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Independent journalist Patrick Strickland says the international community is failing its duty to protect civilians displaced in the ongoing Syrian civil war

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JAISAL NOOR, PRODUCER, TRNN: This is Jaisal Noor in Baltimore. A typhoid outbreak is just the latest catastrophe to be inflicted on Palestinian refugees in the Yarmouk refugee camp in Syria. They’ve endured a bombing campaign and siege by the government of Bashar al-Assad, and more recently an invasion by Islamic State militants. UN spokesman Chris Gunness said, quote, never has the imperative for sustained humanitarian access been greater. UN aid workers got access to a nearby neighborhood on Wednesday and confirmed at least ten cases of typhoid. Since December 2012 fighting has driven out the vast majority of some 200,000 refugees that had made Yarmouk their home. The UN has been denied access to Yarmouk since late March. More than 90 percent of more than half a million Palestinian refugees in Syria rely on UN assistance for survival. Now joining us to discuss this from Beirut, Lebanon is Patrick Strickland. Patrick is an independent journalist and regular contributor to Electronic Intifada and Al Jazeera English. Thank you so much for joining us. PATRICK STRICKLAND, INDEPENDENT JOURNALIST: Thank you for having me. NOOR: Can you give us an update on this grave situation on the ground? Palestinian refugees in Yarmouk have been dying from a lack of food and been under attack from years now, and now they’re facing a typhoid outbreak. STRICKLAND: Yeah. I think that as you rightly said, this is just the latest catastrophe of many to hit Palestinian refugees in Syria. Not just those in Yarmouk but particularly those in Yarmouk, which as you mentioned has been under siege by the government of Bashar al-Assad since December 2012. That siege for them meant that food, medicine, supplies, humanitarian goods, everything that came in was restricted by the government, and it led to, frankly, widespread starvation. And that’s why more than 172 people, at least 172 people, mostly elderly and children died as a direct result of that siege and a lack of access to food and healthcare in that time, from things like malnutrition and other health complications that stem from that. I think that about a year and a half ago was when we first heard that Palestinians in the camp had resorted to eating grass and dirt because there was no food coming in. It’s just an utterly, utterly tragic situation that has been so largely overlooked. And the world said very little until ISIS militants raided the camp this past April. NOOR: And can you talk a little bit to what you alluded to, the broader impact on Palestinian refugees across Syria? We know more than half a million are living in Syria right now. STRICKLAND: Yeah, there’s more than half a million Palestinians who live across 13 different refugee camps across the country. It’s not just Yarmouk that’s been targeted. The Palestinian story throughout the Syrian uprising started first in August 2012 when the Assad regime bombed the Daraa camp in southern Syria. Since then it’s continued more or less unabated, and Palestinians are really the only people who have no dog in this fight, have been dragged into the conflict like everyone else. And like Syrians across the country they’re suffering. But the difference is that they’re extremely vulnerable already, because they’re already refugees who were driven from their historic homeland in 1948 during the establishment of Israel. Now, there are several camps that have been targeted other than Daraa and Yarmouk. Daraa today is about 60 percent destroyed. Most Palestinians from Syria have been displaced internally, because they’ve been turned away from host countries, at the border of host countries like Lebanon and Syria, where other Syrian refugees have gone. But about 40,000 Palestinians from Syria have been double displaced now to Lebanon, living again in Palestinian refugee camps here in Lebanon as well. In Yarmouk alone, as you mentioned, nearly 200,000 people live there. Now today the number’s dwindled, we think, to somewhere between 5,000 and 8,000 people. NOOR: It’s almost unimaginable what that must be like, to first be displaced more than 60 years ago, now being displaced again. Have you been able to reach any Palestinian refugees in this situation, and what have they told you? STRICKLAND: No doubt. I mean, most Palestinians that come from Syria to Lebanon aren’t able to get–aren’t able to get residency papers, and are forced then to search for work off the record. Palestinian refugees who are already in Lebanon are barred from more than 70 different jobs. But those, more importantly, those who don’t make it out of Syria are still bearing the brunt of this. And that means, you know, that more–we think at least 947 Palestinians are still in Assad’s prisons. At least 277 cannot be accounted for. That means that, we presume that they’ve been either abducted or disappeared, either by the government or opposition forces. And those who stayed in Yarmouk are now caught in the crossfire once again in between the Syrian regime and its allies, and groups like ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, which is the Syrian affiliate of al-Qaeda. And since April alone we know that at least 30 Palestinian leaders in the camp, local politicians, activists, influential people, have been targeted by these militants and killed. Particularly those from the Hamas political party. Just at the end of June, [Mosaffa Sharan], one of the local Hamas political leaders, was shot in the head as he left evening prayers at a local mosque by ISIS militants. So like I said, I mean, we really see that people are stuck in the crossfire. And for those who aren’t in Yarmouk the situation is equally as bad if not worse, in some places. In the refugee camps of [inaud.] and Sbeineh they’ve been 100 percent evacuated of all their residents. And today the only thing stopping those people going back to their homes in their camps is that the regime won’t allow them to. NOOR: And we know the UN has called, has put out a very basic plea. Just give access so we can go in and give people that are left just basic food, and give them water purification tablets so this typhoid won’t spread. We know at a very basic level, those are some of the solutions on a short term, but we know the situation in Syria has been exacerbated by the role that foreign powers have played, and they seem to have only been making things worse. What role can foreign powers play in helping resolve this conflict, and getting more aid to all the refugees, and especially the Palestinian refugees within Syria? STRICKLAND: The humanitarian catastrophe in Yarmouk, it’s really important to understand, is a microcosm of the larger catastrophe that Palestinians have been enduring for nearly seven decades now, since they were uprooted from their homeland. And that’s that their future and their lives and their fates are not in their own hands. And of course, the only parties that could do something to stop the suffering have failed completely in doing so. That’s the United Nations, which has proven that by trying to enforce a solely humanitarian solution that they’re unable to do anything to even slow down the suffering or ease it at all. Syrian parties, as well, which–that would go from both sides of the Syrian conflict, from certain groups within the opposition, namely ISIS and the Nusra Front and the Syrian regime. And the broader international community, as well as Palestinian political parties like the PLO [inaud.] the mainstream or the, I would say the political party that dominates the West Bank-based Palestinian authority which is supposed to be the sole governing body of all Palestinians. Now, [Fatah] has basically used the suffering in Yarmouk as a tool to reestablish its relations with the Assad regime, which were suspended for more than 30 years. And meanwhile on the ground, people continue to die and people continue to suffer and search for food, and now under health conditions like typhoid, which is just a huge point of shame for all parties involved. NOOR: And it goes without saying that Israel has denied the right of return to all these refugees who were displaced more than six decades ago, now. Patrick Strickland, we want to thank you so much for joining us. STRICKLAND: Thanks for having me. NOOR: Thank you for joining us at the Real News Network.


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Jaisal is currently the Democracy Initiative Manager at the Solutions Journalism Network and is a former TRNN host, producer, and reporter. He mainly grew up in the Baltimore area and studied modern history at the University of Maryland, College Park. Before joining TRNN, he contributed print, radio, and TV reports to Free Speech Radio News, Democracy Now! and The Indypendent. Jaisal's mother has taught in the Baltimore City Public School system for the past 25 years. Follow him on Twitter @jaisalnoor.