Residents of Yarmouk (illustration)
Residents of Yarmouk (illustration)Reuters

The head of UNRWA on Monday said the situation for thousands of Palestinian Arabs in the Yarmouk neighborhood, on the outskirts of Damascus, is "absolutely critical," The Associated Press (AP) reported.

Pierre Krahenbuhl said the situation in Yarmouk reflects "the catastrophic cost" of the Syrian conflict for Syrians as well as Palestinian Arabs.

Yarmouk, which is referred to by most Western media outlets as a “Palestinian refugee camp”, has been besieged by government forces since 2013 and is estimated to be home to 18,000 people. In recent weeks it was stormed by the Islamic State (ISIS) jihadist group.

Palestinian Arab factions meanwhile control the north and east part of the neighborhood, with what has been described as "intermittent clashes between the jihadists and factions"

Krahenbuhl said Monday that before the Syrian war began in 2011 there were 160,000 Palestinians in Yarmouk, many who held jobs. Before ISIS entered the camp in early April there were 18,000 residents, but "it's very clear several thousand have fled since then."

Krahenbuhl said UNRWA has been able to provide assistance since mid-April to refugees who fled to surrounding government-held areas.

The Yarmouk "refugee camp" is, in fact, a sprawling neighborhood at the southern edge of Damascus. Most of the Palestinians who live there are descendants of Arab refugees from Israel's War of Independence, though few are themselves refugees. Uniquely, the UN founded UNRWA as a separate agency to its official refugee agency UNHCR in order to perpetuate "Palestinian refugee" status to all descendants of actual Palestinian Arab refugees.

No other group of refugees - including Jewish refugees from Arab states or from the Arab armies which occupied Judea, Samaria and Gaza in 1948 and expelled Jewish residents - are granted such hereditary refugee status.

There are thousands of people registered as Palestinian refugees in Israel’s neighboring countries, including Lebanon and Syria. Palestinian refugees in Lebanon have limited work options and are refused citizenship.