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Syria: UN agency appeals for long-term access to starving, desperate civilians in besieged camp

Desperate crowd awaits relief aid at Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus.
Desperate crowd awaits relief aid at Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus.

Syria: UN agency appeals for long-term access to starving, desperate civilians in besieged camp

While confirming today's delivery of more than 700 food parcels to the desperate, malnourished civilians stranded in a hard-hit area outside the Syrian capital of Damascus, the United Nations agency tasked with protecting Palestinian refugees throughout the Middle East, reiterated its call for long-term access to meet the enormous needs, as Syria's three-year civil war grinds on.

“Today, UNRWA distributed 715 food parcels in Yarmouk, the Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus, bringing to 3,709 the number of parcels distributed since we gained access to the camp on 18 January, said Chris Gunness, Spokesman for the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees.

“There have been large crowds and long lines of people waiting for food which attest to the enormous humanitarian need and the desperation of a sizeable number of civilians,” he explained, stressing that there is need for long-term support to Yarmouk and its civilians.

“To make any progress in addressing these needs, UNRWA's presence and humanitarian assistance work must be permitted to continue and expand over a period of months, not days,” Mr. Gunness said, adding: “We must accelerate the pace of distribution.”

While appreciating that the authorities on the ground have significantly improved processing to enable the agency to distribute food parcels to an average of about 900 families each day, Mr. Gunness underscored that further improvements are required to reach many more families each day.

“Moreover, there is an absolute necessity for continuous, uninterrupted and substantial humanitarian access to Yarmouk for the long-term,” he said, telling the UN News Centre that UNRWA has had confirmed reports of widespread malnutrition and women dying in childbirth for lack of medical services, “so the need for this access is urgent.”

He has earlier noted that that an UNRWA food parcel will feed a family of between five and eight people for 10 days. There are approximately 18,000 Palestinians in the camp that remain from a pre-conflict population of about 160,000. He added that UNRWA estimates that there are non-Palestinian civilians also trapped in Yarmouk.

“UNRWA has called repeatedly for substantial, secure and permanent access for all civilians living in the camp,” reiterated Mr. Gunness, adding that ongoing delivery of humanitarian assistance in Yarmouk demonstrates that this is possible in other areas where civilians are trapped and besieged.

In a three-year conflict between Government and opposition forces that has killed what UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said yesterday at a press conference on the margins of the Munich Security Summit, could be “considerably more” than 100,000 people and driven nearly 9 million others from their homes, humanitarian access to civilians trapped by the fighting has been a key concern for the United Nations.

Just this past week, UN-League of Arab States Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi, mediating negotiations in Geneva between the Syrian Government and the main opposition group, pressed the rival sides to agree on humanitarian access to some 500 besieged families who have been trapped in the Old City of Homs without any aid for almost two years.

The first round of talks wrapped up last Friday with no agreement on the matter, with Mr. Brahimi expressing deep disappointment about the desperate situation in Homs and UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Valerie Amos voicing “deep frustration” at the failure to agree on access to civilians blockaded in towns and cities all across Syria. She noted that more than 3 million people are trapped in areas where heavy fighting continues or that are besieged by Government or opposition forces.