Despite claims to the contrary from the Syrian government, the United Nations said on Monday that it was still unable to deliver much needed humanitarian assistance to the thousands of internally displaced and refugees within the country.
At the center of the issue is the Yarmouk district of Damascus, which is currently playing host to 148,000 Palestinian refugees and thousand more Syrians who have been trapped within the area during the ongoing fighting. Since October, the U.N. has confirmed at least 15 deaths within the district and the unofficial camp in Yarmouk due to aid workers’ inadequate access to those suffering. Last week, ahead of the first face-to-face talks between the Syrian government and opposition groups, the government pledged to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) that it would be able to deliver food and other necessities to the people within the district. According to the UNRWA on Monday, that promise has not held.
“The agency is extremely disappointed that — at this point — the assurances given by authorities have not been backed by action on the ground to facilitate regular, rapid entry into Yarmouk,” UNRWA spokesperson Chris Gunness told Reuters. “On the occasions when checkpoint authorities have granted permission for food parcels and other relief items to enter … UNRWA has stressed that the pace of distribution is so slow that it is defeating the humanitarian purpose of access.”
The slow pace Gunness described is evident in an overview of the situation from Jan. 7–20 in Yarmouk that UNRWA posted on Monday. “All access points remained sealed,” the report reads. “On 19 January an UNRWA aid convoy had to turn back because a person was shot in the vicinity. On 20 January UNRWA delivered 150 food parcels to the area and 50 were distributed. UNRWA distributed another 50 again on 21 January.” A small number of residents in the area, mostly including women and children, were able to leave the area, UNRWA added.
President Bashar al-Assad’s government — and to a lesser extent the rebels fighting against Damascus — has been accused of withholding food and other aid as a punishment for areas of the country that oppose it. While some humanitarian workers had previously delivered aid to rebel-held territory, flouting Damascus, the regime earlier this month was reportedly beginning to crack down “calling the delivery of aid to rebel areas from Turkey a breach of sovereignty” and threatening to expel groups that defy them. “The sick and wounded have not been able to leave, we’ve not been able to get food in,” Valerie Amos, head of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, told the BBC at the time. “There are reports of people on the brink of starvation,” she continued, including in the Yarmouk camp.
Since the civil war in Syria began three years ago, there have been at least 100,000 killed — a number that the U.N. will no longer update due to the difficulty in reporting out of the country. More than nine million Syrians now require humanitarian assistance currently, with sixmillion of them making up the internally displaced mingling in with the 540,000 Palestinian refugees in Syria that are the UNRWA’s primary charge.