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PLO: Syria's Palestinian refugee camps see 'relative calm'

March 30, 2016 6:01 P.M. (Updated: March 31, 2016 8:53 P.M.)
Men walk past destroyed buildings in Yarmouk refugee camp last April. (AFP/ Youssef Karwashan, File)
BETHLEHEM (Ma'an) -- Palestinian refugees in Syria are experiencing a period of "relative calm" after a ceasefire went into effect at the end of last month, a PLO official told Ma'an on Tuesday.

Anwar Abed al-Hadi, director of the PLO's political bureau in Damascus, said that despite some violations of the ceasefire, which was signed by the Syrian government, Russian air force, and almost 100 fighting groups, Palestinian refugee camps had at last seen some peace.

However, Chris Gunness, spokesperson for the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNWRA) told Ma'an that as far as the UN was concerned the situation had not changed.

He pointed in particular to the Yarmouk refugee camp -- formerly the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Syria -- where he said the situation was "beyond inhumane."

Gunness said it was "impossible to confirm" whether the camp had seen relative calm in recent days, as the UN has not had access to it since the Islamic State group (IS) took control of the area last April.

UNRWA estimates that of the 560,000 Palestinian refugees registered with the agency in Syria before the war, 450,000 remain in the country, two-thirds of them internally displaced and 95 percent in need of sustained humanitarian assistance.

Gunness said it was crucial that in the context of the Syrian war Palestinian refugees "not be forgotten or their stories be left untold."

Yarmouk was once home to the largest Palestinian community in Syria, but five years of unrelenting war have left the refugee camp devastated.

After rebels began using the camp as a base to launch attacks, the Syrian regime enforced a brutal siege of the area that would ultimately lead to a number of Palestinians starving to death while others were forced to survive by eating grass.

Then, in April, IS fighters, possibly in coordination with Syria's al-Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra front, stormed the camp, causing thousands more of its Palestinian residents to flee.

Its pre-war population of 160,000 Palestinians has fallen to as few as 6,000, the PLO estimates.

In February, after the Syrian government agreed to open a limited number of besieged areas, UN aid workers were able to gain access to Palestinian refugees in the Damascus area for the first time in seven months.

However, aid workers have not been able to access the Yarmouk camp itself since March 28, 2015.
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