Civilians and pro-government forces walk down the destroyed Thalateen Street in the YarmOuk Palestinian refugee camp on the southern outskirts of the capital Damascus on May 24, 2018, after the regime seized the camp. (Photo: AFP)
The Commissioner-General of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), Philippe Lazzarini, warned that the situation of Palestinian refugees in Syria is becoming increasingly alarming and that displacement camps have suffered devastating destruction because of intense fighting.
Lazzarini, who made his first official visit to Syria on 26-29 October 2020, held meetings with a number of Syrian government officials, including Dr. Faisal Miqdad, the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates, Dr. Salwa al-Abdallah, the Minister of Social Affairs and Labour, and Mr. Ali Mustafa, the Director-General of the General Authority for Palestinian Arab Refugees (GAPAR).
Lazzarini visited the Sbeineh and Yarmouk camps for Palestine refugees in Damascus to take a closer look at their situation and at the services that UNRWA provides within a context of the protracted crisis.
After nine years of war, which has caused extensive casualties, large-scale and protracted displacement and the destruction of civilian infrastructure, Syria is now facing an economic meltdown, fuelled by conflict-related hyperinflation and the plummeting of the Syrian pound. Prices of basic commodities, including bread, have skyrocketed and people are forced to queue for bread as this subsidized commodity is rationed.
Ninety per cent of Palestine refugees in Syria live in poverty and 40 per cent remain in protracted displacement. Their hardship has been exponentially exacerbated through the imposition of sanctions and the rapid spread of COVID-19 in refugee communities. Their resilience is at breaking point.
“Nothing prepares one for the immense destruction that I saw in Yarmouk,” said Lazzarini. “The sight of children waiting for an UNRWA bus in the midst of rubble and maybe unexploded ordinances that could take away their lives at any moment is surreal.”
In his meetings with senior government officials, Lazzarini discussed the massive needs of Palestine refugees and the huge impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on their health and economic conditions.
In Sbeineh, the Commissioner-General visited UNRWA installations including a health centre and a school, where he met members of the school parliament. The refugees explained to the Commissioner-General the daily hardship of displacement and poverty, made worse by years of conflict that saw prices of basic goods soar to the point of making most of them unaffordable, as the value of the Syria pound collapsed.
The representatives of the school parliament briefed Lazzarini on the preventative measures taken in the school to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and the challenges of switching to online classes in the era of COVID-19. For most Palestine refugees in Syria, online education is a luxury that they cannot afford, with frequent power cuts, uneven internet coverage and absence of electronic devices in extremely vulnerable households.
“We are committed to ensure that you will be able to continue your education in a safe and healthy environment and make up for the knowledge and skills that may have been lost,” Lazzarini told the students.
Yarmouk camp, once home to 160,000 Palestine refugees, suffered devastating destruction because of intense fighting that decimated most of the camp’s buildings. An UNRWA mobile health clinic delivers services to Palestine refugees once a week.
Some 430 families who have returned to Yarmouk in the last few months say they had no option because they cannot afford to rent homes after several years of displacement. Their children go to the nearby al-Zahera schools in Damascus using buses provided by UNRWA. Seventy-five per cent of the Agency’s 23 premises, including 16 schools, need to be completely rebuilt and all three of the Agency’s health centres in Yarmouk are destroyed.
During his stay in Damascus, the Commissioner-General met UNRWA student Israa al-Rifai at an award ceremony to honour her achievements in scoring full marks in the 9th grade national exam. "I am very proud to present an award to Israa and express my appreciation for her hard work. Despite the harsh living conditions and severity of the displacement compounded with COVID-19, you have demonstrated exceptional determination to keep studying,” said Lazzarini, as he handed her a reward from the Agency. He also praised the teaching staff for working tirelessly to provide quality education and supporting Israa amid COVID-19.
UNRWA is confronted with an increased demand for services resulting from a growth in the number of registered Palestine refugees, the extent of their vulnerability and their deepening poverty. UNRWA is funded almost entirely by voluntary contributions and financial support has been outpaced by the growth in needs. As a result, the UNRWA programme budget, which supports the delivery of core essential services, operates with a large shortfall.