This November marked 60 years since the 1954 United Nations convention which first promised to tackle the issue of statelessness was adopted. Today however the problem is far from resolved and being stateless – not considered a national of any state-effects at least 10 million people worldwide. To mark the 60th anniversary of the UN’s pledge, MEMO has produced a series of articles on Palestinian statelessness.
Read the last two articles of the series: Palestinians in East Jerusalem fighting complete erasure and The Palestinians of Lebanon; a life of curtailed rights and limited opportunities.
The image of an endless river of people spilling out of half destroyed buildings looks like a scene from the apocalypse. The photo, taken on a UNRWA food distribution mission, is of Yarmouk, a refugee camp in Syria.
Palestinians escaping the violence that surrounded the birth of Israel made a home in Yarmouk nearly 60 years ago, but with the progression of the conflict in Syria, the camp was transformed into a theatre of war as rebel fighters moved in and the Syrian government sealed it off from the outside world. The result was starvation and utter desperation, and yet another layer to the endless Palestinian narrative of displacement.
In Syria, Palestinian refugees were considered comparatively better off than those who had fled to other Arab countries. They were not Syrian citizens but they could work and own property, unlike Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, for example. Yarmouk itself was a thriving pocket of economic activity located on the outskirts of Damascus. When the current crisis began in Syria, it was home to the country’s largest Palestinian refugee community and resembled a residential district rather than a refugee camp.
Since then, the camps population has diminished from 160,000 to 18,000. Over 70,000 Palestinians from Syria have fled to neighboring countries including Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, Turkey and Iraq, or even further afield to escape the violence. The residents of Yarmouk are splintered across the globe and most are rebuilding their lives in another country for a second time, at least.
Last week Chris Gunness, spokesperson for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) said that the plight of Palestine refugees from Syria in the Middle East is becoming increasingly grave as a result of closed borders and a series of forced returns from neighbouring countries.
“We acknowledge the enormous efforts of neighbouring countries to provide refuge to Palestine refugees and the security challenges they face, but we are receiving increasing reports of Palestine refugees from Syria finding it difficult to seek refuge in countries in the region including Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Egypt as well as in Europe,” said Mr. Gunness
Stateless Palestinians of Syria are finding few doors open to them. Compared to the treatment of Syrian nationals, it is clear that there is a system of discrimination in place. Singled out for increasing restrictions on access to asylum, they have become the target of growing hostility within the host countries and communities.
Even when the war is over, they have dubious chances of returning to a country that has never recognised them as citizens and neighbouring countries are fearful that they may remain. Most of these countries have already sheltered many Palestinian refugees fleeing from the violence that came with the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 and the occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem from 1967 onwards.
Lebanon has provided refuge to 44,000 Palestine refugees from Syria since the conflict began. On November 25, 2013, Human Rights Watch wrote to the Lebanese minister of interior to raise concerns about “an apparent change in practice, and perhaps in policy, that seems to have begun in early August 2013 whereby Palestinians generally are denied entry from Syria.”
The organization has documented many incidents of forcible deportations of Palestinians. Amnesty International has also documented instances of Lebanon arbitrarily denying Palestinians entry, or forcibly deporting them. This is a violation of international law’s non-refoulement principle, which prohibits the return of individuals to a situation where they would be at risk of persecution or serious human rights abuses.
Although Lebanon’s minister of the interior issued a statement in May 2014 saying “there is no decision preventing Palestinian refugees in Syria from entering Lebanon and passing through the country,” Amnesty International issued a report on July 1st that includes an alleged leaked document from the Directorate of General Security. In it, Lebanon’s general security directorate ordered all airlines to “not transport any traveller who is a Palestinian refugee in Syria to Lebanon no matter the reason and regardless of the documents or IDs that they hold”, threatening to penalise airlines in case of non-compliance.
In September, Lebanese authorities afforded Palestine Refugees from Syria the opportunity to extend expired visas free of charge for 3 months, while Syrians were given six months. A lack of clarity over what will happen when that expires has created barriers when it comes to accessing social services, and leaves them pondering where they will end up.
According to Zizette Darkazally from UNRWA’s Lebanon office, the difference of treatment between nationals and Palestinian refugees from Syria is clear: “They come to Lebanon for the same reason but they are not treated the same or have access to the same opportunities.” Darkazally added: “When it comes to the positive aspects, they are excluded because they are not Syrians, but when it comes to the negative things they also stigmatised because they came from Syria.”
Around 15,000 Palestinian refugees from Syria registered with UNRWA in Jordan. Hundreds, if not thousands, of Palestinians living in Syria have been denied access to Jordan since 2012, when the Jordanian authorities made it harder for Palestinian refugees from Syria to enter the country, before announcing the policy officially in January 2013.
When asked why Palestinians from Syria were not being granted access to Jordan, representatives of the Jordanian authorities told Amnesty International in June 2013 that they do not wish to harm Palestinians’ “right of return”. This policy, aimed directly at Palestinians, literally means life or death for many. In 2014, UNRWA heard of 106 cases of involuntary deportations of Palestine refugees from Jordan to Syria, including women and children.
As a result of the Jordanian government’s policy, many Palestinians from Syria do not have proper residency papers in Jordan and are therefore vulnerable to exploitation, arrest, and deportation.
Palestinians cannot legally live in the official refugee camps for Syrians and have no choice but to rent apartments in Jordanian towns and cities, yet cannot legally work to earn money for rent. Around180 Palestinians have ended up in a camp called Cyber City, in conditions that some say amount to arbitrary detention. Unlike the Syrian refugees there, Palestinians from Syria staying in Cyber City have not been permitted to obtain “bail out” to live in host communities. Other than short periods of leave granted every two to three weeks to visit their family members in Jordanian cities, Palestinians living in Cyber City can only leave the camp to return to Syria.
Meanwhile, in Egypt, where an estimated 4,000 Palestinian refugees currently reside, entry for Palestine refugees from Syria requires a visa, but these are no longer issued for them. Palestinian refugees are also seeking to flee Syria via Turkey but UNRWA does not have a mandate to operate in Turkey. While Syrian refugees receive assistance from the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), Palestinians fall under the mandate of UNRWA, with its smaller relief budget.
“Palestinians are among the most vulnerable people in the Syria conflict,” stated Amnesty International’s Joe Stork after reports surfaced of dozens of Palestinians being sent back to Syria by Lebanon. Many Palestinian refugees of Syria have fled the war-torn country. Their status as stateless people has led to a situation in which, having escaped unimaginable horrors by fleeing to neighbouring countries or boarding rickety boats destined for further afield, they have found themselves unwelcomed and stigmatised.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.