The Crisis Unseen

Jerash camp in Jordan. >Flickr/Omar Chatriwala

The Crisis Unseen

Palestinians Flee Syria with Fewer Options than Ever 

War and mass destruction in Syria and Iraq have compelled hundreds of thousands of refugees to leave the Middle East for Europe. In 2014, approximately 220,000 people reached the European Union mostly by sea. During the first six months of 2015, more than half that number arrived in Europe. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the majority of these refugees, about 34%, are from Syria.

Jerash camp in Jordan. >Flickr/Omar Chatriwala

Jerash camp in Jordan. >Flickr/Omar Chatriwala

This, of course, is only a fraction of the story. While the growing number of refugees traveling to Europe presents a real challenge for governments, the vast majority of refugees have fled to areas within the Middle East, not Europe. The crisis of Syrian displacement has long affected its neighbors in critical ways. Since the 2011 Syrian Uprising, about 4 million Syrians have fled the country and an additional 7.6 million have been internally displaced. More than 600,000 Syrian refugees, for example, have traveled to Jordan alone. Many are stranded in camps like Za’atari, which houses about 80,000 refugees in the desert. In Lebanon and Turkey, the number of refugees has passed 3 million. Some 130,000 have fled to Egypt while tens of thousands have fled to countries throughout the region hoping to create a new life while Syria rapidly dissolves.

The comparative inattention to refugees in the Middle East has not only obscured the scale and condition of Syrian refugees in the region, it has also muted the variety of experiences that constitute the crisis. We know little, for example, about the distinct backgrounds of the millions of refugees leaving Syria. Prior to the war, Syria was home to a diverse range of peoples including Armenians, Kurds, Assyrians and Arabs. Each community has its own internal diversity and reflects the outcome of complex historical processes rooted in Ottoman, European colonial and postcolonial politics and power. Understanding the historical experiences of these communities can help us see beyond the homogenizing label of “refugee” and consider their unique struggles and goals. It can also facilitate a more focused and sensitive approach that can avoid perpetuating past inequalities and suffering.

But there is one group of refugees whose displacement from Syria is only the latest event in an experience of exile more than 60 years in the making: Palestinians. Discussing their historical experience and contemporary predicament is a critical task, in some ways representing both a lesson and a tragedy that the world should consider as the latest movement of Middle Eastern peoples takes shape. It also underscores the need to consider the specifics of displacement that are often flattened as we speak about refugees as a single and mass phenomenon.

Palestinian refugee camp in 1948. >Flickr/gnuckx

Palestinian refugee camp in 1948. >Flickr/gnuckx

Palestinian Refugees and Syria

The story of Palestinian refugees in Syria begins with the story of Palestinian refugees more generally. During the 1948 Palestine War, approximately 800,000 Palestinians fled their homeland as Zionist forces conquered more than three-quarters of Mandate Palestine. Expecting to return after the end of hostilities, most Palestinians migrated to Lebanon, Jordan and Syria. The expectation of return was affirmed internationally with the passing of U.N. General Assembly Resolution 194 in 1948, which clearly stated that “refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so.” Yet once the war ended, the newly established state of Israel refused to acknowledge Palestinians’ right of return.

Committed to establishing a Jewish majority in Israel and the erasure of the Palestinian past, the Israeli government rejected the possibility of mass return. Instead, it offered Palestinian homes to Jewish immigrants and destroyed approximately 420 villages over the next few years to ensure that Palestinians had nothing to return to. The massive forced expulsions and traumatic losses that occurred during the war are referred to as the Nakba, or “the disaster.” Nakba Day is annually commemorated on May 15 as a day of remembrance.

The situation of Palestinian refugees was compounded in 1967 by the Six Day War. A decisive Israeli victory over the combined forces of Egypt, Syria and Jordan led to the occupation of new territory and displaced an additional 300,000 Palestinians in the region. Most of these refugees fled to Jordan, but some joined Palestinians already in Syria and Egypt. Like in 1948, the U.N. responded by passing another resolution. In this case, however, it was the Security Council that, in Resolution 242, declared the “inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war” and called for an Israeli withdrawal from all newly occupied territory and re-emphasized the call for a “just settlement to the refugee problem.” Needless to say the Israeli government refused to relinquish any territory acquired during the war and continued to ignore the right of refugees to return to their former homes.

Since their displacement in the 1948 and 1967 wars, Palestinians in Syria have lived in one of 12 U.N. Relief and Works Agency refugee camps or in cities and towns throughout the country. Those registered with the U.N. have received modest support in the areas of education, healthcare and employment. The assistance has been critical for a population dispossessed of homes and livelihoods and with few resources available to start anew. Compared with the situation of Palestinians in surrounding countries, the refugees in Syria had enjoyed a relatively stable position. In Lebanon, for example, Palestinians have been denied access to citizenship and face severe restrictions in just about every aspect of life, including education and work.

In Syria, however, Palestinians had much fewer restrictions. In compliance with the Casablanca Protocol of 1965, the Syrian government extended the right to travel and work to Palestinians despite their refugee status. Moreover, the government allowed for Palestinians to assimilate into Syrian society without the demographic concerns cited by Lebanon and Jordan. Indeed, over the past 60 years, some Palestinian camps have become neighborhoods of cities and have expanded to include the presence of Syrians.

A Palestinian refugee camp outside Damascus. >Flickr/Michael-Ann Cerniglia

A Palestinian refugee camp outside Damascus. >Flickr/Michael-Ann Cerniglia

Palestinians and the Syrian War

Since the Syrian Uprising in 2011, the situation for Palestinians has changed dramatically. According to the U.N., the conflict has displaced about 360,000 of 560,000 Palestinian refugees in Syria. The majority of these Palestinians have been internally displaced within Syrian borders. The rest have fled to Lebanon, Jordan or elsewhere.

For those who stayed in Syria, their situation has become increasingly dangerous. A recent report on the condition of Palestinian refugees suggests that 48,000 live in areas inaccessible to humanitarian aid agencies. Limits on aid has increased the vulnerability of Palestinians to various forms of exploitation and diminished their capacity to withstand the deteriorating social, economic and health conditions. The lack of international funding has also crippled the U.N.’s ability to provide adequate support for Palestinians in need. The UNRWA cash assistance program, for example, which provides monetary aid to refugees in need of basic support, was the equivalent of US $0.43 per day for a period of two months.

One of the key issues affecting Palestinians in Syria is violence. Since the uprisings began, many of the camps have been attacked and damaged as a result of the conflict. One camp in particular, Yarmouk, has been at the center of intense fighting and has become one of the most precarious situations for Palestinian refugees in Syria. Prior to the war, Yarmouk housed about 150,000 Palestinian refugees. Only five miles from the center of Damascus, the camp functioned as a neighborhood of the capital.

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On Nakba Day in 2011, protesters took to Israel’s Lebanese, Gazan and Syrian borders. Thousands of Palestinians living in Syria demonstrated in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Israeli soldiers responded with deadly force (reports say some protesters came armed with stones and gas bombs), opening fire on protesters and killing more than a dozen people, four in the Golan Heights.

But border clashes did not end there. Three weeks later, protests in the Golan Heights erupted once again on the anniversary of the Six Day War. This time, Israeli troops killed 23 Palestinians and wounded hundreds more. U.S. and Israeli officials believed that the Syrian government had likely backed, if not coordinated, these protests as a means to distract from uprisings in Syria. Reports say that many Yarmouk residents felt the same way. Mourners in Yarmouk, after burying protesters killed in the Golan Heights the day before, went to demonstrate at the (Syrian government-backed) Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine’s (PFLP) neighborhood headquarters.

These protests would also take a turn for the tragic; PFLP forces killed 14 people that day. While the PFLP succeeded in suppressing the demonstrations, its violent response undermined its standing in the camp and raised fears that it was prepared to side with the Assad government in the emerging civil war.

Roughly a year and a half after the clashes, in December 2012, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), along with Syrian al-Qaida affiliate group Jabhat al-Nusra, attacked the camp in preparation for the larger goal of conquering Damascus. Despite heavy bombing by the Syrian military, the FSA forced the PFLP to flee the camp, leaving it under rebel control.

Yarmouk’s population plummeted, as the bombing campaign and tense battles displaced tens of thousands of Syrian and Palestinian residents. The Assad government responded by prohibiting shipments of food and medicine into the camp, attacking local farmers and blocking access to aid workers. The restrictions exacerbated an already desperate situation in which Palestinians dependent on aid could no longer access critical resources, and the camp plunged into a deepening humanitarian crisis. The UNRWA disclosed that its food distribution in the district was limited to a total of 131 days in 2014. A March 2014 Amnesty International report estimated that between 17,000 and 20,000 people remained in Yarmouk. (Current population estimates continue to hover in this range. With the district surrounded by government blockades and surveilled from rebel-run checkpoints, these remaining residents are essentially trapped.)

People line up for food at Yarmouk refugee camp. >Flickr/Jordi Bernabeu Farrús

People line up for food at Yarmouk refugee camp. >Flickr/Jordi Bernabeu Farrús

In April 2015, the so-called Islamic State besieged the camp. According to some sources, ISIL’s arrival was negotiated with Jabhat al-Nusra, which controlled some of the checkpoints along the borders and interior of the camp. ISIL’s entry only complicated an already fragile situation. For weeks, ISIL, Jabhat al-Nusra, Syrian rebels and the Syrian government clashed over territorial control. The humanitarian crisis in Yarmouk grew to shocking proportions. In addition to reports of indiscriminate killings by all parties, both water and food assistance dwindled as humanitarian access to the camp all but ceased and rival groups sold off existing aid on the growing black market. ISIL reportedly proceeded to impose its rule on the camp by murdering anyone who resisted in the streets and turning aid centers into its own private coffers.

Although ISIL fighters no longer occupy the camp, today Yarmouk remains extremely precarious. After ISIL withdrew from the district, about 60% of the camp was said to have fallen under al-Nusra control, while the remaining 40% was under government control. These figures probably distort a much more fluid reality on the ground; nevertheless, what is clear is that camp residents remain trapped within a besieged area with limited access to much needed aid. U.N. reports consistently document the growing problems linked to the conflict. Without regular access to the camp, humanitarian agencies suggest that residents are suffering from severe health issues: Aside from malnutrition and starvation, disease outbreaks have grown all the more dangerous due to the limited, easily contaminated food and water supply, agencies say.

Beyond Syria, Little Hope

The majority of Palestinian refugees fleeing the violence in Syria have crossed into Lebanon or Jordan. Recent estimates suggest that about 53,000 Palestinians have arrived in Lebanon since 2011. For these Palestinians, refuge has been anything but secure. Government restrictions, for example, have limited housing opportunities for Palestinians and forced many to seek shelter in existing UNRWA camps. Their arrival has worsened camp conditions, which were already suffering from poor sanitation and severe overcrowding. In addition, the government has prevented any Palestinians from accessing critical government services including health and education. With no alternative, most Palestinians have turned to the limited provisions offered by UNRWA for support.

A lady in the Burj al-Barajneh camp in Lebanon. She fled there after problems began at the Palestinian camp outside Damascus. >Flickr/Oxfam International

A lady in the Burj al-Barajneh camp in Lebanon. She fled there after problems began at the Palestinian camp outside Damascus. >Flickr/Oxfam International

In Jordan, Palestinians face a different set of challenges. Before the war in Syria, roughly half the Jordanian population was of Palestinian descent, something that has made many Jordanian politicians wary in recent years, anxious that Jordan could be home to a Palestinian majority. In the 1950s, Jordanian law transformed most of the Palestinian refugees there into Jordanian citizens, although many kept their refugee cards to access aid and maintain their right to return. Refugees and their descendants make up the bulk of Palestinian-Jordanians.

After the conflict in Syria began, Jordan initially admitted Palestinians along with other Syrian and Iraqi refugees. In 2013, however, Jordan refused to accept any more Palestinian refugees. Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour had strong words as to why: “Jordan is not a place to solve Israel’s problems,” he said in an interview with Al-Hayat. “Jordan has made a clear and explicit sovereign decision to not allow the crossing to Jordan by our Palestinian brothers who hold Syrian documents. … Our Palestinian brothers in Syria have the right to go back to their country of origin. They should stay in Syria until the end of the crisis.”

Jordan, like Lebanon, has not signed the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention, although a Human Rights Watch report stated that the country remained “bound by customary international law” and pointed to regulations that Jordan has agreed to as a member of the executive committee of the U.N. refugee agency.

Today, roughly 16,000 Palestinian refugees from Syria are receiving UNRWA services in Jordan. According to Human Rights Watch, 1,300 arrived before Jordan closed its borders to them. (For comparison, more than 600,000 Syrian refugees have been accepted in Jordan since 2011.) The remaining thousands of Palestinian refugees from Syria are undocumented and therefore unable to access public services or work legally. Most live in urban neighborhoods. Approximately 180 of these Palestinians have been detained in a small refugee camp turned holding facility in the north called Cyber City.

The camp represents a deliberate effort by Jordanian authorities to prevent any new Palestinian camps in the country. About 200 Syrians are also being held there, according to the BADIL Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights, all “married or acquainted to Palestinians.” For those detained in Cyber City, the situation is extremely difficult. Refugees are prohibited from leaving without government authorization, and can visit relatives in Jordan for no longer than 48 hours every two to three weeks. Human Rights Watch criticized the seclusion of Palestinians in Cyber City, the government’s deportations (more than 100 by May 2014) and the consistent denial of new Palestinian refugees seeking shelter from Syria. Moreover, the report added that the Jordanian government’s policies have created vulnerabilities for Palestinians who can no longer obtain proper residency papers and therefore face exploitation, arrest or deportation.


The Palestinian refugee crisis is only a fraction of the larger crisis of displacement in Syria. Yet in some ways it offers an important perspective on the current challenge of displacement and how to avoid its lingering effects. There are at least two points about Palestinian refugees to note as we consider Syrian refugees more generally.

First, the Palestinian refugee crisis underscores the importance of finding immediate, durable solutions. During any mass displacement, the first scenes of flight attract the most attention. The latest crisis is no exception: Images of overcrowded boats and children drowning in the sea cast an urgent light on the predicament of refugees. But as conflicts fade and refugees cease moving, so too does international interest. Nothing demonstrates this more clearly than the Palestinian refugee crisis.

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For over 60 years, Palestinians have been marginalized in camps throughout the region, an “undramatic” status quo for many observers. Long after their initial displacement, international concern with the future of Palestinians seems entirely absent. On the contrary, the international community has subordinated Palestinian rights as refugees to a political process that shows no sign of resolving their situation. Instead of recognizing their rights to return, compensation or resettlement, the response of many international leaders has been to leave Palestinian rights to a “final status issue” in negotiations between an intransigent Israeli government and an incompetent and divided Palestinian Authority.

Ensuring that Syria’s refugees don’t fall into the same situation means that the international community must work to find an immediate permanent solution. Indeed, after years in Jordanian camps, many Syrians are risking their lives to cross back through Syria to reach Europe. Refusing to let the temporary response of a refugee camp turn into a permanent state of dependence that millions of Palestinians in the region face, Syrians are defying the structure of humanitarian aid and determining their own future as they travel to Europe.

The second point we can take from the Palestinian-Syrian refugee case is that not all refugees are created equal. The unique circumstances of communities before displacement often shape the conditions and consequences of their departure in the present. In the Palestinians’ case, their past has a clear impact on their present. Jordan’s refusal to accept any Palestinians as of 2013 is a direct result of the larger Palestinian refugee crisis that began in 1948. Lebanon is no different. For more than 60 years, the Lebanese government has maintained strict regulations that not only exclude Palestinians from equal participation in society but have produced disastrous results in terms of health, education and employment. Today, that situation persists as new groups of Palestinians cross the Lebanese border.

While the situation of Palestinians in Syria may be unique in some ways, it does suggest that the historical experiences of other communities like Kurds and Armenians may be even more important for the present. Thus, the international response should include a perspective that sees the specific challenges that certain refugees may face as members of particular communities. As already stateless people, what might Palestinian refugees need in the current crisis? What historical relations between Kurds in Syria, Iraq and Turkey might be important when considering the flight of Syrian Kurds into surrounding areas? What vulnerabilities might Druze refugees face in light of a growing Sunni-Shiite conflict?

To ask these questions is not to demonstrate academic awareness about the history of the region. It is, rather, to affirm a commitment to seeing beyond the limited categories we use to mobilize international sympathy. Refugees are refugees, but they are also more than that. Acknowledging and addressing this fact might make everyone’s work a little harder, but it might also make for a better solution.

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This article appears in the Winter 2015/2016 print issue of The Islamic Monthly. 

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