Palestinians begin returning to Yarmouk refugee camp in Syria

Palestinians are returning to their refugee camp after fighting sent them fleeing, but the number fleeing Syria or facing internal displacement continues to rise.

Jamal Saidi/Reuters
Vehicles carrying Palestinians and Syrians queue at the Lebanese-Syrian border, in al-Masnaa on Tuesday, after fighting between rebels and government loyalists drove refugees out of the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp near Damascus. Refugees began returning to the camp on Thursday.

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Refugees have started returning to the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in Syria after fighting between rebels and government-allied forces sent them fleeing, but the status of the Palestinian refugees, along with hundreds of thousands of others displaced by the Syrian conflict, remains a top concern for observers outside the country.

The Associated Press reports that, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, "hundreds of people have returned" to Yarmouk after fighting between rebels and forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad drove out as many as two-thirds of the camp's 150,000 residents by United Nations estimates.

The battle at Yarmouk, located in southern Damascus, began Dec. 14, as pro-Assad Palestinian fighters attacked anti-Assad Palestinian rebels based in the camp. Al Jazeera English reported yesterday that although Syrian troops did not participate in the fighting within the camp, they provided support to the pro-Assad fighters, cutting off the camp from the outside and launching air strikes into the camp, which reportedly killed at least eight people on Dec. 16.

Al Jazeera noted that pro-Assad newspaper Al-Watan reported earlier this week that the government was preparing for a major assault on Yarmouk.

AP adds that while fighting has eased, some rebels still remain in the camp. Damascus-based Palestinian official Khaled Abdul-Majid told the AP that Cairo-based Palestinian leaders are negotiating the rebels' exit. Palestinian refugees in Syria have been divided over which side to ally themselves with in the ongoing civil war. 

Hundreds of thousands of refugees have been affected by the conflict. Some 1 million people are expected to have fled Syria by mid-2013, and another 2 million have already been displaced within the country, reports BBC. The UN has issued an appeal for $1.5 billion for relief efforts in Syria.

The UN has registered more than half a million refugees so far, with between 2,000 and 3,000 arriving every day in countries neighboring Syria.

"Unless these funds come quickly, we will not be able to fully respond to the life-saving needs of civilians who flee Syria every hour of the day – many in a truly desperate condition," Panos Moumtzis of the UNHCR said.

"We are constantly shocked by the horrific stories refugees tell us," he added. "Their lives are in turmoil. They have lost their homes and family members. By the time they reach the borders, they are exhausted, traumatised and with little or no resources to rely on.

UN officials said they would need to provide food, shelter, medicines and even schools for them over the next year.

Syria is home to nearly half a million Palestinian refugees living in 12 camps around the country, including Yarmouk, according to the AP. Al Arabiya reports that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas yesterday called on the UN to help the Palestinian refugees displaced by the fighting in Syria to return to Gaza and the West Bank.

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