Despite promises… Major difficulties deny Yarmouk Camp’s residents’ return and proof of ownership

The Yarmouk Camp of Damascus governorate-2015 (Hadf News website)

The Yarmouk Camp of Damascus governorate-2015 (Hadf News website)


Enab Baladi – Ninar Khalifa

The dream of returning home is a constant source of hope for the residents of the Yarmouk Camp. They look forward to being reunited again to bring back life to its destroyed alleys that once witnessed recounting the tales of the history of Palestine and the Palestinian cause.

The Palestinian cause has been deeply rooted in the minds of generations that lived in the camp and carved their intellectual and cultural militancy in its alleys and lanes.

Successive generations painted murals on the camp’s walls reminiscent of their right to return to the Palestinian lands from which their forefathers were forcibly displaced in 1948.

The camp’s residents experienced the bitterness of alienation twice after leaving Palestine and then Syria.

Umm Hassan, a Palestinian refugee, heads to the Yarmouk Camp whenever she hears news about a near return.

She goes there with papers proving the ownership of her house, which has been greatly destroyed and looted of its furniture and electrical devices due to the conflict in Syria.

In an interview with Enab Baladi, Umm Hassan said, “I will not stop demanding a return to my home where my family’s memories are.” She continued saying, “I see no reason preventing us from returning two years after the clashes have stopped.”

Every time Umm Hassan goes to the Yarmouk Camp, she returns with promises of a near return.

“When I ask the soldiers, who stand at the camp’s gate if they know any information about the return of the residents to the camp, they tell me (soon, God willing); however, in reality, nothing changes,” said Umm Hassan.

The Palestinian woman adds, “the entire building is left with no walls or foundations. Many electrical devices and furniture have been looted; nevertheless, I was glad to find my family’s photo album that contains priceless memories.”

She continues saying, “many residents from the camp expressed their willingness to remove the rubble by themselves and rehabilitate their dwellings.”

“They can no longer afford the high rental prices and cost of living in the midst of the relevant bodies’ disregard and lack of care for their fate.” Umm Hassan added.

No access for the residents to the Yarmouk Camp

The residents of the Yarmouk Camp have not yet been allowed to return to it under the Syrian regime’s government’s pretext that the rubble has not been removed out of the camp.

Nonetheless, they were allowed to check on their property inside their houses after obtaining a security clearance.

Meanwhile, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) predicted in its report the “Emergency Appeal 2020” that most of the Yarmouk Camp’s population (between 500,000 and 600,000 persons, of which 160,000 are Palestinian refugees) would remain in displacement.

The report also pointed out the limited access to the camp and the enormous magnitude of destruction there.

According to the UNRWA’s statistics, 91 percent of the Palestinian refugee families in Syria live in absolute poverty, of whom 80 percent rely on UNRWA’s cash assistance as their primary source of income.

The Yarmouk Camp: Seventh most destroyed area in Syria

The Yarmouk Camp witnessed several battles between the factions of the former “Free Syrian Army (FSA)” and the Syrian regime forces, amid the division of Palestinian factions between the two sides, before the so-called “Islamic State (IS)” controlled two-thirds of the camp in 2015.

Nevertheless, the regime’s forces regained full control of al-Hajar al-Aswad and the Yarmouk Camp areas in May 2018.

The regime’s control came after a month-long military operation, which led to the expelling of the IS from the camp, following an informal evacuation agreement, that forced the transfer of IS militants to the Badia east of As-Suwayda.

The military clashes destroyed more than 60 percent of the buildings and infrastructure in the Yarmouk Camp.

According to the “Syrian Cities Damage Atlas,” report issued by the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) in cooperation with the REACH initiative, the Yarmouk Camp was classified as the seventh most destroyed area in Syria.

In the latest official statement regarding the return of the residents to the camp, the member of Damascus governorate’s Executive Office and Head of the camp’s Service Committee, Samir Jazairli, said in early June that the governorate is working on securing the camp from explosives. It is ensuring that residents’ houses are safe while working on providing essential services for the area, before the return of all of its citizens, according to Jazairli.

He pointed out that the date of the beginning of citizens’ return to the camp will be officially announced through the Damascus Governorate’s website.

Jazairli also denied the news about registering the names of citizens wishing to return to the camp in the “al-Waseem Mosque.”

Regulatory plan

Last March, Jazairli announced three regulatory plans for the Yarmouk Camp that were presented by the “General Company for Engineering Studies.”

The first plan aimed at the rehabilitation of the areas that sustained the most damage and the reconstruction of some other streets.

The second plan included the reorganization of the worst-affected areas according to standard specifications, including the towers built in the 30th Street in the Yarmouk Camp.

Meanwhile, the “Old Camp” area remained in its same regulatory position.

As for the third plan, it was designed for the reorganization of the entire 220 hectares (2,200,000 square meters (m2) of the camp.

Jazairli said that the second plan was adopted, and is to be initiated with minor modifications in the main “Yarmouk” Street, for people to be brought back home on condition of proving ownership.

This comes after the incorporation of the Yarmouk Camp into Damascus governorate, following a decision by the former Syrian Prime Minister, Imad Khamis.

Previously, the camp was administratively managed by a local committee, which in turn follows Syria’s Ministry of Local Administration, according to Jazairli’s statements to the al-Iqtisadi website in November 2019.

The Yarmouk Camp extends over the geography of the second zoning plan of Damascus city “Basilia City” project, integrated under Decree No. 66, which was approved by the head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad in 2012.

The Basilia City project, which has been suspended for years, extends from the southern ring road to the al-Qadam and the al-Asali districts, and the “30th” Street. It covers ​​900 hectares, which is equivalent to nine million square meters and includes nearly 4,000 properties.

The Syrian regime forces inside the Yarmouk Camp neighborhood - 22 May 2018 (Reuters)

The Syrian regime forces inside the Yarmouk Camp neighborhood – 22 May 2018 (Reuters)

Promises of return

“Near return” promises to the Yarmouk Camp were repeated by several officials of the Syrian regime and Palestinian factions leaders from 2018 until today.

They provided false promises of infrastructure rehabilitation works and restoration of essential services to the camp; however, looting operations for the residents ‘houses and infrastructure were active on the ground.

In an interview with Enab Baladi, a member of the “Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP)” who preferred not to reveal his name confirmed that there were no real steps on the ground for the return of the camp’s residents to their homes, despite numerous promises previously made by different entities.

He added, “all promises made since the cessation of clashes in May 2018 are mere procrastination.”

He said the camp is witnessing extensive and organized looting operations that included the reinforced steel of the residents’ houses to sell it to plants owned by influential people for recycling.

He pointed out that “the looting has affected all areas of clashes, mostly informal popular areas of poor and low-income earners, employees, and workers.”

He indicated that “looting” continues to this time, without serious attitudes on either side to stop it.

“All of this gives the impression to the camp’s residents that there is no return to those areas, and that the pre-built organizational plans will be implemented,” according to the PFLP member.

For his part, Palestinian academic and researcher Ahmad Qassem Hussein believes that there will be no return in the foreseeable future for the Yarmouk Camp’s residents.

He said to Enab Baladi, “I think the return matter to the Yarmouk Camp has reached a dead end,” especially that the camp’s massive level of destruction left no doubt that the area’s regulatory plan has been made in advance.”

He added, “this narrow geographical region of about 2.11 square kilometers (520 acres) will no longer be a gathering place for Palestinian refugees and the Syrians who used to live there.”

Qassem Hussein noted that the incorporation of the camp into Damascus governorate’s urban planning means that any reconstruction work for the region will be supervised by the”General Company for Engineering Studies.”

He considered this step to be an “obituary notice” to the local committee of Syria’s Ministry of Local Administration, which, in his view, could estimate the extent of damage and affected people.


Demographic displacement

On the other hand, Qassem Hussein warned of the demographic changes that will result from changing the urban reality in the Yarmouk Camp.

He pointed out that the camp with its displaced residents and Palestinian refugees are part of the Syrian tragedy and the Syrian diaspora.

Qassem Hussein added, “we are facing a big-scale wave of displacement of Palestinian refugees.

He said, “according to some reports, some 200,000 Palestinian refugees out of about 500,000 registered with UNRWA have left to the European Union (EU).”

“Some of these refugees have obtained permanent residence permit or citizenship in the countries in which they applied for asylum,” Hussain said.

He believes that the main beneficiary of this displacement is the Israel occupation, which considers the Palestinian asylum in Syria as a threat to the liquidation of the Palestinian cause.

Proving property ownership

Regarding the possibility of the Yarmouk Camp residents to prove ownership of property and claim compensation for them, Qassem Hussein indicated that the Syrian law gives the Palestinian citizen the right to own several apartments and agricultural lands; however, with contracts that are not registered in the cadastre (the notary).

He pointed out that in cases of property disputes, the owner of an unregistered contract is usually the “weaker party,” unlike the owner who has a title deed (tabo) registered in the cadastre.

Besides, a large number of refugees do not have identification documents due to the burning of the Yarmouk Camp’s municipality, the civil register of Palestinian refugees, and the destruction of “notary” papers for a large number of houses.

This makes it very difficult to prove ownership of these properties under the current circumstances, according to Qassem Hussein.

Besides, the death of many members within the same family, or their displacement in various countries, makes the possibility of “devolution of the estate” and displaying the property ownership documents, extremely complicated, if not impossible, according to Qassem Hussein.

The role of UNRWA and Palestinian organizations

Qassem Hussein pointed out that the UNRWA is going through its worst stages, especially after the administration of the US President, Donald Trump, decided to cut all of its funding to it, on 31 August 2018.

According to Qassem Hussein, even though the UNRWA provided essential services to Palestinian refugees in several aspects of life, most notably education, its role remains purely humanitarian and does not go beyond humanitarian aid provision.

The UNRWA cannot influence the domestic policymaking in Syria, as per Qassem Hussein’s expression.

As for the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO,), Qassem Hussein described it as being “marginalized,” and that it has lost its role in the Palestinian scene since the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993.

According to Qassem Hussein, the Palestinian division between the “Palestine National Liberation Movement (Fateh)” and the “Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas)” in 2007 prevented PLO from taking any political role that guarantees the rights of Palestinian refugees in diaspora.

“The PLO constituted a moral homeland to all Palestinians; however, today it is used as a cover for passing political settlement resolutions,” Qassem Hussein said.

The Executive Director of the “Action Group for the Palestinians of Syria (AGPS),” Ahmad Hussein, disagrees with the Palestinian researcher Qassem Hussein in terms of the role the UNRWA and other Palestinian organizations can play in pushing for the return of residents to the Yarmouk Camp.

In an interview with Enab Baladi, Hussein said that the UNRWA and the Palestinian factions must be real and effective parties in the negotiations with the Syrian authorities to pressure them to reconstruct the camp and allow the return of its residents.

He believes that the reconstruction file in Syria has been politicized and internationalized.

According to Hussein, the reconstruction of the Yarmouk Camp is linked to a political decision that is hard to implement at present.

It is also related to previous reconstruction plans that have been in place for more than 15 years concerning the informal settlement areas surrounding Damascus and some of its neighborhoods, including the Yarmouk Camp, Hussain added.

He said, “it is possible that the camp’s reconstruction file has regional ramifications, and that the Syrian regime’s government is disrupting the reconstruction plans in adherence to external foreign forces.”

The regime’s government will seek to avoid the possible security risks, especially after what happened in the camp during the war years, not to mention the lack of funding for reconstruction,” Hussein added.

On the other hand, Hussein pointed out that it is impossible to count on the regime’s statements or promises to the Palestinian factions in Damascus. The Syrian officials will tell them what they want to hear, and the factions will repeat these promises to the camps’ residents without a fixed schedule and action plan.

Hussein confirmed that “the regime’s government’s procrastination to carry out its promises to the Yarmouk Camp’s population to return after more than two years of regaining control on it, leaves the Palestinian refugees in a state of insecurity.

According to Hussein, the regime’s false return promises exacerbate the suffering of the internally displaced persons (IDPs), threatens all segments of Palestinian refugee communities, and are a serious indication of the continuing violation of human rights in providing shelter and decent living.”

The obliteration of the Yarmouk Camp’s particularity

Hussein warned against the consequences of implementing the proposed organizational plan in the camp, as well as its incorporation into Damascus governorate.

He noted that the AGPS followed this decision with great concern and confirmed that the incorporation has “ended the camp’s geopolitical specificity and historical symbolism.

Hussein added the camp might become like any other Damascus neighborhood that belongs to the governorate. It may lose its classification as a camp which symbolizes it as a reminder of the Palestinian catastrophe in 1948, and a symbol of the right of return.

“The Yarmouk Camp that once was the center of resistance and modern Palestinian revolution, and the capital of the Palestinian diaspora, may lose its symbolism and classification to become the Yarmouk region,” Hussein said.

He also indicated that since the decision, the removal works of the rubble supervised by the camp’s local committee had been completely suspended.

The hopes of the region’s residents to return to the Yarmouk camp began to fade gradually, especially with the massive wave of looting of private and public property by elements of the regime’s forces and its loyalist committees and militias.

Hussein explained that the AGPS monitored these elements extensively, which included digging the streets of the camp in order to extract plastic pipes, telephone and electrical cables, and others, to sell them as raw materials and hardware.

The AGPS also noted that no action had been taken by the relevant authorities to reduce the looting phenomenon, which had led to the complete collapse of the camp’s infrastructure, which has already been suffering from a major failure in its services.

Hussein called on official Syrian authorities to carry out their responsibility and protect the civilians’ public and private properties.

He also called on the Palestinian factions and the Palestinian Embassy in Damascus to activate their role toward preserving the Yarmouk Camp from destruction and disappearance, which is a historic responsibility that they will be held accountable for by the present and future generations.

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