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Amid World Humanitarian Day Glitz, Typhoid in Yarmouk Camp, UNbesieged?

By Matthew Russell Lee

UNITED NATIONS, August 18 -- When the UN began its photo op for World Humanitarian Day on Tuesday, it was less than an hour after typhoid in the Yarmouk camp for Palestinian refugees in Syria was announced by the UN Relief and Works Agency. UNRWA's announcement called the camp, which it had not visited since June 8, “besieged.”

    But as Inner City Press reported last month, at least six weeks into the siege, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs had said that Yarmouk was and is NOT besieged.  Inner City Press went to the photo op to try to ask why. OCHA chief Stephen O'Brien was scheduled to appear, and he did: with Malian singer Inna Modja.

   Inner City Press said, as O'Brien manuevered for the photo op, So Yarmouk is in the news.  Periscope video for now here.

   “So I gather,” O'Brien said, politely. Then he was on the blue carpet, soon to be followed by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Australia's Cody Simpson and Colombia's Juanes. “Cody! Cody!” photographers called out. Spanish language television crews interviewed Juanes as a UN Facilities Management Service staffer took selfies behind them. It was, it seemed, a warm up for UN General Assembly week. So's this.

Background: The Yarmouk camp for Palestinian refugees in Damascus, which the UN ruled is not besieged, now has typhoid in it, UNRWA announced on August 18 saying it had accessed the camp for the first time since June 8.

  UNRWA spokesman, Chris Gunness said, in a statement emailed to the press: "UNRWA has had its first access to civilians from the besieged Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk, Damascus, since 8th June.  We can now confirm a typhoid outbreak among this UN assisted population with at least six confirmed cases. Never has the imperative for sustained humanitarian access been greater. UNRWA’s priority remains the delivery of humanitarian aid to civilians within Yarmouk itself and reiterates its strong demand for respect and compliance with obligations to protect civilians and to establish secure conditions under which UNRWA can deliver life-saving humanitarian assistance.”

  If UNRWA could not access the Yarmouk camp since June 8 - that is, for two months and ten days, why would the UN have declassified the Yarmouk camp in Syria from being "besieged," after calling it just that in April? On July 24 Inner City Press asked at the UN noon briefing and was told that the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs remains concerned about Yarmouk. Video here.

  So on July 28 when OCHA chief Stephen O'Brien took questions about Syria, Inner City Press asked him about OCHA saying that Yarmouk is no longer besieged. Video here.

  O'Brien said that aid has been getting into three neighboring areas, including which those from Yarmouk are able to go back and forth.  Responding to the question was appreciated - but the UN Spokesperson's Office seemed to tell Inner City Press that even the surrounding areas had not been accessed since June 7. One month, three weeks. That's not besieged?

 According to IRIN, "The final decision on the status of the camp, however, is made not by UNRWA but by the UN secretary-general on the advice of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs." We aim to have more on this.

 Back on April 6 amid news that ISIS has taken over most of the UN's Yarmouk camp for Palestinian refugees in Syria, the UN Security Council scheduled an urgent meeting on April 6 at 11:30 am, to get a briefing by video from Pierre Krähenbühl, the Commissioner General of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, UNRWA.

   Inner City Press arrived early, and saw going into the Council the UN's head of Political Affairs, Jeffrey Feltman. The State of Palestine's Permanent Observer to the UN Riyad Mansour spoke outside the Security Council, saying “we are concerned about the safety and well-being of our people,  About 2000 were able to run to safety away from the camp on their own. We hope that the Security Council will adopt a position to secure a safety passage through UN agencies to save and protect the 16,000 now in the refugee camp and we hope that all countries will help in securing this objective of safety passage, security passage and for the refugees to be safe.”

  Inner City Press asked Mansour whether he expects a Security Council resolution on the question of Palestine this month. He answered -- video here -- always ready, but that the key is the political will to implement such a resolution. He said that the independence of Palestine would eliminate sixty to seventy percent of extremist recruitment in the Middle East.

  Later, Inner City Press asked UNRWA's Krähenbühl if UNRWA is in contact with ISIS (no) and who he thinks might influence them. His reply -- video here -- cited the “broad spectrum” including of religious leaders.

 Inner City Press asked where the displaced refugees have gone. He said there are an additional 44,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, not all from Yarmouk. Overall, he said that of 560,000 Palestinians in Syria before, now 460 to 470,000 remain, with half of them having been displaced.


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