The Second Exodus:Tracing the Footsteps of Palestinian Refugees in Syria

The case of Palestinian Refugees registered in Syria (PRS) is a difficult one. Once considered lucky, compared to Palestinian refugees in neighboring countries, PRS now face secondary displacement due to the Syrian conflict. Many fled to neighboring countries with little protection, making them among the most vulnerable refugee groups. The war in Syria impacted PRS significantly; those who fled the country, and those who stayed. It continues to impact the future of PRS in a post-war Syria.

In March 2011, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), registered 550,000 Palestinian Refugees living across Syria. PRS lived in thirteen “camps,” established between 1948 and 1967. Palestinian refugees in Syria were granted permanent residency ID cards, and were fully integrated in the Syrian society. They enjoyed full access to services provided by the state, including education and healthcare, as well as the right to work, with full access to the job market. With the exception of political rights, and some restrictions on owning property, PRS enjoyed rights on par with those of Syrian citizens. While no current statistics are available on the percentage of PRS who hold university degrees, or their contribution to the labor market in Syria, a 2006 study indicated that around 46 percent of PRS acquired education beyond elementary school and about 32 percent beyond secondary school. The same study illustrates that the PRS labor force was similar to the national labor force in Syria; 30 percent of working PRS received their salaries from the public sector.

The largest Palestinian camp in Syria—and once the largest among Palestinian refugee camps in host countries—was not really a camp. While a road sign leading to the area would read Mukhayam al-Yarmouk (Yarmouk camp), Yarmouk was not counted as an official camp by UNRWA. As described by UNRWA, “Yarmouk resembles an urban quarter,” located within the city boundaries-just eight kilometers from the center of Damascus. Until 2011, Yarmouk hosted 160,000 PRS. Many of the refugees in Yarmouk were professionals working as doctors, engineers, and civil servants.

When the Syrian uprising erupted in 2011, twenty-eight-year-old Palestinian activist and Yarmouk native, Musaab Balchi, was based in the capital, pursuing a college degree in communications at the University of Damascus. He became highly invested in the unfolding events and moved back to Yarmouk later that year. Yet, by the summer of 2013, the risks became too high. He explained that “people like ourselves were chased by everybody. To Jabhat al-Nusra, we were ‘infidels’ and spies of the Assad regime. To the regime, we were guilty of supporting the revolution, and cooperating with the opposition factions.” In addition, Palestinian refugee men between the ages of eighteen and thirty were eligible for obligatory military conscription in the Palestine Liberation Army in Syria, which works under the direct command of the Syrian Army.

Musaab was lucky to have family in the United States, and an acceptance letter for a degree program in Florida, which helped him secure a student visa, so he could leave the country in August 2013. However, the case for the majority of PRS is different. According to updated figures, around 120,000 PRS have fled Syria so far. Half of those—an estimated 50,000 people—are not currently registered anywhere. A vast majority fled to neighboring countries where they registered with UNRWA offices: 32,500 in Lebanon and 16,000 in Jordan. Around 1,000 PRS managed to arrive and register in Gaza. Estimates indicate 5,000 PRS live in Egypt, and an unknown number in Turkey. Many are believed to have joined the Syrian migration to Europe, but there is no accurate data on PRS where UNRWA does not operate.

Whether arriving in a country where UNRWA operates or does not, PRS fall in “a protection gap.” UNRWA is a temporary relief agency with a mandate that is subject to renewal every three years. The mandate does not deal with durable solutions for refugees, including resettlement. As explained in a study by Nora Erekat in 2014, UNRWA used to help extend protections to Palestinian refugees in its areas of operation, while the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) protected Palestinian refugees outside those areas.

However, this was not the case after 2011. Host countries were wary of allowing PRS in and setting a precedent. Jordan (where UNRWA operates) and Egypt (where UNRWA doesn’t operate) refused to recognize the refugee status of PRS, stressing that PRS “are refugees only in Syria.” While PRS were allowed to register with UNRWA in Jordan, they were not allowed to with UNHCR in Egypt.  Official registration gives PRS access to aid, basic services, and documentation of birth, death, marriage, etc. Yet, it remains at the discretion of host countries whether to grant protection and legal status. Several cases of detention and forced returns of PRS exist in both countries. By 2013, both Jordan and Egypt banned PRS from entering altogether. In Lebanon, authorities subjected PRS to “special procedures” that were not required for Syrian refugees. Obtaining an exit permit from the ministry of interior in Syria, high visa costs, and a permit to enter existing Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon are examples of such measures. Moreover, the general living conditions of PRS in Lebanon are exceptionally harsh. PRS were forced twenty or more in a room, and often could not afford to pay rent and provide food for their families.

Inside Syria, the conditions for PRS have been getting worse. Due to the conflict, the majority of remaining 438,000 PRS were internally displaced at least once, and some multiple times. The war affected all Palestinian camps; and in some areas camps were deserted completely. Over 95 percent of PRS are in continuous need of humanitarian aid. As of today, UNRWA estimates that there are 56,600 PRS in besieged and hard to reach areas. By the end of 2013, the population of PRS in Yarmouk dropped from 160,000 in 2011 to around 18,000. While the war intensified, Yarmouk was subjected to a prolonged siege, imposed by the Assad regime, and resulting in one of the worst humanitarian crises. Due to starvation, people had to eat weeds, cactus leaves, paper products, and garbage. Food was so scarce, that the price of one kilogram of rice reached $100. At least 128 people died as a direct result of starvation in Yarmouk. Though tragic photos and videos of starved children and elderly persons made news headlines more than once since 2014, the ruthless siege continued, with the Assad regime occasionally allowing infrequent and insufficient aid.

While no Palestinian camp in Syria can currently be considered safe, PRS hope to safely return one day to their homes. To Palestinians, PRS included, “the return” is a multi-layered concept. Wesam Sabaaneh, the director of Jafra Foundation, stresses that most PRS want to return to Syria when the war ends. Wesam, who studied English literature at the University of Damascus, lived and worked in Yarmouk since 2002, and survived through the Yarmouk siege. While Jafra Foundation moved its main office to Beirut in 2013, he still moves between Beirut and Damascus almost every week. “We know that some people will not be able to return for political reasons, but those are not the majority. The majority want to return. The main reason is that living conditions in neighboring countries are much worse. It all depends on the security situation in Syria, the reconstruction of the camps, and the living conditions. Up till now there is not a single Palestinian camp that can be considered stable and safe for reconstruction to begin and people to return.” Moreover, it remains uncertain if PRS would keep the same rights they enjoyed before the war in a post-war Syria. Also, some PRS fear they might face consequences for fleeing military service, an offense that comes with up to a fifteen-year prison sentence.

Some PRS, mainly in Lebanon, have demanded that the UNHCR take over their file and enact a resettlement program for them in third countries, since they are among the most vulnerable refugee groups. Wesam does not see this happening. “We should not forget that the question of PRS is a part of the question of Palestinian refugees at large. While a few thousand PRS might want to resettle through the UNHCR in third countries, the four and half million Palestinian refugees in their diaspora would reject such a move.”

PRS face an uncertain future, not only overshadowed by the events in Syria, but also the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and regional politics. Supporting a better equipped UNRWA is one tool to ensure better protection for PRS. Moreover, measures to protect the legal rights PRS used to enjoy in Syria, and ensuring they are included in any post-war general amnesty is crucial for the prospect of their safe return. 

Hanan Elbadawi is an independent writer and analyst, experienced in humanitarian issues and Arab affairs. Most recently she worked as the founding manager of the Program on Refugees, Forced Displacement and Humanitarian Responses at Yale University. Previously, she worked with the League of Arab States, the International Peace Institute and the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. Hanan holds a Master of Advanced Study in Global Affairs from Yale University, and an M.A. in international relations from the American University in Cairo.

Image: Photo: Residents queue up to receive humanitarian aid at the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk, in Damascus March 11, 2015. The Palestinian Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus, which is under siege by Syrian government forces fighting rebels, has received its first relief supplies since the beginning of December. The aid was delivered by the United Nations Relief and Works Organization (UNRWA) on March 5, the organisation said in a news release.