When Fleeing War Becomes Illegal

Palestinians escaping Syria are being turned away by neighboring states.
Children in Gaza express solidarity with Palestinian refugees in Syria. (Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters)

EL-MARJ, Lebanon—Alaa, age 24, left Yarmouk in 2012, when shelling first hit the Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus. She now lives in Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley, just a few miles from the Syrian border, in an informal camp with 40 other refugee families. As a Palestinian from Syria, Alaa was born displaced. She’s been a refugee for 24 years and a double refugee for two. But only recently has she become illegal.

“I haven’t left this camp since June,” Alaa told me. Her Lebanese residency expired a few months ago, and according to Lebanon’s new regulations, Palestinians from Syria cannot renew their residence permits. Fearing detention and deportation, Alaa stays within the camp, a cluster of tents tucked behind a factory building on a rented plot about the size of a football field.

Amid the millions of refugees from Syria flooding into neighboring countries like Lebanon and Jordan, a minority group is being quietly denied entry, detained, deported, and pushed out in any way possible: Palestinians. They are refugees who literally have nowhere to go.

In recent months, Jordanian and Lebanese authorities have acknowledged that Palestinians from Syria are not welcome to asylum in the same way that other Syrian refugees are. Jordan and Lebanon have respectively been barring Palestinians from entry since January and August 2013, in contrast with the treatment of some 600,000 Syrian nationals in Jordan and 1.5 million in Lebanon, according to Human Rights Watch. The organization has also documented forcible deportations of Palestinians—women and children included—from both countries.

Alaa’s family is still in Yarmouk, where severe fighting followed by a months-long siege beginning in 2012 led to hundreds of civilian deaths, mostly from starvation. Once home to some 180,000 Palestinian refugees, Yarmouk has been reduced to a population of roughly 18,000, including Syrian nationals, still trapped with almost no access to food and medical supplies. UNRWA, the United Nations’ specialized refugee-relief agency for Palestinians, tracks its humanitarian access to the camp—or more often, lack thereof—on a daily basis.

“I talk to my parents when I can, but the situation is not good,” Alaa told me.

When Syria’s conflict began, most Palestinians there entered bordering countries, just like others fleeing the conflict. There are now some 14,000 Palestinian refugees from Syria in Jordan and approximately 40,000 in Lebanon. But because UNRWA, rather than UNHCR, the United Nations’ broader refugee-coordination agency, is expected to handle the specific case of Palestinians regardless of which country they’re in, Palestinians from Syria are excluded in all the UN’s regional response plans, budgets, and appeals for the Syrian crisis.

The semantic split between Syrian refugees and Palestinian refugees from Syria, in other words, means the UN handles them differently. But as refugees, Palestinians escaping Syria have the same international legal rights as Syrian nationals, and customary international law compels Lebanon and Jordan not to send refugees back into a conflict zone. “[T]he standards of international law are the same across the board,” said Human Rights Watch’s Syria and Lebanon researcher Lama Fakih in an interview. Just because a refugee is originally Palestinian doesn’t make him any less vulnerable in Syria—deporting him or refusing him asylum is thus a clear breach of international responsibilities.

Lebanon’s minister of the interior issued a statement in May saying “there is no decision preventing Palestinian refugees in Syria from entering Lebanon and passing through the country.” But the same statement stipulated that Palestinian refugees from Syria could only enter Lebanon if they met difficult and costly requirements, such as having a valid plane ticket for a third country. Amnesty International has also documented instances of Lebanon arbitrarily denying Palestinians entry, or forcibly deporting them.

Meanwhile, Palestinian refugees from Syria already living in Lebanon before the May 2014 statement were first subject to the exorbitant $200 annual renewal fee all refugees must pay for legal residency—and then barred from renewing their residence permits altogether.

“Palestinian refugees from Syria are living in fear,” said UNRWA’s Lebanon Public Information Officer Zizette Darkazally. Those without valid visas are constantly subjected to detention, she added, and considered illegal without having committed any crime. “Bear in mind they are in Lebanon because they are fleeing a war, not because they actually want to be here.”

In Jordan, Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour said that Palestinians fleeing Syria should be allowed to return to their places of origin in Israel and Palestine. “Jordan is not a place to solve Israel’s problems,” Ensour said in an interview with Al-Hayat, adding that receiving those refugees would lead to another wave of displacement. “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.” According to Human Rights Watch, the head of Jordan’s Royal Hashemite Court also said a large influx of Palestinians would change Jordan’s demographic balance and cause instability.

The political issue of Palestinians’ right of return—that is, the refugees’ right to go back to their land in what is now Israel and the Palestinian territories—complicates the problem. Resettlement, a standard “durable solution” that the UN’s refugee agency seeks for many of its registered refugees, is often taboo for Palestinians. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Arab League reject and actively discourage local integration or third-country resettlement of Palestinian refugees, according to Human Rights Watch, as these options might undermine the right to return. But the alternative, Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa Deputy Director Nadim Houry pointed out at a press conference in Amman, is leaving Palestinians to die in Syria.

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Alice Su is a journalist based in Amman, Jordan.

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