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Regular press briefing by the Information Service, 10 April 2015 -Yarmouk Refugee Camp in Syria

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Christopher Gunness, for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), speaking via the telephone from Jerusalem, said it was very important for people to understand the severity, enormity, and far-reaching consequences of what was happening in Yarmouk. Mr. Gunness said that when the Secretary-General of the United Nations used a word like ‘massacre’ as he did last night, when he talked about 18,000 people being held hostage, and about a refugee camp looking like a death camp, and when he talked about Yarmouk “descending to the lower regions of hell” everybody had to sit up and take notice. With 18,000 people trapped in Yarmouk, including 3,500 children, we were looking at nothing short of a potential slaughter of the innocent As the Secretary-General made clear, the international system itself was being weighed in the scales and must not be found wanting.

UNRWA had called for a ceasefire to enable humanitarian access to bring aid to people in Yarmouk. Furthermore, civilians in Yarmouk must be allowed to leave the camp if they wished to, in accordance with international standards.

Yarmouk was already a community in which women died in childbirth due to lack of medicine, in which children reportedly died of malnutrition, and this week things had got significantly worse. Civilians were terrified, holed up in their battered homes and although they were starving they were too frightened to go out and scavenge for food for their children, women, elderly, the sick and the dying.

UNRWA also had received unconfirmed reports of the aerial bombardment of the camp. The world could not stand by and do nothing. The Secretary-General had been working the phones and he had made it clear that everyone in the Syria conflict was backed by somebody - everyone had a master, an overlord, a backer of sorts - on whom leverage could be exerted. Therefore UNRWA was calling for diplomatic and political, economic and financial, and perhaps even religious and spiritual pressure and influence brought to bear. Without that, we faced a potential massacre, said Mr. Gunness.

A journalist asked Mr. Gunness about reports that ISIS could not be present in Yarmouk without the complacency of the Syrian Government on some level. Mr. Gunness responded that UNRWA had not had access to Yarmouk since 28 March 2015 and today, as an unarmed humanitarian organization, it had no presence in it. It was clear, from media reports, however, that the armed groups entered Yarmouk from the southern approaches.

Responding to a journalist asking how much of Yarmouk was controlled by ISIS, Mr. Gunness said the UNRWA estimation was that the armed groups that went in a week ago controlled more than half of the camp and that 95 per cent of the Yarmouk’s population was in the areas controlled by those groups. The Secretary-General himself used the term “held hostage”.

Asked how many Yarmouk residents had escaped the camp, Mr. Gunness said UNRWA could not confirm the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) figure of 2,000 but it could confirm that 94 Yarmouk residents, including 43 women and 20 children, had escaped four nights ago after a heavy night of intense fighting to an area outside of Yarmouk. For security reasons UNRWA could not say where that was. The 94 people had reached a safe place and UNRWA had administered aid to them in the form of food, medicine, water, blankets and mattresses.

People could not leave Yarmouk both because those who controlled the camp were stopping them but also because of security around the perimeter imposed by Syrian Government security forces, said Mr. Gunness in response to a question. In July 2013 the Syrian Government imposed an almost total siege on Yarmouk which was one of the main obstacles to freedom of movement. Since the armed groups moved in a week ago it had been impossible for people to move, largely because of intense street fighting all around them.

Asked to elaborate on the situation in terms of food, water and medical supplies Mr. Gunness said since 28 March UNRWA had not had access to the camp, so there was no UN food, water, medicine or any sort of humanitarian supplies. The water mains in Yarmouk was destroyed in September 2014 so there had been no publicly-available water since then. To give an idea of how bad the situation was Mr. Gunness said in 2014 UNRWA was able to distribute food on just 131 days. On average 89 food parcels were distributed. The bare minimum was 400 food parcels in order to meet the basic World Health Organization standards of 2,000 calories per day. It was estimated that in 2014 Yarmouk residents lived on an average of 400 calories per day. That was a recipe for certain malnutrition. Now the situation was even worse following the arrival of the armed groups and the intensification of the fighting.

On medical supplies Mr. Gunness said there were unconfirmed reports that one of the two hospitals in the camp had been hit. There were unconfirmed reports of diseased diarrhoea outbreaks, a classic water-borne disease. UNRWA had established temporary medical points in the camps with doctors and nurses but they were not enough, and only a few people were seen. People with a terminal disease, a disability, who were paraplegic, could not attend them. The bare minimum of health care that UNRWA provided only scratched the surface.

In terms of food, medicine and water Yarmouk was seeing scenes of disgraceful depravity. It was an affront to the civilized world that in the capital city of a United Nations Member State, in the twenty-first century, a UN-protected population were in a situation which the world’s top diplomat, the Secretary-General, described as “akin to one of the lower circles of hell”, said Mr. Gunness.

Responding to a question about who may be carrying out aerial bombardments in Yarmouk, and whether ISIS now had planes or was it the Syrian Government. Mr. Gunness replied that UNRWA was not a military analysis organization, and could not categorically confirm who was responsible for aerial bombardment.

Was the Yarmouk crisis a disaster that could not be helped, asked a journalist? What could be done beyond international pressure? Mr. Gunness replied that UNRWA, as a UN humanitarian agency, backed any peaceful process. He noted that there was increasing speculation about the possibility of an attempt for a military solution but said there were no examples in the Syrian context where military escalation had actually saved Syrian lives. The people of Yarmouk had suffered enough: UNRWA hoped that there would be no military escalation and called for a ceasefire and evacuation of the camp, said Mr. Gunness.

Asked about UNRWA’s cooperation with the Syrian Government and whether it had any contact with the armed groups, Mr. Gunness said UNRWA had maintained good working relations with the Syrian Government since it was established in 1950. UNRWA had been able to go into Yarmouk on 131 days in 2014 thanks to the Syrian Government. Mr. Gunness noted that before the conflict began the Syrian Government was the most generous of all the host governments of Palestinian refugees in the region, and Yarmouk had been the heartland of the Palestinian community in Syria, a place where 160,000 Palestinians lived in a thriving suburb of Damascus. Yarmouk had been an extraordinary melting point where Palestinians felt safe and appreciated. What was happening today was heart-breaking.

UNRWA did not have direct contact with ISIS, said Mr. Gunness. He referred the journalist to the Office of the Joint Special Representative in Damascus to ask about approaches, both direct and indirect, on how the United Nations could work with ISIS and other armed groups in the camp. The cooperation of all parties, both the Syrian Government and the armed groups in the camp, was needed to establish a safe environment in which unarmed humanitarian workers could carry out their mandate. UNRWA had lost 14 staff members since the conflict began, said Mr. Gunness, and a humanitarian pause, a ceasefire was a matter of life and death.

Responding to a question raised on what the Special Envoy on Syria was doing to address the crisis, Ms. Momal-Vanian said she would enquire. [The Office of the Special Envoy on Syria later said the Special Envoy was following the issue of Yarmouk very closely. He had been in constant touch with various stakeholders through his office in Damascus and had asked his Deputy Ramzy Ezzeldin Ramzy to go to Damascus. Mr Ramzy was on his way.]