Rampant political instability and deadly civil wars in the Middle East have turned the Mediterranean Sea into a graveyard. More than 500 refugees have been drowned while trying to cross into Europe in the first half of October alone. The exact number of fatalities may never be known because many undertake the perilous journey in secret. A growing number of Palestinians, mainly refugees from Syria, are among the victims of this risky exodus. Their situation is exceptionally tragic given that they are third and fourth generation refugees, descendants of those ethnically-cleansed from Palestine in 1948 by the nascent state of Israel and denied their legal right of return ever since.
Whether the ill-fated ships were seaworthy or not is a moot point, as is whether or not the last to be sunk, in which some 200 Palestinians drowned, was attacked by armed Libyans. These are mere consequential facts, not causes.
Like the rest of the Syrian population, the Palestine refugees have been affected critically by the conflict. Almost all of the refugee camps have witnessed mayhem and widespread destruction. Today the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) estimates that 235,000 of the 529,000 registered Palestine refugees in Syria have been displaced internally. Ninety per cent of the refugee population, the agency confirms, are in need of urgent assistance. Meanwhile, some 70,000 more have fled to neighbouring countries, mainly Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Libya and the Gaza Strip.
Significantly, a quick glance at the UNRWA website shows that there is not a single Arab country among its top ten donors (the agency is funded entirely by voluntary donations from UN member states). Not only have the League of Arab States failed to protect refugees and provide humanitarian assistance, despite its much-publicised pledges, but some of its individual member states have also adopted policies that are blatantly anti-Palestinian. They seriously limit Palestinian options, forcing hundreds to attempt the hazardous Mediterranean crossing in search of security and a dignified life.
As the civil war takes its shocking toll in Syria, neighbouring countries have tightened border controls to stop the flow of refugees. In Jordan, for example, the authorities have announced that Palestinian refugees will no longer be allowed to cross its borders.
Under its new military rulers, meanwhile, Egypt has given in to Israeli demands to tighten the blockade of the Gaza Strip. Those refugees who fled the Syrian inferno in the hope that they could return to the sliver of their homeland free of a permanent Israeli presence have now been denied access by their "Brothers" in Cairo.
In Lebanon, the picture is equally disheartening. There, Palestinian refugees face a raft of bureaucratic obstacles. Treated as if they are tourists instead of refugees fleeing a civil war, they are called upon to produce entry visas and documentation to prove that they have relatives in the country. Many view this as a sinister excuse to keep them out. Even if they do manage to enter Lebanon, they find that Palestinians are barred by another "brotherly" Arab government from working in around 70 professions in the country.
If ever it was needed, last week's tragedy in the Mediterranean is compelling proof of the vulnerability of Palestinian refugees, their diminishing options and growing desperation. The recent disasters bring into focus their exceptional plight as they continue to require protection in the absence of a just solution to their exile which is now in its seventh decade.
According to UNRWA's Commissioner-General, Filippo Grandi, "These dreadful developments underline the importance of ending hostilities [in Syria] to avoid tragic loss of life… This very complex crisis has a Palestinian dimension which must be addressed."
Closer to home, the tragedies throw the spotlight directly upon the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), which prides itself on being the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. At the very least, the PLO must seize the opportunity to advance the cause of the refugees so that they can exercise their right of return.
Both the circumstances and manner in which the refugees died in the Mediterranean must serve as a turning point so that some good comes out of the tragedy. Henceforth, nothing should be done, at the negotiating table or elsewhere, to undermine or jeopardise Palestinian repatriation and restitution of stolen land and property.
Surely the entity which caused the problem in the first place, the state of Israel, must be held to account. It would be a travesty to the memory of the victims if the Palestinian leadership was to capitulate to Israel's current demands to abandon the right of return and recognise Israel as a Jewish state. It must never be forgotten that these men, women and children died on the high seas not only because their land is occupied, but more importantly because they are barred from exercising their legal right to return and are persecuted in the places in which they have sought refuge.
Without a resolution of the Palestinian refugee problem on the basis of international law, Europe will, regrettably, witness many more of these appalling tragedies, with bodies washing up on its southern shores. Even with such unfavourable risks, many refugees appear to have decided already that it is better to take the chance to try for a secure life in Europe rather than die in their wretched camps.
Inevitably, many more will perish while attempting to cross the Mediterranean in unseaworthy boats. If the mounting losses are not to be in vain, death in the Mediterranean must give new life to the push for a just solution to the Palestinian refugee issue.