Archive for January, 2014

victims of the mosque massacre in central Yarmouk, from Syrian Air Force bomb raids

victims of the mosque massacre in central Yarmouk, from Syrian Air Force bomb raids

By Mahmoud Sarhan, translated by Jimmy Phoenix

The memory of Palestinians of the Yarmouk refugee camp – south of Damascus – carries two harsh memories of two catastrophes: the first was the catastrophe of being kicked out of their land in 1948, while the second dates to 16-12-2012, which marks the Syrian opposition barging in the camp and the MIG strike which was executed by the Syrian Air Force over Falluja school and Abdul Kadir Alhusaini Mosque in the middle of the camp. And both were being used as refugee centers for those who fled from other locations, and these MIG strikes killed 170 refugees and caused many casualties as well. Afterwards, many rumors went around talking about a 24-hour warning given to the camp citizens before the regime forces would break in. As a result, thousands of citizens who were horrified by the massacre that just took place packed their bags and headed out of the camp in a scene more like the new Palestinian diaspora which was described as being worse than the first one. And many activists consider the MIG strike of the 17th December 2012 as the actual date of the catastrophe. According to Mohammed Almaqdesi – the official speaker of the Palestinian camps news association – that after the MIG strike, many Facebook pages affiliated to “Jibril” (PFLP – General Command) spread a rumor that the Syrian army commanded the people of Yarmouk camp to evacuate the camp, which is what actually was done, fearing the occurrence of another massacre just like the Mosque and School massacre.

yarmouk 2At that time, Yarmouk camp sheltered thousands of Syrian families who evacuated to it from neighboring provinces, even some came from the cities of Aleppo and Homs. Which caused schools, mosques and houses to overflow with Syrian emigrants, which seemed for a while to be a safer place from the burning hell across the country. Yet, that didn’t suit the Syrian regime, who used genocide and group punishment against civilians after exiling them from their houses and forcing them to leave, seeking refuge from the inferno scorched by the regime’s military as soon as they suspected the presence of the FSA in it. However, Yarmouk camp succeeded for 9 months to stay unbiased despite the repeating attempts to drag it to the war, which was obvious through shelling it with mortars repeatedly and accusing the opposition for bombarding the camp. One of those barrages caused the “Alja’oona” massacre in 2-8-2012, which resulted a death toll of more than 20 martyrs and tens of casualties. Though, the main attempt to drag the camp into the conflict was from the “Jibril group” (or the PFLP – General Command) and its withdrawal from the agreement of the PLO factions, forming armed popular committees supported by the regime, which eventually caused those committees to overpass their duties within the camp and engage in armed clashes with the FSA in the Alhajar AlAswad and Tadamun areas. And not just that, but some groups even overpassed Jibril to receive orders directly from the Syrian Republican Guard (aka Presidential Guard), who eventually made the regime succeed in taking control of the green zone and eliminating the sanctuary the camp represented. This eventually forced the FSA to enter the camp in order to get oust the regime forces.

According to Almaqdesi: the FSA intended upon liberating only Alhajar Alaswad and the neighborhoods interlocking with Yelda Area. But Baian Miz’il broke into the entire camp along with his forces, ignoring the plan. Here, a new name rises up “Baian Miz’il”, one of the leaders of the south region FSA, who were found to be a regime agent, and has been the cause of letting the regime regain control of some of the that area’s neighborhoods. Thus, the regime bears the responsibility of dragging the camp into that bloody conflict so that he could make a few victories. Considering the military side, the regime tightened its grasp totally on all the neighborhoods of the southern region, using only one check point consisting of a few hundred soldiers and mercenaries. Which somehow reduces the burden of spreading soldiers around the camp and costing the regime many forces that would be better deployed to other sensitive regions as it sees fitting. Add to that, the regime also cut the supply lines to the camp and the safe haven that the camp represented as well as the popular revolution’s surrogate, which is represented by thousands of Syrian refugees who fled to the camp. All that is considered to be a part of the regime’s means of punishing revolting areas and its residents wherever they are.

While from the political point of view, the regime used the “kicking the Palestinians out of the camp” strategy to support the alleged propaganda of the “universal conspiracy” against the regime, and using it to press on all Palestinian, Arab, and international bodies as well to come to its aid. The regime succeeded in involving Yarmouk Camp through “Jibril’s faction” and one of his goons, therefore, succeeded – using few a soldiers only, to impose a suffocating siege on all the areas out of his control in the southern area of Damascus for a period of one year, which allows him to stall in executing any initiative presented by the PLO or anyone else. And according to “Mamdouh” – a politician activist, the regime sees no interest in making truces, and any initiative or ceasefire is nothing but a trick which he uses in the context of a psychological warfare which he imposes upon the besieged to ruin their spirit, waiting for things to change and for the facts on the ground to get to his side. And until now, all the initiatives presented by the PLO have failed, while those presented by NGO’s in Yarmouk seem to be suspended between PLO officials’ statements, and Jibril’s people’s belief that it is bound to fail, and none of the distress calls made to help the besieged from an incoming humanitarian crisis caused by letting them stay for 6 months without food or medicine are listened to. Also, the camp’s residents’ attempts to neutralize the camp’s status and force Jibril and the regime to execute the recent initiative, which has brought about the death of four citizens in the “coffins” march, during their march to the regime forces’ check point outside the camp, returning to face the monopoly of the dealers inside. Even the kids went in the “empty vessels” march demanding the siege to be lifted. In the camp’s catastrophe anniversary, the citizens celebrated it by demanding the siege to be broken and neutralized from the entire situation and stop killing them by bombs, bullets and hunger. Yet, we haven’t received any reaction from the besiegers, and after a whole year, all the popular and formal attempts represented by the PLO failed and did not bring about any change regarding the camp’s situation, and the regime succeeded in eliminating the refugees’ green zone and cutting the supply lines by using just a paper to negotiate with. And that comfortable situation enforced the regime to bargain with all sides, considering that the Syrian regime is the puppet master from now on, and it becomes the only one to benefit from Yarmouk’s catastrophe. And according to what Mamdouh said, I guess there one significant difference between who besieges the Gazans and who does the same in Yarmouk, where Palestinians are being besieged by either the occupation or the “defiance” regime.

Syrian Refugees who survived a dangerous sea crossing face a new odyssey once in Europe - inhumane bureaucracy.

Syrian Refugees who survived a dangerous sea crossing face a new odyssey once in Europe – inhumane bureaucracy.

1)      A refugee in Syria is a person who has left Syria. An Internally Displaced person suffers most of the same (and at times greater) risk to their lives, but they are not covered under the 1951 and 1967 protocols as “refugees”. . The convention identifies not only STATUS but also RIGHTS of refugees, including their right to seek refuge and restrictions against them being held against their will inside a country where they fear their lives are endangered.

2)      A refugee does not go through the same “immigration process” that is standard for a person who does not seek this status. This means that the refugee does not avail of protection by his own country (in this case Syria) and thus cannot seek the necessary documents from the Syrian government that are part of the “facilitation of travel” that are required under ordinary immigration protocols. They thus cannot apply for visas for work or study in the nations they seek refuge in, since this would require them to recognise Syria as able to protect them. Therefore, without an entrance visa, it is simply not possible to book a safe flight from Syria to European or North American countries, nor are there airlifts that facilitate the process in any way by the ONLY international organisation that has the obligation to oversee conventions regarding refugees (and see that they are implemented) the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. States that have signed the convention must adhere to the laws and if possible, assume the burden of granting asylum.

3)      Why do all countries simply not grant asylum? Because the complying states are obligated to accord “favourable treatment”, that at the very least is “not less than that accorded to aliens generally in the same circumstances”. This is why in nations such as Italy, where the amount of favourable treatment accorded to aliens who are NOT refugees is minimal and at times repressive (including detainment in “identification camps” for unspecified amounts of time and the aliens are not automatically accorded that their families may join them after they have met specific requirements) Syrian refugees are seeking to request asylum in countries northern European countries that have consolidated programmes for aliens and refugees that guarantee more rights such as housing, work and integration into the local fabric. It stands to be mentioned however, that these countries are not on the Mediterranean and a Syrian can arrive there only upon having first crossed the border of a state that has that geographic continuity, by land or by sea. Given the impossibility of arriving directly to Sweden, Germany, Austria or the UK, given the impossibility of obtaining documents for facilitation of travel, the Syrian refugees have been forced to remain in refugee camps abroad (Jordan, Turkey) or in ad hoc and non-recognised refugee camps in places such as Lebanon. They have mostly sought private housing in Egypt, and a great number have continued towards Libya, where they have been under the belief that they would be able to safely arrive at the gates of Europe by sea and then would obtain asylum status in Sweden.

4)      Article 6 of the charter is consistently violated in many countries of arrival of the asylum seekers.  It is an article that grants them the right to freely move within the territory of their arrival. They find themselves in what can only be described as prison confinement, as they are under the jurisdiction of the national law, which in my country (Italy) is very restrictive of immigration, while at the same time being one of the European countries with the greatest number of arrivals of migrants and asylum seeks who have not legally obtained visas (granted under very strict economic conditions, often with the obligation of declaring economic independence and exhibiting proof of self-sustainment or “sponsorship” by a legal resident or citizen). This situation has made it impossible for them to move freely within Italy for the reason of arriving at a northern border and seeking asylum in a country that accords more favourable treatment.

5)      The member states of the EU have signed something known as the Dublin II Regulation. It sets out the laws regarding granting of asylum. It was created to “prevent” that asylum seekers sought the best deals for themselves, putting excessive burdens on the states with more costly programmes, and this to maintain internal stability in these individual states. However, it has set as the regulation that the Responsible Member State is the state in which the asylum seeker first arrived, which is not Norway, Sweden or Germany, but Italy, Greece or Bulgaria. Since the Shengen Area has tightened its checks (and the minimum checks include checking for falsification and counterfeiting of travel documents and denial of entry upon that circumstance) many Syrian refugees, who had never obtained an authentic passport, and not having been issued a document in the arrival state as many had refused it (which would have required them to remain in holding camps), countries are “sending them back to Italy” under the Dublin II Regulation, and following considerable cost to the Syrians, they find themselves stateless, unprotected and impoverished in a foreign country. Their options are very slim. Many make several attempts to arrive to nations where they believe they will find better circumstances, and quite a few are left at the hands of unscrupulous persons who promise them passage, driving them to German-speaking areas of Italy and abandoning them, after having taken all their money and possessions.

6)      In consideration of what happens upon arrival in Italy, as if it were not bad enough, getting here is an odyssey and risk. Average “passages” with traffickers have been quoted at rates that never are less than $2000 and in some cases, we have heard of passages costing $8000 per person. The second package included “passport and application for asylum in Sweden”. Many have died at sea. No one has had it go the way their hopes and dreams have been. Several persons that have been interviewed have said they wished to continue over and over until they succeeded, others said they would try to go back to the middle east where at least they understood the language and would attempt to rely on the charity of strangers.

7)      We appeal for the regulations to be modified in light of the circumstances, but our appeals seem to fall upon deaf ears. We appeal for our countries to facilitate the asylum seekers and to provide humane living conditions for them so that they do not fall into the traps of those criminals who exploit them. In the meantime, we have to simply realistically inform those fleeing Syria of the situation here. We activists want to welcome them with open arms, with dignity and with generosity until they are able to return home. But, we are also very small voices in the matter, and our efforts in changing the laws so far have not been successful. The humanitarian emergency involves our countries and our human duty is to protect refugees. It is currently a task we are failing at, while the humanity of the volunteers almost always is exemplary.