The Syrian government on Tuesday called on refugees to return, saying it has successfully cleared large areas of “terrorists,” NBC News reports. The rare appeal reflects the government’s growing confidence after more than seven years of war. While officials usually appeal to Syrians abroad to return during television appearances and interviews, this is the first formal appeal broadcast on official media.
Syrian government forces, with crucial support from Russia and Iran, recently retook large areas near the capital, Damascus, and are waging a new offensive in the south that U.N. officials say has displaced more than 270,000 people. The government currently controls over 61 percent of Syria, compared to early 2017, when it held just 17 percent, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which closely monitors the conflict.
Over 5.6 million Syrians have fled the country. The Foreign Ministry says many internally displaced have already returned home, urging refugees to do same. Many Syrians are unable to return because their homes were destroyed in the fighting, or because they fear military conscription or retribution from government forces.
According to Press Herald, also on Tuesday, a senior U.N. official visited a Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus that government forces recaptured in May. The Yarmouk camp, a built-up residential area once home to tens of thousands of Palestinians and Syrians, was held by Islamic State group and other insurgents for years, and saw heavy fighting.
“The scale of the destruction in Yarmouk compares to very little else that I have seen in many years of humanitarian work in conflict zones,” said Pierre Krahenbuhl, the commissioner-general of the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees.
The camp, once home to 160,000 Palestinian refugees, now lies in ruins. Krahenbuhl, on a three-day visit, also met with displaced Palestinian refugees in areas around Damascus. They expressed “anxieties” about the prospects of their return and reconstruction. Krahenbuhl said U.S. funding cuts had created “the largest ever funding shortfall in UNRWA’s history.”
“The agency has a deficit of $446 million”, he said, and has since mobilized to raise $200 million through other donors. He said the priority is to keep schools around Syria open for Palestinian refugees.
UNRWA provides basic services to Palestinian refugees from what is now Israel and their descendants, who now number around 5 million and are scattered across the Palestinian territories, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan.
Meanwhile, an exodus of 271,800 people who have fled their homes in southern Syria are are camped out in miserable desert conditions on the borders with Jordan and Israel, the UN has said as quoted by The Independent. Thousands of civilians in Deraa province – supposedly covered by a 2017 de-escalation agreement – have run from rebel-held towns and villages as pro-government troops, helped by Russian airpower, have quickly swept through the area over the last two weeks.
“It is chaos, people are desperate,” local activist Islam al Balki said on Tuesday. “People have left with the clothes on their backs, risking the airstrikes, no time to bury the dead. Nowhere is safe.”
According to monitor the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, at least 100 civilians have been killed since the offensive began on 19 June, and huge numbers of people are now sleeping under trees and in cars in fields and wasteland near the southern border. Most are lacking adequate shelter and water to cope with the 45C heat. Local sources told UN partners that at least 12 children, two women, and one elderly man have died near the Jordanian border due to dehydration, contaminated water and scorpion bites.
Around 164,000 displaced people are now located in Quneitra, which border the contested Golan Heights, and 60,000 are camped out near the Nasib-Jaber border crossing with Jordan. Both Jordan and Israel have reiterated that their borders will remain closed to refugees despite pleas from the UN’s refugee agency for Amman to “honour its international commitment to people in need of protection”. Jordan, which already hosts more than 630,000 Syrians, has insisted the situation is the fault of the fighting forces. Israel does not have diplomatic relations with Syria or any asylum policy for refugees from the conflict, but does provide medical assistance and aid for both fighters and civilians near its border.
The seven-year-old conflict has triggered the largest refugee crisis in modern history. More than half of the pre-war population of 22 million people have been displaced from their homes, including six million who have fled abroad.