As Syria witnesses what has evolved into a full-blown civil war, the Palestinian refugees in Syria are in a particularly precarious position given their refugee status in the country. The fast evolving positions of key international players could see the ongoing mayhem in Syria evolve into an altogether unforeseen direction. During these times of uncertainty, one thing is certain – the Palestinian refugees and their demands for a better future continue to suffer due to the entanglement of their aspirations with contradictory regional and international geo-political interests.
This article examines how the events in Syria over the past three year have impacted the Palestinians in the country and assesses the possible implications of the ongoing upheaval and uncertainty for this particular community. The paper concludes by arguing that the fate of the Palestinians, like that of the Syrian people, not only remains uncertain, but is also particularly perilous given their refugee politico-legal status in Syria. The geopolitical situation in the region has in the past, and continues to take a heavy toll on the Palestinian refugees.
The Palestinians in Syria
Of the 726,000 Palestinians that escaped during the Nakba or first exodus in 1948, an estimated 85,000- 90,000 Palestinians fled to Syria. The over half a million Palestinians living in Syria before the start of the civil war are mostly descendants of refugees who arrived then. These refugees fall under the mandate of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). This population have enjoyed unparalleled rights when compared to other Palestinian refugees – they can hold passports, own homes and take jobs. Palestinians benefited from the Baath party’s absolute support and the reality of these rights, coupled with the place of Palestine in Arab nationalist ideology and rhetoric, has allowed for the Palestinians’ unique civil rights and relative stability in Syria while shoring the regime’s Arab nationalist credentials. These refugees first settled in overcrowded residential quarters, residing in abandoned schools, and other public institutions. Later official refugee campus, such as the Yarmouk camp in the outskirts of Damascus, were established and operated by UNRWA. In many ways, the camps in Syria were much better compared to other Palestinian camps in the neighboring Arab states. However, once Bashar al-Assad’s rule was challenged, the old dogmas and rivalries drove the Palestinians into despair. The Palestinian credentials and political alignments, played a dangerous role in a backlash against the community at the onslaught of the civil war.
The Onslaught of the Civil War
Since the beginning of the conflict in Syria in March 2011, more than one million Syrians have been internally displaced. More than 700,000 have fled to neighboring countries. However, these figures do not include those not registered with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), suggesting that these numbers might in actuality be significantly higher.
Approximately 235,000 Palestine refugees from Syria are displaced in Syria, while over 60,000 have fled the country. Palestine refugees from Syria have been severely affected by the ongoing armed conflict. Almost all of their residential areas have experienced armed engagements or the use of heavy weapons. The massively underfunded UNRWA is struggling to provide assistance to these groups, both internally displaced in Syria, and forced to migrate to neighboring countries. As of February 2014, UNRWA lacks 91.60% of the funds it needs to address the needs of these displaced population.
There were reports that Jordan and Lebanon have turned away Palestinian refugees attempting to flee the humanitarian crises in Syria. Jordan has absorbed 126,000 Syrian refugees, but Palestinians fleeing Syria are placed in a separate refugee camp, under stricter conditions and are banned from entering Jordanian cities. Faced with no options, many Palestinian refugees are seeking asylum in Europe. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine claimed in October, 2013 that over 23,000 Palestinian refugees from the Yarmouk Camp in Syria had immigrated to Sweden alone. Due to the rapidly shifting landscape and lack of robust information from the crises, the effect of the Syrian civil war on the Palestinian refugees is best studied through the case studies. The following section presents two case studies – one of Palestinian refugees from Syria in Lebanon, and the other from the Yarmouk Refugee Camp in Damascus.
Case Study: Palestinian Refugees from Syria in Lebanon
As of November 2013, more than 51,000 Palestinians displaced from Syria have registered with UNRWA in Lebanon. Refugees twice over, they are special cases because they are to be served by UNRWA rather than UNHCR, according to UN mandates. UNRWA is chronically underfunded and ill-equipped to manage such a large and rapid influx of Palestinian refugees. Already overcrowded and very poorly equipped to meet the needs of refugee influx, the existing UNRWA structures in Lebanon – schools, health clinics, and social services – are struggling to keep up the pace with this fast evolving crisis.
In March 2013, American Near East Refugee Aid (ANERA) conducted a needs assessment of the Palestinian refugees from Syria displaced by the civil war. The results of the survey provides an insight into the disruptive effects of the war on this already vulnerable population. The survey showed that 96.5% of families witnessed armed conflict while in Syria. About 94% of the surveyed group lived through some type of personal traumatic experiences, including death in the family, physical trauma, or home destruction. The makeshift camps set up by UNRWA in Lebanon lacks the most basic of services, and urgent needs such as appropriate psychological evaluation and intervention, is mostly neglected.
The livelihoods of the Palestinian refugees from Syria differ greatly from the general Syrian refugee population living in Lebanon. Palestinian refugees from Syria do not have the automatic right to employment in Lebanon while Syrian citizens do. They lack both the legal framework and informal social networks related to employment, which can provide a vital economic lifeline in this crisis.
This survey also discovered that only 10% of working age Palestinian refugees from Syria are employed in Lebanon. It should also be mentioned that more than one-third of the working-age members of this population were unemployed in Syria, and due to the lack of educational opportunities and training in Syria, they come to Lebanon already at a disadvantage. With no end in sight, the Palestinian refugees from Syria face prolonged displacement in Lebanon and their inability to financially sustain themselves in Lebanon makes them particularly vulnerable.
Case study: Yarmouk Camp in Damascus
Yarmouk was established in 1957 on an area of 2.11 square kilometers to accommodate Palestinian refugees forced out of their homeland following the Nakba. Over time, refugees living in Yarmouk have strived to improve their residences and public institutions in the camp. Before the war, living conditions in Yarmouk were significantly better than in Palestinian refugee camps in other parts of the Arab world. The majority of the residents in Yarmouk were second and third generation Palestinians and in many ways had incorporated into the Syrian population, taking up professions such as medicine, engineering and civil service. However, as the Syrian war intensified, Yarmouk struggled to remain neutral. There were clashes between those who supported the largely Sunni anti-government opposition and those who favored staying out or who backed the regime dominated by Alawites. Rebel forces marched into Yarmouk and took control, leading to the majority of the civilian population to flee. The Syrian army then blockaded and bombarded Yarmouk. Of its 250,000 Palestinians, scarcely 18,000 now remain. UNRWA reports that up to 1,500 people have died, many of them due to hunger.
The ongoing battle between the Free Syrian Army, rebel forces and the Syrian army has disrupted the flow of crucial aid to the civilian population. Infant malnutrition, maternal mortality and starvation is now a fact of life in Yarmouk. Recent peace talks in Geneva have allowed some aid to trickle into the camp, and the safe passage of some civilians out of Yarmouk.
Through the analysis of case studies presented in this paper, it can be said that the Palestinian refugees in Syria represent one of the worst affected groups following the Syrian civil war. The scale of the Syria conflict and its devastating humanitarian consequences continue to outstrip forecasts and planning scenarios set forth by UNRWA and aid organizations. In light of the particular vulnerability of this refugee population, the international community must collectively work to ensure the following:
- Preserve the resilience of Palestinian communities, including those displaced inside Syria and those forced to flee to neighboring countries.
- Provide a protective framework for Palestinian communities and provide access to basic services
- Strengthen humanitarian capacity and coordination to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of emergency program delivery
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