Palestine refugees: Perpetual displacements and no return

Bejermi, Middle East Monitor, April 28, 2018

their exodus from their homes in 1948, Palestinians have endured
continuous displacements. Seventy years on and the Syrian
conflict has revealed another tragic episode of displacement and
loss for this vulnerable community.
refugees seen in Iraq [al whit/Twitter]

In order
to face the flight of Palestinians between 1947 and 1948 – as a
result of the ethnic purge, forcible expulsions, massacres (Deir Yassin),
threats and fear for their lives and the UN Partition Plan
of 1947 – the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine
Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) was established on 8 December 1949.

a specific mandate to provide assistance and protection to “Palestine
refugees”, including the maintenance of recognised Palestine refugee
camps, schools, health centres and distribution
centres. Unlike the United Nations High Commissioner for
Refugees (UNHCR), which has a strong international protection mandate around
the world, UNRWA’s mandate is geographically restricted in five areas of
operation: Gaza, the West Bank including East Jerusalem, Lebanon, Jordan,
and Syria. UNRWA’s mandate constitutes a ground for the exclusion of
Palestinians from refugee protection according to article 1D
of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees.
In 1948,
around 750,000 Palestinians were found to be living in refugee camps in the
organisation’s five areas of operation. Today, more than five million
Palestine refugees are eligible for UNRWA services and 1.5 million
live in UNRWA’s camps. The UN agency was initially given a temporary
mandate in 1949, which has been continually extended (until June
2020). UNRWA is being challenged as never before with perpetual financial
shortages. The recent large cut in US payments to UNRWA is questioning the
viability of this special UN agency. The on-going conflict in Syria has also
strongly affected the mission and its work.
to UNRWA, around of 560,000 Palestinians lived in
Syria prior to the 2011 revolution which resulted in the current
war. Syria was generally seen to have been providing the best conditions
for Palestinian refugees comparing to other Arab States. Although Palestinian
refugees had not been granted full Syrian citizenship, they were generally
treated like Syrian Arab citizens. They had many of the same rights as
Syrian nationals, with the exception of the voting rights. Palestinians had the
right to work and own businesses, and were granted universal access to
education and health care. Access to these sectors contributed to the
stability and prosperity of Palestinians in Syria. The majority of them were
concentrated in the greater Damascus area. Yarmouk, although unofficial, was
the biggest camp of Syria and was commercially active in the capital Damascus,
which was also the political hub for Palestinian refugees in Syria.
comparison, nearly 500,000 Palestinian refugees have suffered
marginalisation in Lebanon. The UNRWA 2000 Annual
Report mentioned that Palestinians in Lebanon “suffered from poor living
and housing conditions, restrictions on mobility and high rates of unemployment”. The
Palestinian existence in Lebanon, as in many other Arab
countries,has been governed by a large amount of administrative acts
(decrees, ordinances, orders) and state practice, in order to
prevent settlement. The Lebanese government has in practice established an administrative apparatus targeting Palestinian
refugees. The Palestinian refugees have been classified by the Lebanese
Minister of the Interior as “foreigners”. Several basic rights and
freedoms, including the right to residency and travel, the right to work and employment,
freedom of property, are subjected to the political will of Lebanese
authorities. The right of Palestinian refugees to employment is
subject to three limiting principles: obtaining a work permit, national
preference and reciprocity of rights and obligations. As stateless
refugees, Palestinians are not allowed to acquire land or
property. Without mentioning them, the
Lebanese law prohibits “any person who is not a national of a
recognised state, (…) to acquire real-estate property of any kind”
(Law No. 296. 3 April 2001).
Lebanon, Palestinians also suffer as a result of the country’s dubious
political setup where a balance between Christians and Muslims must be
maintained. To this end, a recent proposed amendment, which aims to
give Lebanese women the ability to pass citizenship to
their children, excludes Lebanese women married to Palestinians
or Syrians.
are also faced with a lack of protection in host countries outside UNRWA’s
remit. In Egypt, the government has not considered the
70,000 Palestinian refugees as eligible for the
UNHCR’s protection. As with many Arab states, Egypt
has expressed its fear that the Palestinian plight will not
be suitably resolved if UNHCR’s solutions – resettlement to
a third country or settlement in the first country of asylum – were
applied to them. As a consequence, the Egyptian government has
issued restrictions on them and Palestinians must
hold an “Egyptian Travel Document for Palestinian Refugees” at all times.
Its validity is conditional on the renewal of a residence permit
which itself is only granted based on the reason for which the applicant is
remaining in Egypt.
secondary displacement of Palestinian refugees from neighbouring countries
is becoming a regular phenomenon due to the lack of protection in
terms of rights and social conditions and/or armed and violent crises.
As of
January 2017, approximately 120,000 Palestinian refugees fled
Syria to neighbouring countries. According to UN
figures, 32,000 fled to Lebanon and 13,000 in Jordan. Unlike
Syrian nationals, Palestinians from Syria (PRS), who carry a “Syrian
Travel Document for Palestinian Refugees”, are
facing discrimination.
Observer for Human Rights reported cases of discrimination including that
of Um Mohammad, a Syrian national in Egypt, who said: “I get
healthcare and food because I have a Syrian passport, but they do not give food
or healthcare to my husband and my children because they are not
Syrians!” Since the Egyptian military coup in July 2013, the situation
of PRS has worsened. Several NGOs have reported the
arbitrary arrest, xenophobia, unlawful detention and deportation of PRS.
In the
same way, the arrival of PRS in Lebanon has added greater
strain on the already stretched and overpopulated Palestinian refugee
camps. According to UNRWA, “almost 90 per cent of PRS in Lebanon are under
the poverty line and 95 per cent are food insecure.” The presence of
Palestinian refugees from Syria (Sunni
Muslims) has also raised concerns
amongst the Christian and Shia communities.
Palestinians are
in a situation where “their lives may not be at risk, but their basic rights
and essential economic, social and psychological needs remain unfulfilled after
years in exile” (2004 UNHCR document). The
on-going Palestinian-Israeli conflict is preventing Palestinian
refugees in host countries from enforce their right of return.  Their
unbearable situation is also the consequence of the very little the
UNHCR has done to support their struggle for survival. Palestinian
refugees are therefore left at the mercy of those who received them 70 years
ago and ever since.
They are
in perpetual displacements.