A Return to the Yarmouk Camp, Under Certain Conditions

The Damascus Governorate Council has begun receiving requests for returns to the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp south of the capital after the governor made a visit to the camp last week to take stock of conditions on the ground. He observed ongoing rehabilitation work of the electricity and water stations and announced there was a need to expedite preparations of the camp’s infrastructure, as well as removing rubble.

Yarmouk reflects the regime’s latest policy of allowing internally displaced people to return to their damaged homes in Damascus. Permission to return to Yarmouk comes after similar return operations in the Barzeh, Qaboun and Jobar neighbourhoods of eastern Damascus in recent weeks. It is not clear why the government is now allowing these return processes after so many years preventing people from returning and putting various obstacles in their way, including expropriations, destruction of buildings and new zoning plans. In any case, though, conditions for return set by the government ensure that only a few former residents will be able to return.

The Damascus Governorate Council entrusted a committee to follow up on its decision to hold off on announcing the new zoning plans for Yarmouk. That committee decided to allow residents of the camp to return under three conditions: that the buildings are structurally safe, and that returnees provide proof of title deeds and that they obtain the necessary security approvals.

According to the official Tishreen newspaper, the requests for return have no particular deadline. The newspaper added that, in addition to the three conditions set out by the committee, property holders hoping to return to Yarmouk must present a family civil registration extract, as well as a water and electricity clearance.

The pro-opposition news site Sowt Al-Asimeh reported that Damascus Governorate had imposed a new process for return: submit an application at an office in the camp, provide ownership documents and pay SYP 8,000 before transferring the file for a security check. In addition, those hoping to return must submit an application to the municipal council so that they can send a technical inspection team to the building and assess the damage.

The Damascus Governorate decided in August to hold off on releasing the new zoning plans for the Yarmouk camp due to objections the plans faced from camp residents and Palestinian political figures both inside Syria and abroad. Last September, 28 civil society, political and legal Palestinian organisations sent a legal memorandum to the UN special envoy for Syria, Geir Pedersen, warning of the dangers of the new zoning plans for Yarmouk. According to the memorandum, the new plans would strip camp residents of their property rights and change the camp’s identity.

Meanwhile, the three conditions set for residents who wish to return are considered very difficult, as it is easy to tamper with the structural safety reports and reports on the scale of damage, which is happening in Aleppo. Proof of ownership is not easy to obtain for Palestinians from Yarmouk, many of whom only hold “residence permits” issued by the Syrian government’s General Authority for Palestine Arab Refugees (GAPAR). In addition, the state itself owns the land on which the camp was built. The third condition, which requires a security background check, is seen as the most difficult, as it makes return possible only for regime loyalists.