After an eight-year legal battle, a Swiss court has recognised the statelessness of Palestinian refugees from Syria and acknowledged their right to protection. The landmark case could open the door for other Palestinians to secure basic rights as refugees that have been denied to them since their ethnic cleansing by Israel.
The decision by the Federal Supreme Court of Switzerland will grant Palestinian refugees their right of protection under the 1954 UN Convention on the Status of Stateless Persons.
Due to various political and historical reasons, Palestinian refugees are unique in that they suffer from what is referred as a "protection gap" in the international system. Of the six million Palestinian refugees, the vast majority have access to basic services through the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). The agency, however, is not mandated to support Palestinian refugees in their right of return, which is a legitimate, basic right for all refugees.
The UN Conciliation Commission for Palestine (UNCCP) was created alongside UNRWA. The agencies were intended to provide protection and humanitarian assistance respectively to Palestinian refugees. However, the lack of political will meant that the UNCCP was unable to advance Palestinian rights to repatriation, compensation and return, and therefore dissipated in the 1950s, leaving Palestinians with a "protection gap".
Refugees outside UNRWA's s areas of operation — the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon — face a double jeopardy as they are not only denied the services of UNRWA, but also denied comprehensive protection granted under various UN conventions such as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
The decision by the Swiss court is a fundamental change in the practical application of the 1954 Convention that previously prevented the Palestinian refugees from Syria from obtaining basic rights granted to others, including the rights of residency, work and movement. The decision follows a lawsuit filed by Ghada Al-Rayyan, a Palestinian-Syrian legal researcher at Law for Palestine Organisation. Al-Rayyan fled to Switzerland in 2014 after the outbreak of the war in Syria. Her plea sought an amendment to the description of Palestinian refugees coming from Syria from "de facto stateless persons or citizens of an unknown state to de jure stateless refugees".
"It is a fundamental change in the practical application of the Convention that previously prevented Palestinian refugees coming from Syria from obtaining the right of protection, which guarantees them the basic rights of residency, work and movement," Al-Rayyan told MEMO. "Our case is the first one where the Supreme Court of Switzerland or the top court has acknowledged us as stateless people which allows us to seek protection under the UN Convention under which signatory nations have to issue full residency permits which have no bar on travel or human basic rights. The Palestinians coming from Syria will not be automatically granted the acknowledgement to their de jure statelessness. However, they have a strong case in hand that changed the practical application of the 1954 UN Convention on stateless people."
Al-Rayyan said that she feels "very relieved and proud" after her victory. "It was a very tiring and long battle that drained my time, resources, patience and, more important, my family's hope."
Commenting on UNRWA's ability to protect Palestinian refugees, Al-Rayyan said that it is very much dependent on the political decisions of the host countries. "The siege of Al-Yarmouk Camp in Damascus is a clear demonstration that the protection of UNRWA is limited to the relief, humanitarian and social services." The camp came under heavy attack by forces loyal to the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad from around 2013.