The Nakba, the Catastrophe inflicted upon the Palestinian people by the Zionists began in 1948. Whilst modern Europeans complain about immigration from Africa and Asia, Palestinians under the British Mandate were suddenly subjected to a surge of Russian, Polish, Hungarian, Austrian, German and French immigrants (amongst other nationalities). As this vast European immigration and colonial enterprise took hold, Palestinian land held by absentee landlords was sold to Zionist businessmen, who then purged the land of its Palestinian inhabitants and replaced them with people of Jewish origin who had recently landed from Europe, paving the way for the state of Israel to be born.
Modern Zionist academics, such as Professor Efraim Karsh, argue that there was no such thing as a “Palestinian” identity anyway, a rhetoric frequently adopted by Zionist propagandists who claim, in real colonialist fashion, that they did the world a favour and “civilised” and “cultivated” the land. What is undeniable is that land inhabited by Palestinians was taken from them gradually, methodically and systematically.
As the state of Israel came into existence, some Palestinians, a people denied as having even existed by many Zionists, were fortunate enough to be allowed to remain in Palestine, many becoming refugees in their own land. Roughly half of the Palestinian population at the time, however, were cast out of the land of their fathers and grandfathers, left to roam the earth and settle in refugee camps in different countries and across different continents.
Neighbouring countries in the Middle East, such as Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Syria sheltered the majority of displaced Palestinians after the Nakba in 1948 and the occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem in 1967 to date.
Refugee Week 2016 kicks off with record number of refugees around the globe
Millions of people across the globe are marking refugee week to show solidarity with people who have been forced to flee their homes due to war and persecution. MEMO will be publishing in-depth stories and articles to shed light on the plight of refugees, statelessness and the affect the #RefugeeCrisis is having on the international community.
While most Palestinian refugees in Jordan were given full citizenship, elsewhere in the Middle East they continued to live in limbo as “stateless” residents of refugee camps. Under the rule of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, Palestinian refugees were granted residency permits, the right to work and full access to government services, unlike Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, for example. However, since the 2003 Iraq war and the rise of instability and insecurity in the country, Palestinians have found themselves fleeing death once again seeking shelter in Syria and Jordan
Syria’s Palestinian refugees
Before Syria’s civil war erupted, an estimated 560,000 Palestinians and their descendants, both registered and unregistered, lived inside and outside official and unofficial United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) camps. As a deadly conflict unfolded and gripped the country, Syria’s Palestinian refugees found themselves displaced once again, this time forced to venture even further away from home.
Of the 560,000 Palestinian refugees in Syria, according to UNWRA, “up to 280,000 are currently displaced inside Syria, with a further 110,000 displaced to neighbouring countries including Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Egypt and, increasingly, to Europe.”
Much like their Syrian counterparts, Palestinian refugees residing in Syria have suffered as a result of the civil war which killed more than 220,000 people since 2011. Palestinian refugee camps, including Yarmouk, the largest of the UNRWA Palestinian camps in Syria, have been caught in the fighting between government forces and Daesh and have, as a result, been subject to repeated attacks and prolonged sieges by the Assad regime, restricting the entry of fundamental supplies and aid.
The apocalyptic photo of a sea of people stretching as far as the eye can see and spilling out of blitzed buildings in Yarmouk camp, pushing on to get to the front of the queue in order to receive food parcels during an UNRWA food distribution mission after being cut off for months, reflects the unimaginable desolation, desperation and devastation that the conflict inflicted upon Palestinians. Today, a total of 90 per cent of Yarmouk’s residents have fled the camp, with only 7,000–8,000 of the 148,000 people who once lived there remaining.
No longer welcome
While many are still displaced within Syria, Palestinian refugees who fled Syria to neighbouring countries in the Middle East have found it twice as hard as the Syrians themselves.
Being “stateless” has rendered Palestinian refugees some of the most vulnerable amongst Syrian refugees and made them the target of growing hostilities, discrimination and stigmatisation within the host countries.
Since they do not have the Syrian nationality, Palestinian refugees have been unable to legally live in refugee camps established for Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries, such as Jordan and Lebanon. In January 2013, Jordan announced a non-entry policy for Palestinian refugees coming from Syria, leaving many of them without proper residency documents or the right to legally work and earn to pay their living costs. Subsequently they have become vulnerable to arrest, exploitation and involuntary deportation back to Syria.
Even worse than Jordan, Lebanon, which initially opened its doors to Syrians fleeing the conflict, has met Palestinians fleeing the war-torn country with outright hostility and subjected them to gross discriminatory practices. Human rights organisations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have documented scores of incidents where the authorities have denied Palestinians entry into Lebanon or forcibly deported them. In May 2014, Lebanon, too, officially closed its borders to Palestinians from Syria (and later to Syrians in general) unless they had documents to prove they were en route to a third country.
Underfunded and fighting a strong political will to close them down, UNRWA, the UN agency mandated to assist Palestinian refugees, has also been unable to provide for the basic needs of Syria’s Palestinian refugees in Jordan and Lebanon
Egypt no longer issues entry visas for Palestinian refugees from Syria either. Under article 1(D) of the 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, the convention does not apply to persons who are already being assisted by another UN agency. As such, Palestinians refugees in Egypt cannot register with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), the UN refugee agency which provides assistance to Syrian refugees, hence no UN agency is responsible for the assistance or protection of Palestinian refugees in Egypt as it falls outside UNRWA’s area of operations.
Off to Europe
However, since the 2003 Iraq war and the rise of instability and insecurity in the country, Palestinians have found themselves fleeing death once again seeking shelter in Syria and Jordan.
Turkey now hosts around 1.9 million registered Syrian refugees, the world’s largest community of Syrians displaced by the ongoing conflict, and its policy has been characterised by the principle of non-refoulement (no forced return to the country of origin). Though since, like Egypt, Turkey is not part of UNRWA’s area of operations, Palestinian refugees do not have access to the agency’s assistance in Turkey, nor to that of the UNHCR, and their legal status in the country remains unclear.
Many European countries have created a special refugee status by which Syrians can apply for and receive asylum on the same day. The asylum-seeking process for Syria’s Palestinian refugees in Europe, however, has not been as straightforward. As the issue presented itself and Palestinian refugees were stranded at border controls, many were marked as Syrians for administrative ease.
A spokesperson for the German Federal Office for Migration and Refugees told Al Jazeera that Syrian-born Palestinians are regarded in the same manner as Syrian nationals under German refugee law. A spokesperson for the Ministry of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada also told Al Jazeera that Canada is adopting special measures to offer asylum to the Palestinians coming from Syria, saying: “People from Syria with a country of citizenship other than Syria, and stateless people are eligible [for resettlement in Canada] when referred by UNHCR.” Officials from the UK Home Office, however, refused to comment when asked whether Syrian-born Palestinians are expected to be among the 20,000 Syrian refugees that Britain has pledged to resettle within its borders.
As Europe continues to be the most viable destination for Palestinians fleeing Syria, and for Syrians at large, the refugees continue to risk their lives and pour their life savings into boats promising them hope on the other side of the Mediterranean. Although the recent Europe-Turkey deal aimed to discourage refugees from undergoing the precarious sea journey to reach the European mainland, those deadly aquatic journeys continue, carrying hundreds to their deaths, with the added risk of being shot at, arrested, or detained by European authorities upon arrival.
Despite increasing efforts for widespread international recognition of a Palestinian state, the refugee crisis and the statelessness of Palestinian refugees fleeing Syria are a stark reminder of the failure of the international community to ensure the Palestinian Right of Return, guaranteed by UN resolution 194 and the Fourth Geneva Convention, and of the need to secure justice for millions of Palestinian refugees across the globe.
The video below shows Em Fathi, a Palestinian refugee who was forced out of her home Palestine in 1948. Em Fathi and her family made the journey from Saffuriya, a village in Palestine’s northern district of Nazareth, to Yarmouk Refugee Camp in Syria where she lived in 2009 when this interview was conducted.
Since civil war erupted in Syria in 2011, the fate and whereabouts of Em Fathi and her family have not been widely known.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.