Known as the capital of the Palestinian diaspora, Yarmouk was previously the largest population center for Palestinian refugees in Syria and a hub of trade and commerce at the southern gate to Damascus.
The first mass displacement of residents occurred after rebel forces infiltrated the camp and government forces bombed it in December 2012. Yarmouk subsequently became a battleground in the country’s long and bloody civil war.
Electricity and water supplies to the camp were cut and a complete siege was imposed by government forces and allied groups in July 2013. Dozens starved to death the following winter.
Islamic State fighters took control of most of the camp in April 2015.
Witnesses reported that Syrian government forces looted homes in the camp after its takeover.
Some 160,000 Palestinians lived in Yarmouk before the war – or 30 percent of the Palestinian refugee population in the country.
Spokesperson Chris Gunness said that UNRWA is “assessing its installations in the camp; the agency has 23 premises including 16 schools.”
Gunness added that UNRWA’s emergency appeal for its operations in Syria is only 16 percent funded for the year and called for international support.
The return of refugees to Yarmouk “will be a challenge,” Gunness said. “The camp is largely destroyed and there is a need for the municipality to restore basic infrastructure, including water, electricity and sewage in order to allow people to reestablish their lives and livelihoods.”
The Action Group for Palestinians of Syria also welcomed the decision and called on the government to equip the camp with water, electricity, sanitation and communications infrastructure. The group also called for the acceleration of mine removal from Yarmouk to ensure the safe return of refugees, as well as the entry of building materials to the camp.
The group also urged the Palestinian Authority and Palestine Liberation Organization to ensure the return of refugees to the camp and work with the Syrian government to guarantee that refugees would not be turned away or detained.
More than 120,000 Palestinian refugees have fled Syria during the past seven years of violence.
Nearly 60 percent of the 438,000 Palestinian refugees remaining in Syria are internally displaced, according to UNRWA, and nearly all require sustained humanitarian assistance.
In early September, more than 50,000 pupils started classes at more than 100 UNRWA schools throughout Syria. Some of UNRWA’s schools are being rehabilitated after being used as shelters for internally displaced persons during the height of violence in the country.
In September, UNRWA opened a school in Yalda to serve 1,200 students displaced from nearby Yarmouk camp.
“Al-Jarmaq school, [formerly] operated in Yarmouk camp, was moved to the neighboring area of Yalda due to the deteriorating security situation in September 2016, when the school continued to serve students with the help of volunteers throughout the conflict,” according to UNRWA.
UNRWA was thrown into unprecedented financial crisis after the US, formerly the agency’s largest donor, announced earlier this year that it would cut $300 million in aid as part of an effort to punish the Palestinian leadership for rejecting President Trump’s Jerusalem embassy move and coerce them into going along with his administration’s “peace” plan.