Yarmouk camp: Timid return; Syrian regime does not fulfill promises
Enab Baladi – Lujain Mourad
In houses with windows made of blankets and nylon doors, many families who have returned to the Yarmouk camp for Palestinian refugees live in the southern suburbs of the Syrian capital, fleeing high rents amid an almost complete absence of basic services.
“We hear people talking on Facebook, but we don’t see anything,” Khaled told Enab Baladi, the former IDP who returned to the camp after renovating a house at his personal expense.
Khaled, 47, a pseudonym for security reasons, describes the reality of the camp with the return of hundreds of families and after about a year of promises of rehabilitation, where scenes of rubble still fill the camp since the displacement of the people in 2018, after the regime forces took control of the camp.
Officials in the Syrian regime have repeated promises to repair the infrastructure and restore services since allowing the people to return to the camp in 2021 “without restrictions or conditions,” but without any tangible action.
The Palestinian-Syrian lawyer and researcher Ayman Abu Hashem told Enab Baladi that services are still almost non-existent, the infrastructure is broken, and government institutions still need to implement their promises on the ground.
He added that the people who returned to the camp suffer from a lack of electricity, which hardly suffices in the hours it is available to operate the battery chargers.
Residents in most of the camp’s neighborhoods resorted to connecting water pipes from wells close to their areas at their own expense, while the implemented projects were limited to repairing sewage network extensions.
The regime government has not implemented any projects to provide drinking water, according to Khaled.
On the other hand, the head of the media department in the Action Group for the Palestinians of Syria (AGPS), Fayez Abu Eid, said that the camp witnessed the rehabilitation of the water and sewage network on Yarmouk and Palestine Streets, the restoration of a school, and the opening of some medical clinics.
In early October, activists in Yarmouk camp circulated on social media news about the allocation of electrical transformers to the camp, according to what was published by the AGPS.
This came two days after the governor of Damascus, Eng. Muhammad Tariq Krishati spoke on 1 October about directing the Director of Electricity to find “emergency” solutions for the people.
Krishati also talked about starting to implement several projects in the camp, the foremost of which is the maintenance of the sewage network in the main roads and the preparation of water lines.
The numbers of displaced people returning to the Yarmouk camp show that the movement of return is still limited, in contrast to what the Syrian regime is constantly promoting about the return of large numbers of displaced people to the camp.
According to the AGPS, the number of returnees to the camp reached about 2,000 people.
Before 2011, the camp’s population of Palestinian refugees reached about 144,000 people, according to the Encyclopedia of Palestinian Camps.
In turn, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) counted about 16,000 Palestinian refugees in the camp.
Fayez Abu Eid said that most of the families who have recently returned are considered financially able and can afford rent outside the camp, but they returned to encourage the rest of the families.
In light of the lack of government measures that encourage the return of the people, some of the returnees went to the camp to encourage their relatives and neighbors by helping them repair their homes and providing them with water, according to what Khaled, one of the camp residents, said.
Khaled added that he worked to persuade his relatives and neighbors to return, considering this useful to restore safety to the camp and encourage government agencies to provide services.
Researcher Ayman Abu Hashem considers the inability to pay the rent of houses outside the camp the most prominent reason for the people’s return in the absence of services.
Do services encourage the return of refugees?
“If electricity, water, and sanitation are available in the camp, most of the people will return to it,” said Mahmoud Shihabi, one of the camp residents who sought refuge in Lebanon, to explain the impact of implementing government institutions’ promises to restore services on the return of the residents.
Shihabi added to Enab Baladi that he is the same as most of the camp residents who have taken refuge in Lebanon and “want to return to their homes due to their inability to pay the rent.”
Lawyer Ayman Abu Hashem said that the return of services would encourage the return of refugees and displaced persons, especially in light of the deteriorating financial conditions in which most of them live.
While Fayez Abu Eid, head of the media department in the AGPS, considered that the return of the refugees is linked to many things other than the return of services, on top of which are security concerns and avoidance of compulsory military service.
The phenomenon of looting continues in the camp while the Syrian regime talks about the return of the displaced, and the people are trying to restore their homes at the minimum and at their personal expense.
The looting campaigns affect the materials that the people use to restore their homes, in addition to the homes whose owners have begun to renovate and have not yet inhabited, according to Ayman Abu Hashem.
Abu Hashem considered that the groups responsible for looting are covered by the regime, noting that these campaigns have continued since the regime took control of the camp.
The Palestinian refugees in Syria have been distributed among nine official camps since 1948. Before 2011, their number reached more than 500,000 Palestinian refugees, mainly concentrated in the Yarmouk camp, in addition to other camps and areas.
The camp had previously witnessed battles between the opposition factions, the former Free Syrian Army, and the regime forces amid the division of the Palestinian factions between the two sides before the Islamic State group took control of two-thirds of the camp in 2015.
In May 2018, the regime forces once again took full control of the al-Hajar al-Aswad neighborhood and the Yarmouk refugee camp after a month-long military operation.
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