A man walks down a Yarmouk street in May. Photo courtesy of Lens Young Dimashqi.
AMMAN: Former residents of the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp are skeptical of an imminent return to the bombed-out district of South Damascus after an official from Syria’s Foreign Ministry reportedly announced earlier this week the government would allow them to move back into their homes.
Although no timeline or specific commitments were given, Syria’s deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Meqdad reportedly vowed to facilitate the return of all residents of what was once Syria’s largest Palestinian community.
"The Syrian government does not have any objection to returns of Palestinians, and there is a plan in place to organize the return of all of them,” Meqdad was quoted as saying in pro-government outlet Mayadeen on Tuesday.
A representative from the Palestinian Embassy in Damascus and a former Ramallah-based PLO envoy to Damascus could not be reached for comment before publication.
UNRWA spokesperson Chris Gunness told Syria Direct on Wednesday that the UN Palestinian refugees agency “welcomes the decision by the Syrian government,” adding that it would be “well received by the community.”
However, former camp residents have expressed concerns about the lack of any concrete details regarding the return of civilians beyond the announcement of a “decision.”
“It’s not clear yet what this decision actually means, or what it’s going to do,” said Abu Firas, a Yarmouk-born community activist who works with displaced Palestinian-Syrian families in Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley.
“But if [the Syrian government] can clarify what this means, then of course families would start to go back.”
Other former residents are unconvinced.
“This announcement has left a positive impression on people from Yarmouk that the time for return is drawing closer,” said Abu Shadi, a former Yarmouk resident in his 60s who now lives in one of Lebanon’s sprawling urban Palestinian camps. “But still, nothing has actually happened.”
“This isn’t enough without systems in place to enact [the decision], and allow people to return to the camp and live a life that is, at the very least, acceptable,” he added.
Luay, another former resident of Yarmouk, told Syria Direct: “I am one of the people who has nothing to go back to. My home is destroyed.”
“The only thing I would go back [to Yarmouk] for would be to reunite with my family,” he added.
Devastated by some of the worst of Syria’s war, much of Yarmouk is now in ruins.
Major displacements followed the first major direct hit on Yarmouk—rocket attacks by Syrian Air Force MiG jets on December 16, 2012—before the camp was completely besieged by pro-government forces in mid-2013 and then seized by the Islamic State (IS) in April 2015.
Large-scale destruction to housing and infrastructure within Yarmouk, as well as an UNRWA funding crisis following cuts to the agency’s funding announced by US President Donald Trump, would make return of civilians and rebuilding the tatters of the camp much harder, UNRWA’s Gunness acknowledged.
“The camp is largely destroyed and there is a need for the municipality to restore basic infrastructure, including water, electricity and sewage in order to allow people to re-establish their lives and livelihoods,” he told Syria Direct via email Wednesday night.
An explosion in Yarmouk camp on April 21, during this year's offensive against IS. Photo courtesy of Lens Young Dimashqi.
Murmurs of return
There were just around 6,000 Palestinians left in Yarmouk when, earlier this year, the Syrian government backed by a joint force of Syrian and Palestinian militias launched a “zero-hour” offensive on IS and Jabhat a-Nusra positions within Yarmouk and surrounding IS-held neighborhoods including al-Hajar al-Aswad and al-Qadam.
Dozens of civilians were killed; housing and basic infrastructure devastated.
With IS gone and the Syrian government back in control of the entirety of the capital, civilians from the camp are today allowed to return—for one day only—pending permissions from local authorities including Palestine Branch, part of Syria’s notorious domestic security apparatus.
Teams of bulldozers and volunteers have meanwhile moved in in recent weeks in an attempt to clear the sea of rubble in and around the camp.
While movement in and out of Yarmouk is still heavily restricted, some Palestinian families who fled the country altogether since 2011 have started returning.
“Families have started to go back [from Lebanon] by themselves,” said community activist Abu Firas, “but the numbers are negligible.”
Attempts are being made to prepare for larger numbers of returns by Palestinian refugees in neighboring countries—namely Lebanon.
Earlier this year, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), and its local Popular Committees that are found in each Palestinian camp around Lebanon, floated the idea of offering cash incentives to each Palestinian-Syrian family that voluntarily returned to Syria from Lebanon.
Speaking to Syria Direct in August, a PLO source with knowledge of the matter confirmed that the organization had begun registering families in Lebanon willing to return, offering cash incentives to those who crossed the border back into Syria.
According to the initiative, cash would be paid out after families returned.
The cash incentives—reportedly to the tune of $1,000—would mark the first formalized effort for returning Palestinian refugees to Syria since the conflict began, although UN agencies have expressed concerns about a lack of safeguards for returning refugees.
Even so, the system appears to be going ahead.
“Names have been collected, and names are under review by the [Syrian government],” a UN source told Syria Direct on Thursday. “But nothing has taken place in terms of return for the people who put [down] their names.”
“The initiative is still ongoing, nobody has cancelled it,” the source said, adding that returns so far had been individual and not under any organized scheme.
Rebuilding two capitals
Once Syria’s largest and most significant Palestinian community, Yarmouk was home to some 160,000 Palestinian refugees and many more Syrians on the eve of the 2011 uprising and ensuing conflict. Some 30 percent of Syria’s entire Palestinian-Syrian population lived in Yarmouk.
To some, it was known as the “capital of the Palestinian diaspora.”
According to reports, some 80 percent of property in Yarmouk is owned by individual Palestinians and Syrians with the remainder under the ownership of Palestinian institutions as well as the Syrian government’s General Authority for Palestinian Arab Refugees (GAPAR) that manages refugees’ affairs—including civil status documentation such as the watheeqa safara a-falasteeniyeh (the Palestinian travel document) and national ID card—within Syria.
Some fear that the encroaching implementation of Law 10, a 2018 legislation that will guide Syria’s reconstruction, could dispossess those families or—at worst—raze Yarmouk and outlying suburbs throughout South Damascus altogether.
Law 10 allows the Syrian government to designate zones for redevelopment. Property owners, inside or outside Syria, must then verify ownership within those zones before a given deadline.
Human Rights Watch’s deputy Middle East director Lamih Fakh previously called Law 10 a “worrisome addition to the Syrian government’s arsenal of ‘urban planning laws’ that it has used to confiscate property without due process or compensation.”
According to Damascus-based lawyer Muhammad Jameel, who requested that his real name be withheld for security reasons, Yarmouk “has been excluded from the expansion [of Law 10 developments] as a ‘political case’.”
Even so, restrictions on Palestinian property ownership and loss of property documents will make it much harder for people to retain their homes in the future, he said.
Wassim a-Salti, a researcher who has documented Palestinian property rights in Syria, meanwhile said that there are “conflicting reports” about whether or not Yarmouk will be included in future Law 10 planning zones.
“If [Yarmouk] does enter planning under Law 10, thousands of refugees will lose their right to their homes inside the camp because of the lack of identity documents required by law,” he said.
In the meantime, the level of destruction in Yarmouk will likely keep returns to a minimum for the foreseeable future.
Abu Shadi, now in Lebanon, wants to see the return of even the most basic services—let alone housing—before he would consider going back.
“There aren’t any services [in Yarmouk]. People’s houses have been destroyed,” he said.
“Where will people go back to?”
Justin Clark contributed to reporting.