BEIRUT: The head of the U.N. agency that supports Palestinian refugees said Friday that progress has been made in providing food to some 18,000 civilians trapped in the Yarmouk refugee camp in the Syrian capital, but an agreement must be struck to also allow in desperately needed medical aid.
Yarmouk, the largest of nine Palestinian camps in Syria, has been under a tight government blockade since mid-2013. More than 100 people have died there from starvation and illnesses exacerbated by hunger or lack of medical aid, according to U.N. figures.
Since January, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency has provided intermittent food shipments to civilians caught inside Yarmouk, although fighting often cuts the deliveries for days at time. Most recently, food parcels have not been handed out since Tuesday, when two government troops were shot at the distribution point.
"Twenty-five percent is our estimate of the level of need in food requirements that we have been able to cover since the beginning of the year. So clearly, much, much more has to be done," UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krahenbuhl told The Associated Press.
"While food was an important progress - and yet again I insist that not enough food is going into Yarmouk and some of the other camps - we need to be able to add to that also medical supplies," Krahenbuhl said in an interview in Beirut after returning from a visit to Syria.
"I insisted in my meetings with (Syrian) authorities that there should be ways to find possibilities to bring medical supplies in without there being a concern that this be misused in any way by anyone, but just simply focus on the needs of the population, which are extreme."
While food deliveries have eased some of the suffering in Yarmouk, the situation remains dire and crippling shortages are common. UNRWA's biggest fear, Krahenbuhl said, would be an escalation in hostilities on the ground.
"When you see what the population has already been exposed to, the level of despair that you feel in the distributions that we carry out, and what people have just been able to hang on to, any further escalation would just be devastating to the people still inside the camp," he said.
Krahenbuhl, who served as director of operations for the International Committee of the Red Cross before taking over as the head of UNRWA in late March, also met with Lebanese leaders in Beirut, where he discussed new measures that Lebanon has adopted that places restrictions on Palestinians trying to flee Syria.
Krahenbuhl said that the "large majority" in recent days of Palestinians who have tried to cross into Lebanon from Syria have been denied entry. There also are growing concerns that restrictions are being placed on allowing some of the estimated 53,000 Palestinians from Syria already in the country to renew their visas.
Earlier this month, UNRWA said 41 Palestinians were expelled from Lebanon back to Syria.
"It is really important to reconsider these measures and to not have total closure of the border for Palestine refugees coming from Syria," he said.
At the same time, he commended Lebanon on taking in more than 1 million refugees from Syria, saying the "great openness" that the country has shown toward its neighbors "really should not be underestimated."