Syria’s Palestinian Refugees: Stateless and Under Threat

For many Palestinians, the experience of being displaced is not a singular event in the past but an ongoing process. Many Palestinians who became refugees in the Nakba in 1948 were displaced once again in the 1967 June War, Black September in 1971, or the Lebanese Civil War. The Syrian Civil war is the latest incident of mass Palestinian displacement. Syria was once home to more than half a million Palestinian refugees and was an important political, economic and social base for the exiled Palestinian national movement. While lacking citizenship, Palestinian refugees received relatively wide-ranging rights in Syria. However, fleeing alongside Syrians during the ongoing civil war, Palestinian Refugees from Syria (PRS) have faced special hardship due to their Palestinian identity and lack of citizenship.

Initially, most countries neighboring Syria accepted Palestinian refugees along with Syrians. However, only Turkey is currently allowing PRS to enter the country. Jordan closed its borders to PRS in 2012. Lebanon instituted regulations in 2014 to stop Palestinians entering from Syria both at the border and at Beirut’s airport. Egypt has been detaining and deporting both PRS and Syrian refugees and, according to Human Rights Watch, forcing them either to return to Lebanon, where they cannot legally stay longer than 48 hours, or back to Syria.

PRS that were able to enter either Jordan or Lebanon before restrictions were put in place live in precarious situations as well. Around 15,000 PRS live illegally in Jordan and are in danger of deportation if they are discovered by authorities. Jordan has even gone so far as to strip PRS with Jordanian passports of their citizenship and return them to Syria. In Lebanon, only 3% of around 50,000 PRS entered the country illegally. However, due to changing regulations regarding renewal of temporary visas, 86% of PRS in Lebanon lacked a valid visa as of September 2015. PRS therefore live in constant fear of arrest and deportation due to lack of legal residency. Given that Bashar al-Assad’s regime has tortured hundreds of Palestinians to death and bombed numerous Palestinian camps while groups like Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS have invaded and laid siege to Palestinian camps, return to Syria is a dangerous proposition.

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Palestinian refugees wait for aid in Yarmouk Camp, Damascus

Even for those PRS who manage to stay in Jordan and Lebanon, security and welfare are far from guaranteed. Unlike other refugees, Palestinians are prevented from receiving aid from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR). This is because Palestinians are under the remit of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA). UNHCR, unlike UNRWA, provides protection to refugees and seeks to find durable solutions such as repatriation or resettlement. Palestinians living in countries in UNRWA’s area of operations (Syria, the State of Palestine, Lebanon and Jordan) lack this protection. In the context of the Syrian refugee crisis, PRS are barred from the refugee camps and the associated aid available to Syrian refugees and are not entitled to register with UNHCR to ensure sanctuary in neighboring states. This “protection gap” compounds the insecurity faced by PRS displaced to Jordan and Lebanon.

Additionally, these countries are hardly welcoming to the Palestinian refugees that have lived there for generations. Jordan has policies aimed at preventing certain Palestinian refugees who have lived in Jordan for years from acquiring citizenship. The Lebanese state has long restricted the rights of Palestinian refugees ordinarily living in Lebanon. This has included preventing Palestinians from enrolling in Lebanese public schools, owning or bequeathing property, or working in around twenty professions. These restrictions stem from a fear of Palestinian integration into a complicated political system based on proportional representation according to religious identity. Outsiders in this system and victim to discriminatory laws, Palestinians in Lebanon are heavily reliant on UNRWA for health, education and economic assistance.

The fear of Palestinian integration that drives these policies is similarly driving opposition to PRS seeking refuge in Lebanon and Jordan. UNRWA tries to offer assistance to all Palestinian refugees regardless of residence status. However, refugees without legal residence have trouble accessing these services.  UNRWA operates in and around Palestinian camps in the country, where many PRS have settled, but it also contracts its education and health services out to Lebanese institutions. Without the right to be in the country, PRS are too often too fearful of potential deportation to try and access these services. Also, PRS have even fewer opportunities for work in Lebanon and therefore 80% rely on UNRWA cash assistance as their primary income. Housing is another challenge. PRS overwhelmingly pay disproportionate rents for some of the poorest condition housing within the camps and surrounding areas. Children suffer as well, with only 58% enrolled in schools in Lebanon.

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UNRWA school in Balata Refugee Camp, Nablus

Stateless or stripped of citizenship and lacking the legal right to live in any country other than war-torn Syria, Palestinian Refugees from Syria face a unique set of challenges. Those who manage to reach Lebanon or Jordan cannot live in camps or receive aid provided by UNHCR and are forbidden from working legally in the host country. They face the threat of arrest and deportation and therefore have severely limited access to essential services and support. Many thousands of PRS remain internally displaced in Syria, unable to cross the borders closed to them but open to Syrian refugees.

Palestinian Refugees from Syria are therefore victim to two phenomena: a system of states and borders while lacking citizenship and a Palestinian identity which is seen as a threat to host countries weary of demographic change or political unrest. Unfortunately, without serious systemic change to the refugee regime or the political actors in Jordan or Lebanon, these forgotten refugees will remain in a precarious position with uncertain futures.

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