Several UN agencies and human rights groups are inviting the public to join a social media campaign to draw attention to the plight of thousands of civilians, including Syrians and Palestinians, besieged with no access to food or medical care in Yarmouk camp in Damascus.
“We represent a broad range of UN and other organizations … united by our horror at the pitiless conflict that is devastating civilian life in Yarmouk, Damascus, and throughout Syria,” the groups say.
The social media campaign “Yarmouk: How much longer?” – which organizers hope will reach 23 million people – has been initiated by UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestine refugees, using the website Thunderclap.
It aims to put pressure on all participants in the scheduled Geneva peace talks on Syria “to lift the restrictions on Yarmouk refugee camp and all areas of humanitarian need in Syria.”
Access to at least one of the camp’s entrances is controlled by the Syrian army, while armed groups opposing the Syrian government control large areas inside the camp.
Yarmouk was home to some 160,000 people before the fighting. While much of the camp has been destroyed, today about 18,000 people remain trapped inside, many of them women and children.
The campaign is backed by UNICEF, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Human Rights Watch, and dozens of other civil society, Arab and Palestinian groups around the world.
How to take part
To take part in the campaign, social media users are invited to go to the Thunderclap page for the “Yarmouk: How much longer?” campaign.
There, you can sign up using your Twitter, Facebook or Tumblr account.
When you sign up, you are authorizing the UNRWA-led campaign to post the campaign’s message to your Twitter, Facebook or Tumblr timeline.
The preset message – which users can customize – is: “We demand access to #Yarmouk & all vulnerable civilians in #Syria. How much longer will they be left to suffer?”
Between now and late on 21 January, the campaign aims to sign up supporters. It will then post the message to the accounts of everyone who signed up, for maximum impact.
As of this writing, 128 supporters with a total social media reach of more than 7 million people had signed up [Note: supporters exceeded 400 by Monday morning].
Participants include the social media accounts for some of the UN agencies that collectively have millions of followers.
Small amount of aid reaches Yarmouk
On 13 January an UNRWA aid convoy authorized by the Syrian government, but sent toward an entrance not under government control, had to turn back amid fierce gunfire.
But on Saturday, some 200 boxes of food were delivered into the camp by members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine–General Command (PFLP-GC), a Palestinian splinter group loyal to the Syrian government.
The aid, donated by UNRWA, is a minute fraction of what is needed. A spokesperson for the PFLP-GC said the aid was “carried on the shoulder to avoid sniper fire.”
The spokesperson said that the camp committees, local governance bodies, “would hand over the food boxes to families by name so that [opposition] gunmen don’t take them.”
However, at least one observer expressed skepticism about the PFLP-GC’s role, suggesting it indicates that the government could provide unfettered access if it chose to do so and that the aid delivery was intended to shift blame for the situation away from the government.
“In this instance, UNRWA is playing only a support role. Today’s effort is not an UNRWA convoy and UNRWA is not involved or engaged in the transport of the food parcels into Yarmouk or its distribution inside Yarmouk,” UNRWA spokesperson Chris Gunness told Lebanon’s Daily Star of Saturday’s delivery.
Another 400 food parcels were expected to enter the camp on Sunday “after an agreement was reached between representatives of Palestinian factions and rebels inside the camp,” The Daily Star reported.
Also on Sunday, dozens of critically injured and ill camp residents were evacuated for the first time in months.
While these efforts are only first steps, they may in part be a response to increased media attention to Yarmouk’s plight and growing horror at the situation there.
If so, organizers of the “Yarmouk: How much longer?” campaign must hope that a social media blitz could help raise pressure to keep the camp’s gates open permanently.