Stateless Refugees: Palestinians Fleeing Syria

In April 2013, Palestinian refugees held a demonstration in Cairo, Egypt, protesting the response of the Egyptian government and the PLO's Mission in Cairo toward the refugees seeking international assistance. The protest was called Do Not Kill Us Twice and even became a solidarity hashtag on Twitter: #DoNotKillUs

Much has been written on the human consequences of the current conflict in Syria and the plight of Syrian refugees arriving in Europe has attracted worldwide media attention. Yet, for Palestinians fleeing Syria, this displacement is part of a much longer story. By delineating past and present Palestinian dispossession, it becomes clear that the current proxy war in Syria presents, among other things, yet another manifestation of the struggle for Palestinian rights and self-determination.

The majority of Palestinians in Syria were forced to resettle there after fleeing or being forcibly expelled from their homes in the Galilee during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. The largest Palestinian community in Syria was centered in the Yarmouk camp. Although it eventually became a thriving neighborhood of Damascus and home to more Syrians than Palestinians, it remained the center of cultural and political life for the Palestinian diaspora in Syria.

After the start of the Syrian uprising in 2011, most Palestinian political factions adopted a stance of neutrality toward the developing civil war between the Bashar al-Asad regime and its opponents. This position was rooted in the harsh experiences of the past: the Palestinian community in Kuwait was expelled in retaliation for PLO Chairman Yasir Arafat’s public support of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s invasion of the country and, more recently, Palestinians in Iraq were subject to attacks at the hands of Shi’a militias due to the accusation that the community was pro-Saddam. This consensus, however, was upended by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC) and Fatah-Intifada, two factions long aligned with the Asad regime. Both groups eventually joined the Syrian regime in open warfare against the opposition. Many in the Syrian opposition began to suspect that all Palestinians harbored loyalty to the regime; a suspicion that compelled many Palestinians to volunteer their children for anti-regime militias to prove their support for the opposition, as detailed in an in-depth report on child soldiers in Yarmouk by former resident Nidal Bitari. Bitari’s account points out that prior to the uprising, there were many Palestinian political factions within the camp, and the PFLP-GC was never among the most popular. The groups provided various services that benefited all camp residents, including educational, medical, and social services. While Palestinians had previously been well integrated into the fabric of life in Syria, the conflict branded Palestinians as dangerous outsiders.

In December 2012, the regime’s military planes bombed the camp, inadvertently paving the way for additional rebel forces to enter. The ensuing violence between regime and rebel forces precipitated the evacuation of the vast majority of the camp’s 150,000 Palestinians and 650,000 Syrians . In retaliation for the rebel takeover of the camp, Asad’s forces besieged Yarmouk, and by July 2013 nothing—neither people, food, medical supplies nor other essential goods—could get in or out of the camp. Those who remained barely survived, eating grass, insects, cats, and dogs. Due to fear of government retribution or further obstruction of camp entrances, UNRWA initially had to sneak emergency supplies into Yarmouk to sustain the famished population. Deciding that the risk was worth the possibility of saving thousands of Palestinians on the brink of starvation, UNRWA took a different tactic and started a huge publicity and social media campaign to expose the situation in Yarmouk; which led to a wider awareness of the calamity unfolding there. Palestinian journalist Daoud Kuttab characterized support for besieged Yarmouk as the single most unifying issue among Palestinians in recent history when members of the diaspora from New York to Gaza raised money for relief efforts and demonstrated in the streets. In early April 2015, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on the international community to take action to alleviate the suffering in the camp, which he described as “beginning to resemble a death camp” and “the deepest circle of hell” inside Syria.

Despite those efforts, Yarmouk’s population has dwindled to a mere 18,000 residents, most of whom are Palestinians. It is estimated that almost three thousand Palestinians have been killed in Syria and half of the country’s Palestinian population is internally displaced, making them second-time refugees.

In a situation similar to the one Palestinian refugee camps faced in Lebanon during that nation’s 1975–90 civil war, Yarmouk has become emblematic of Syria’s internal politics. First, it maintains a strategic location on the outskirts of central Damascus adjacent to the Sayyida Zeinab neighborhood, an area aligned with the Asad regime. Thus control of Yarmouk is important to both the regime and the rebels because of its proximity to the regime’s center and because it’s seen by rebel forces as their “gateway to Damascus.”

Beyond Syria

Images of families crowded under the feeble shelter of a few plastic tarps have saturated the media and come to represent the plight of refugees fleeing Syria. Palestinians, however, often lack not only reliable shelter, water, food, heat, education or communications, but are also ineligible for resettlement services as they are outside the jurisdiction of UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees). They are required to register (or re-register) with UNRWA, but UNRWA is already consumed with the day-to-day maintenance of the Palestinian refugee populations that have resided in Lebanon and Jordan for the last sixty-five years.

In January 2013, the Jordanian government announced that it would no longer allow Palestinians from Syria into the country. Even prior to this official announcement, Human Rights Watch documented multiple cases in which Palestinians from Syria were turned away at the Jordanian border or forcibly detained. Since January 2013, those Palestinians who have managed to surreptitiously enter Jordan from Syria remain undocumented, vulnerable and in constant fear of deportation. They are not legally permitted to reside in UNHCR camps, seek employment or rent private accommodation.

As of May 2014, Lebanon only permits entry to Palestinians who have documents allowing them to travel immediately to a third country. A joint American University of Beirut (AUB) and UNRWA report notes that the overwhelming majority of Palestinian refugees who entered Lebanon legally prior to the 2014 rule have now lost their legal status because they are unable to pay the $200 fee per family member to renew their residency. And only slightly more than half of Palestinian children aged 6–18 are currently enrolled in school.

Arab countries (especially Lebanon) have historically denied Palestinians equal rights, a denial based on the claim that they are upholding an ostensible commitment to the Palestinian right of return. Essentially, the argument goes, if they were to allow Palestinians to have the same rights as Lebanese, then the Palestinians would be foregoing their right to return to their lands in historic Palestine. Yet such policies have long been criticized and exposed as a veiled attempt at maintaining the fragile sectarian balance in Lebanon and protecting the throne of the Jordanian king.

It is nearly impossible for Palestinians from Syria to get visas to enter Egypt and  those who are already there have almost no access to housing, food vouchers, medical assistance or UN support. Some Palestinians in Egypt have attempted the risky sea voyage to Europe, which often results in a coast guard interception and subsequent detainment in Egyptian police stations. The conditions for Palestinians detained in Egyptian police stations is so appalling that entire families have gone on hunger strike in protest. One Palestinian family detained in Alexandria’s Karmuz police station recounts a harrowing legacy of displacement. After fleeing from Nablus to Syria in 1967, they moved several times within Syria during the war and recently escaped to Egypt. Their first attempt at the Mediterranean crossing to Europe ended in disaster when the rickety boat they were on broke in half just minutes after leaving the shore.

The Turkish government does not allow UNHCR to determine refugee statuses on its soil, but, rather, insists that all refugee services go through the Turkish state. Therefore, the legal status of Palestinians in Turkey is still unclear and much of the available support does not actually reach them.

Because their situation is dire in both Syria and in the neighboring countries to which they’ve fled, Palestinian refugees are desperate for another option. For many, their best bet is Europe. The few Western countries that have opened channels for Syrians to enter legally are almost always unavailable to Palestinians, because they do not hold Syrian passports. For many, the only hope for a safer and more stable future is to attempt the dangerous journey to enter Europe clandestinely—along with thousands of refugees from around the world who have taken to unseaworthy rafts in hope of a better life.

Ziad al-Aloul, the head of the Palestinian Forum in Europe, recently announced that almost 100,000 Palestinians from Syria have headed for Europe and that at least one thousand have drowned during their journey.

But what happens to those who do make it to Europe?

First, they often remain without legal status. Those who have family members in Europe may have an easier time attaining residency, but even many of those with family networks must navigate the maze of bureaucratic red tape that characterizes both the asylum and family reunification procedures. This has been tragically highlighted in the now infamous story of the Palestinian infant, Masa, who was the only member of her immediate family to survive the Mediterranean crossing, and one of a handful of survivors out of five hundred passengers. Masa’s uncle is now battling Greek authorities to gain custody and reunite his niece with her relatives in Sweden.

Greece and other European countries have created a special refugee status whereby Syrians may apply for and receive political asylum on the same day, but, for Palestinians, the process can be much more difficult because they do not have Syrian nationality.

What now?

In his statement, Al-Aloul noted that although the fate of these communities is of concern to the Palestinian Authority, repeated attempts to assist them through diplomatic channels have proven fruitless.

A recent issue of Al-Majdal, the Badil Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights’ magazine,  characterizes the current situation of Palestinian refugees leaving Syria as a component of the “ongoing Nakba” or catastrophe of 1948. Of the 560,000 Palestinian refugees registered in Syria, “up to 280,000 are currently displaced inside Syria, with a further 80,000 displaced to neighbouring countries including Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Egypt and increasingly, to Europe,” according to UNWRA. The new generation of Palestinians are being displaced, this time forced to venture even farther away from home.

As Western governments struggle to process refugees pouring over their borders, it bears remembering that Palestinian refugees could have long ago been resettled on their indigenous land if the international community held Israel accountable for its expulsion of Palestinians and forced the Israeli government to adhere to UN Resolution 194 mandating the Palestinians’ right to return to their homes.  The Palestinian refugees fleeing Syria present a painful reminder of the international community’s failure to either honor the right of return or provide compensation and viable alternatives for Palestinians refugees. The recent refugee crisis highlights the need to secure justice for the millions of stateless Palestinians around the world.

This article was written by Institute for Palestine Studies intern Emily Johanson.