On the tenth anniversary of the Syrian conflict, LPHR remain gravely concerned about the Palestinian refugee camp, Yarmouk, in Syria. LPHR has continuously monitored the acute human rights and humanitarian concerns which are rife in Yarmouk, with the latest of two legal Q&As being published in March 2019 (it can be read here).
This blog to mark the tenth anniversary provides a summary of the situation of Yarmouk refugee camp over the last ten years. In so doing, it also emphasises the necessity for legal accountability for apparent serious violations of international law that has caused catastrophic civilian harm.
Yarmouk refugee camp 2011-2019: Subjected to siege and bombardment
Prior to the Syrian war which started on 15 March 2011, Yarmouk refugee camp was home to 180,000 Palestinian refugees and several hundred Syrian nationals. Whilst living conditions were superior to other refugee camps, owing to the camp resembling a district of Damascus which is 8km north of the camp, the situation drastically changed at the start of the Syrian conflict.
As a result of the close proximity of Yarmouk to the Syrian capital, Damascus, the refugee camp became a battleground for rebel groups and Syrian government forces, with the opposition Free Syrian Army establishing a presence in Yarmouk in October 2012. Clashes with Syrian government forces and members of Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine ensued.
In July 2013, Syrian government forces placed Yarmouk under siege, leading to a complete blockage of humanitarian aid for its 180,000 residents. Food, medical supplies and all persons were prohibited from entering or leaving Yarmouk. Residents of the refugee camp were reported by Amnesty International to have died of starvation or due to a lack of medical care, including women and newborn babies. A complete blockade remained in place, except for a few occasional periods of aid access, until May 2018.
The besieged Yarmouk was then attacked and seized by Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in April 2015. On 1 April 2015, a reported 18,000 Yarmouk residents were trapped under siege in Yarmouk. The camp seizure resulted in at least 18 civilians deaths, including a 12-year-old girl.
Yarmouk residents told human rights groups that the Syrian government responded by dropping some 25 barrel bombs on civilian populated areas with homes, schools and health care facilities being struck, causing a number of causalities and injuries. The attacks raised serious concerns that they breached international humanitarian principles of distinction and proportionality, constituting possible war crimes.
ISIL control of Yarmouk resulted in a capture of 60% of the camp and control of over 90% of the remaining civilian population. UNWRA reported that Yarmouk residents, where able, fled to neighbouring areas of southern Damascus.
Reports of violence in Yarmouk under ISIL control were extremely grave with accounts of execution, beheading and rape of Palestinian residents.
Furthermore, access to humanitarian aid was blocked for very long periods, and residents suffered as a direct consequence. UNWRA was only able to provide weekly aid between 13 February 2016 and 7 April 2016, which was stopped entirely in May 2016 for a period of two years.
By March 2018, it was believed that only 6,000 people remained in Yarmouk, reflecting the serious hazardous living conditions.
UNWRA reported a ‘severe escalation of fighting’ in April 2018 as Syrian government forces attempted to overpower ISIL. Thousands of homes were damaged in the process. Yarmouk was reported to have little infrastructure in place following the violence and the last hospital was no longer fit for purpose due to intense bombing and shelling. Water and electricity supplies, sewage systems and most buildings, including schools, were also obliterated in the process.
On 21 May 2018, the Syrian government announced full control of Southern Damascus, including Yarmouk. UNWRA were able to provide humanitarian assistance for the first time in two years at this point.
In March 2019, UNWRA informed LPHR that the population of Yarmouk was approximately just 40-50 elderly residents who had been unable to leave the siege and conflict of the camp.
Local media reports show images of a completely uninhabitable Yarmouk when depicting the extent of damage sustained by civilians during the Syrian conflict.
Developments in Yarmouk since March 2019
LPHR provides the following update on material developments since the publication of our legal Q&A in March 2019.
In July 2020, the Middle East Monitor reported that Yarmouk residents were prohibited from returning to their homes in the camp on account of the need to remove rubble; the need to secure the site given concerns over the presence of ISIL land mines; and lack of available basic services. Residents who are unable to afford rental costs of properties in areas they have been displaced to, are keen to return to their homes, and have urged the Syrian government to accelerate renovation and restoration of the camp.
Reports in October 2020 began to emerge which indicated that Palestinian refugees in Syria would soon be able to return to Yarmouk. On 5 October 2020, Damascus announced that both Palestinian refugees and Syrian nationals would be permitted to return to the camp. However, in order to return to Yarmouk, the Damascus Provincial Directorate announced three requirements: Palestinian refugees need to evidence ownership of their properties; undergo an inspection that their home is structurally safe; and they must obtain government approval to return. The requirement to provide proof of ownership has meant Palestinians who fled during the war without the now needed paperwork, are being refused permits to return to their homes.
On 8 October 2020, three complaints were submitted to United Nations Special Rapporteurs to raise the issue of displaced Palestinian refugees being refused permits to return to their homes in Yarmouk as they had fled their homes without their documents. Others report that their documents were destroyed or were lost in the war and their return to Yarmouk is impeded as a result. Reports of Yarmouk’s municipality being burnt down further exacerbate the issue as documents and records held by the administrative municipality have been destroyed.
On 26 October 2020, the Commissioner-General of UNWRA, Philippe Lazzarini, made his first official visit to Syria. Whilst on his four-day visit to Syria, Mr Lazzarini visited Yarmouk where he noted the ‘immense destruction’ of the camp. UNWRA has expressed concern over the poor living conditions for Palestinian refugees in Syria: 90% of whom live in poverty and 40% remain in protracted displacement.
The Damascus Provincial Directorate announced on 10 November 2020 that it had begun to receive applications to return to Yarmouk as the official returns process commences, although 400 families are reported to have returned to Yarmouk before the formal process began.
In December 2020, Yarmouk residents were informed by the Damascus Provincial Directorate that following restoration efforts they would be permitted to return to the camp. The camp was deemed to be 40% habitable, with a further 40% in need of restoration and 20% requiring complete demolition. Eban Baladi, a non-profit organisation reporting on the ground, state that many Yarmouk residents are still prohibited from returning due to destroyed or lost ownership documents and continue to live in precarious displaced conditions.
On 6 January 2021, Samir Jazaerli, a member of the Damascus Provincial Directorate, is said to have stated on social media that 1,200 Yarmouk residents had filed return applications. Of these, only 500 were granted permission to return owing to requirements relating to proof of building ownership and security of civilian architecture.
Distinction and Proportionality
LPHR has consistently expressed concern over apparent serious violations of international law in the situation of Yarmouk. This section provides an overview of apparent international law breaches as fully assessed in LPHR’s March 2019 legal Q&A.
As outlined above, human rights groups reported that assaults by the Syrian government on Yarmouk have included indiscriminate and disproportionate aerial shelling and bombing, including the use of barrel bombs. Syrian government use of force clearly appears not to have distinguished between civilian or military objectives as required by international law. The principle of distinction, under customary international humanitarian law, requires that all parties to any conflict must distinguish between civilians and combatants, and accordingly any attack must only be directed against combatants. This fundamental principle of international humanitarian law also requires that parties distinguish between civilian objects and military objects.
Alongside the principle of distinction, customary international humanitarian law also prohibits disproportionate attacks that “cause incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, damage to civilian objects, or a combination thereof, which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated”. The attacks on Yarmouk raise serious concerns that they were committed in serious violation of the international humanitarian principle of proportionality, in addition to being in apparent serious violation of the principle of distinction.
It is important to highlight that indiscriminate attacks that cause the deaths of civilians, or attacks that cause excessive incidental civilian death or injury because they are disproportionate, can constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Collective punishment and starvation
As cited in our legal Q&A in 2019, as of 25 February 2014, 128 civilians in Yarmouk were reported by Amnesty International to have lost their lives due to starvation, and a further 51 civilian fatalities caused by lack of medical care. The almost complete blockade of humanitarian aid between July 2013 and May 2018, as a result of siege imposed by the Syrian government, clearly appears to violate customary international law. The denial of humanitarian relief access to Yarmouk also appears to amount to collective punishment of a civilian population, which constitutes a war crime under international law.
Furthermore, under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (Rome Statute), “intentionally using starvation of civilians as a method of warfare” is a war crime in international armed conflicts. The intentional deprivation of access to food to a civilian population can amount to crimes against humanity under the Rome Statute. These crimes under the Rome Statute appear to be engaged by the facts of the siege imposed upon the residents of Yarmouk refugee camp.
The need for legal accountability: the right to return and justice
The deaths and suffering caused by bombing, starvation and lack of access to medical care in Yarmouk refugee camp since March 2011 are shocking and, as outlined above, amount to apparent serious violations of international law.
Ten years on since the start of the Syrian war, Yarmouk residents remain in precarious living conditions and are now struggling to return to their homes to rebuild their lives in the aftermath. There is an overwhelmingly clear and compelling need for legal accountability, restitution and justice for the Palestinian victims and survivors of Yarmouk refugee camp.
Aleisha Ebrahimi, Tareq Shrourou