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As thousands flee Syria’s besieged historic city of Palmyra, UN refugee agency readies response plan

The Syrian archaeological site of Palmyra.
© UNESCO/F. Bandarin
The Syrian archaeological site of Palmyra.

As thousands flee Syria’s besieged historic city of Palmyra, UN refugee agency readies response plan

The United Nations refugee agency and its partners are preparing aid for some 11,000 people fleeing the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra and surrounding villages, which have been overrun by militant forces this week.

Situated in central Syria, Palmyra had been sheltering thousands of people forcibly displaced from other parts of Syria for the past three years. It was reportedly captured from the Syrian army on Wednesday, along with the nearby World Heritage-listed archaeological sites.

According to a news release issued today by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), about 8,000 people have found shelter in the village of Al-Qarayateen and a further 3,000 fled to nearby Furglus village.

“The displaced are staying with relatives or schools in the villages, which are located about 75 kilometres to the west of Palmyra,” Firas Al-Khateeb, UNHCR’s representative in Damascus said in the release.

He said that the Al-Birr Society, a local implementing partner, has started to distribute UNHCR aid and prepare reception centres and according to UNHCR, Al-Birr has reported that “people are arriving exhausted, scared and in increasing numbers.”

The refugee agency is now sending more relief supplies to Al-Qarayateen and Furglus to meet the rising needs, though UNHCR expects new arrivals will move further west towards the city of Homs. UNHCR teams in Homs first noticed an increase in the number of displaced people some weeks ago, when clashes began near Al-Sukhneh, about 70 kilometres north-east of Palmyra.

Last week, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, prepared two public buildings as shelters in Palmyra to host almost 1,000 people who had fled Al-Sukhneh. These people have since left Palmyra and moved to Al-Qarayateen.

UNHCR is working with sister UN agencies and NGO partners to deliver a response plan to the new displacement, expected to increase in the coming days.

Inscribed on the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage List, the historic city of Palmyra contains the ruins of “one of the most important cultural centres of the ancient world.”

From the 1st to the 2nd century, the art and architecture of Palmyra, standing at the crossroads of several civilizations, married Graeco-Roman techniques with local traditions and Persian influences.

Earlier this week, UNESCO chief, Irina Bokova, reiterated her appeal for an “immediate cessation of hostilities” in the Syrian city, urging the international community “to do everything in its power to protect the affected population and safeguard the unique cultural heritage Palmyra.”

Some 12.2 million people, including 5.6 million children, need humanitarian assistance throughout Syria. And by conservative estimates, more than 220,000 Syrians have died in the conflict, but that number is likely much higher.