Author: Aya Bejermi
Since their exodus from their homes in 1948, Palestinians have endured continuous displacements. Seventy years on and the Syrian conflict has revealed another tragic episode of displacement and loss for this vulnerable community.
In order to face the flight of Palestinians between 1947 and 1948 – as a result of the ethnic purge, forcible expulsions, massacres (Deir Yassin), threats and fear for their lives and the UN Partition Plan of 1947 – the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) was established on 8 December 1949.
UNRWA has a specific mandate to provide assistance and protection to “Palestine refugees”, including the maintenance of recognised Palestine refugee camps, schools, health centres and distribution centres. Unlike the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which has a strong international protection mandate around the world, UNRWA’s mandate is geographically restricted in five areas of operation: Gaza, the West Bank including East Jerusalem, Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria. UNRWA’s mandate constitutes a ground for the exclusion of Palestinians from refugee protection according to article 1D of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees.
In 1948, around 750,000 Palestinians were found to be living in refugee camps in the organisation’s five areas of operation. Today, more than five million Palestine refugees are eligible for UNRWA services and 1.5 million live in UNRWA’s camps. The UN agency was initially given a temporary mandate in 1949, which has been continually extended (until June 2020). UNRWA is being challenged as never before with perpetual financial shortages. The recent large cut in US payments to UNRWA is questioning the viability of this special UN agency. The on-going conflict in Syria has also strongly affected the mission and its work.
According to UNRWA, around of 560,000 Palestinians lived in Syria prior to the 2011 revolution which resulted in the current war. Syria was generally seen to have been providing the best conditions for Palestinian refugees comparing to other Arab States. Although Palestinian refugees had not been granted full Syrian citizenship, they were generally treated like Syrian Arab citizens. They had many of the same rights as Syrian nationals, with the exception of the voting rights. Palestinians had the right to work and own businesses, and were granted universal access to education and health care. Access to these sectors contributed to the stability and prosperity of Palestinians in Syria. The majority of them were concentrated in the greater Damascus area. Yarmouk, although unofficial, was the biggest camp of Syria and was commercially active in the capital Damascus, which was also the political hub for Palestinian refugees in Syria.
In comparison, nearly 500,000 Palestinian refugees have suffered marginalisation in Lebanon. The UNRWA 2000 Annual Report mentioned that Palestinians in Lebanon “suffered from poor living and housing conditions, restrictions on mobility and high rates of unemployment”. The Palestinian existence in Lebanon, as in many other Arab countries,has been governed by a large amount of administrative acts (decrees, ordinances, orders) and state practice, in order to prevent settlement. The Lebanese government has in practice established an administrative apparatus targeting Palestinian refugees. The Palestinian refugees have been classified by the Lebanese Minister of the Interior as “foreigners”. Several basic rights and freedoms, including the right to residency and travel, the right to work and employment, freedom of property, are subjected to the political will of Lebanese authorities. The right of Palestinian refugees to employment is subject to three limiting principles: obtaining a work permit, national preference and reciprocity of rights and obligations. As stateless refugees, Palestinians are not allowed to acquire land or property. Without mentioning them, the Lebanese law prohibits “any person who is not a national of a recognised state, (…) to acquire real-estate property of any kind” (Law No. 296. 3 April 2001).
In Lebanon, Palestinians also suffer as a result of the country’s dubious political setup where a balance between Christians and Muslims must be maintained. To this end, a recent proposed amendment, which aims to give Lebanese women the ability to pass citizenship to their children, excludes Lebanese women married to Palestinians or Syrians.
Palestinians are also faced with a lack of protection in host countries outside UNRWA’s remit. In Egypt, the government has not considered the 70,000 Palestinian refugees as eligible for the UNHCR’s protection. As with many Arab states, Egypt has expressed its fear that the Palestinian plight will not be suitably resolved if UNHCR’s solutions – resettlement to a third country or settlement in the first country of asylum – were applied to them. As a consequence, the Egyptian government has issued restrictions on them and Palestinians must hold an “Egyptian Travel Document for Palestinian Refugees” at all times. Its validity is conditional on the renewal of a residence permit which itself is only granted based on the reason for which the applicant is remaining in Egypt.
The secondary displacement of Palestinian refugees from neighbouring countries is becoming a regular phenomenon due to the lack of protection in terms of rights and social conditions and/or armed and violent crises.
As of January 2017, approximately 120,000 Palestinian refugees fled Syria to neighbouring countries. According to UN figures, 32,000 fled to Lebanon and 13,000 in Jordan. Unlike Syrian nationals, Palestinians from Syria (PRS), who carry a “Syrian Travel Document for Palestinian Refugees”, are facing discrimination.
Euro-Mid Observer for Human Rights reported cases of discrimination including that of Um Mohammad, a Syrian national in Egypt, who said: “I get healthcare and food because I have a Syrian passport, but they do not give food or healthcare to my husband and my children because they are not Syrians!” Since the Egyptian military coup in July 2013, the situation of PRS has worsened. Several NGOs have reported the arbitrary arrest, xenophobia, unlawful detention and deportation of PRS.
In the same way, the arrival of PRS in Lebanon has added greater strain on the already stretched and overpopulated Palestinian refugee camps. According to UNRWA, “almost 90 per cent of PRS in Lebanon are under the poverty line and 95 per cent are food insecure.” The presence of Palestinian refugees from Syria (Sunni Muslims) has also raised concerns amongst the Christian and Shia communities.
Palestinians are in a situation where “their lives may not be at risk, but their basic rights and essential economic, social and psychological needs remain unfulfilled after years in exile” (2004 UNHCR document). The on-going Palestinian-Israeli conflict is preventing Palestinian refugees in host countries from enforce their right of return. Their unbearable situation is also the consequence of the very little the UNHCR has done to support their struggle for survival. Palestinian refugees are therefore left at the mercy of those who received them 70 years ago and ever since.