria. But this food will not have an easy time getting to areas controlled by the Islamists, notably Raqqa where the Islamic State for Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) is in charge (see Frontline, February 7). Homs’ Governor Talal al-Barazi said that his city was also in a desperate shape, although by early February an agreement was reached between the government and the rebels to allow 200 civilians safe passage out of the city. Whether food and medicine will be able to reach these areas on a continuous basis is hard to predict. The war continues. There is no sign that it will abate.
Rana, a young Palestinian woman who left Yarmouk a few months ago, stares into the distance as she says, “We grew up wanting to return to our lands in Palestine. Now I want to return to Syria. We keep getting thrown out of our homes.”