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Palestinians from Syria: recurring displacement

It was 1948, about 750,000 Palestinians were forced to leave their homes. It was their exodus, their catastrophe, their tragedy, their Nakba. About 90,000 of those who left ended up resettling in Syria. The Palestinian community grew, in time, to half a million people.  Mostly, they lived in 15 camps. The most populous was Yarmouk, close to Damascus, with its 160,000 dwellers.

Syria treated them fairly. Except for citizenship and the right to vote, they enjoyed the same rights as the Syrians. In 1949, the Government established an office responsible for taking care of their situation. Furthermore, Syria adhered to the Arab League resolutions on the treatment of Palestinians, including safeguards related to education, employment (including public sector), and freedom of movement. Restrictions applied to the right to ownership.

At the outbreak of the Syrian uprising, in 2011, the Palestinians were 3 percent of the Syrian population. Mostly, they remained neutral, well aware of their vulnerability. Nevertheless, they soon become targets. In August 2011, the Syrian Army entered a Palestinian camp in Latakia. In December 2012, the Army bombed Yarmouk. Eighty percent of its residents left. Islamic militias also attacked Yarmouk, including affiliates of ISIS and al-Nusra Front fighters. Since July 2013, Yarmouk is under siege. No one and nothing can enter or leave the camp. A typhoid outbreak was reported to UNRWA, while several deaths due to starvation had been ascertained. The situation in other camps is no better. Palestinians are killed by snipers and bombs, and are subjected to arbitrary detention and torture, just like their Syrian borthers.

Yarmouk devastata

As of April, internally displaced Palestinians were estimated at around 280,000. More than 90 percent of them needs humanitarian assistance. Around 80,000 Palestinians have left Syria: 44,000 went to Lebanon, 15,000 to Jordan, between 4,000 and 10,000 to Egypt, and 10-15,000 to Turkey.

What’s their situations in these countries?

Lebanon. First, it must be reminded that Lebanon has a population of less than 6 million. It hosts large groups of refugees: more than 500,000 Palestinians, several thousands Iraqis and Sudanese, and more than 1 million Syrians. Outstanding numbers. Palestinians from Syria started entering Lebanon as early as July 2012, after Yarmouk was attacked. Lebanese authorities were less than happy. They refused to allow the establishment of new camps. Thus, the existing camps became dramatically overcrowded.

In August 2013, Lebanon started denying access to Palestinians from Syria, via increasingly restrictive norms. Many Palestinians enter the country illegally, using false documents. Once in Lebanon, their unlawful circumstances prevent them from registering marriages and births, severely constrain their freedom of movement and expose them to the risk of being arrested and deported. UNRWA provides assistance irrespective of their legal status. However, many of them have no access to humanitarian assistance. They have no access to services, including education and healthcare.

The discriminatory regulations in place in Lebanon make the Palestinians from Syria even more vulnerable than their Syrian brothers. Although Lebanon is not a signatory of the 1951 Refugee Convention, it still needs to abide by the rule of non-refoulement.

Jordan. Jordans population is estimated at around 8 million. About half of them is of Palestinian origin. Jordan has welcomed many Iraqi refugees and hosts more than 600,000 Syrian refugees. The influx of refugees started as early as March 2011. In fact, Dara’a is only 6 kilometres away from the Jordanian border.

Until April 2012, the same procedures granted access to Jordan to Palestinians from Syria and Syrians. Afterwards, Jordanian authorities denied access to Palestinian refugees and turned back hundreds of them. Even Palestinians holding Jordanian citizenship but residing in Syria face the risk of being stripped of their citizenship and deported back to Syria. The border between the two countries is currently close.

As in the Lebanese case, many Palestinians from Syria enter Jordan illegally. They avoid or delay asking for humanitarian assistance for fear of being arrested and deported.

The situation in Lebanon and Jordan is similar. And similar rationales explain why those countries resist letting Palestinians in. In both cases, it’s a demographic rationale. Historically, the Palestinian community is considered a destabilising factor. The alteration of the demographic balance in favour of the Palestinians is perceived as a potential threat.

It’s relatively easy to blame these two countries for their discriminatory approach. However, Lebanon and Jordan are facing an enormous challenge. By and large, the international community has left them alone, as UNHCR and UNRWA budgetary shortages testify.


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