When Fleeing War Becomes Illegal

“We cannot sacrifice Palestinian people in the name of the Palestinian cause,” Houry said.

Instead, Human Rights Watch has suggested, neighboring countries should open asylum to Palestinians, with other countries sharing the burden via financial assistance and “temporary resettlement without prejudice to their right of return.” The group also suggested that Israel should permit Palestinian refugees from Syria to return to areas now administered by Palestinian authorities.

People wait to receive UN food aid in the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk, near Damascus (UNRWA/Reuters)

Palestinians confronted a similar situation in the early 2000s following the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and ensuing sectarian violence, when a few thousand Palestinian-Iraqis found themselves trapped in camps on Iraq’s borders with Syria and Jordan. Similarly denied entry by neighboring countries but fearing death and persecution where they were, the Palestinian-Iraqis spent years in these camps. UNHCR eventually sent them to Chile, Iceland, Sweden, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Ireland, and the U.S. over a period of years. That kind of third-country option seems less likely for Palestinian refugees from Syria, though, because UNRWA, which is responsible for them, can provide services but not resettlement. Since Iraq is outside of UNRWA’s mandate, UNHCR was able to step in on behalf of the Palestinians stuck there.

UNRWA, meanwhile, was originally set up as a temporary agency for a supposedly temporary problem, and its geographical and operational scope is strictly defined: direct relief, works programs, five territories only. While UNHCR seeks durable solutions, UNRWA only provides services. But 64 years into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with violence rising across the Middle East, Palestinian refugees are increasingly unwanted—a condition outside the scope of UNRWA’s capabilities.

Jordan and Lebanon have both had political problems with Palestinians. Yasser Arafat’s PLO clashed violently with King Hussein’s forces during Jordan’s Black September of 1970. The PLO and Palestinian refugees were also involved as both perpetrators and victims in Lebanon’s 15-year civil war—most famously in the Sabra and Shatila massacre in 1982, when thousands of Palestinians and Lebanese were killed in a Beirut refugee camp. Palestinians remain an easy scapegoat for domestic problems in both countries, whether in the form of Palestinian-Jordanian identity politics or sectarian pressure from refugees on Lebanon’s confessional system, which ties governmental positions to an artificial religious ratio.

UN agencies, along with non-governmental and human-rights organizations, acknowledge that Jordan and Lebanon are facing formidable refugee challenges. Lebanon has taken in refugees in numbers totaling more than one-fourth of the country’s pre-existing population of 4 million. Jordan has registered more than 600,000 Syrians, along with 29,000 Iraqis and some 4,000 others, on top of 2 million UNRWA-registered Palestinians. Both countries are poor, and struggling to keep their infrastructure and economies afloat while fending off violence and extremism across every border.

As Jordan and Lebanon try to stem the refugee flow, the most vulnerable are the first to be kicked out or not let in. Palestinians from Syria are a minority within a minority, without a state to speak for them. The governments that surround them speak of their cause, while shoving them around between camps, sieges, bombings, and war. Their ostensible solution is return, but as Israeli occupation continues and Gaza burns, what are the chances of that?

“Some of the [Palestinian refugees from Syria] in Lebanon are refugees not only for the second time, but for the third and even fourth time,” Darkazally said. They join some 450,000 Palestinians who are already living in Lebanon, and suffering from unemployment, poverty, and overcrowding as they wait in the hopes of return to Palestine. These refugees are registered with UNRWA Lebanon and protected from deportation. Those who came from Syria, however, are legally distinct—so Lebanese authorities can actively push them back into war.

UNRWA advocates that Palestinians be treated equally to others fleeing Syria, urging Jordan and Lebanon to uphold humanitarian principles of temporary protection, said UNRWA spokesperson Chris Gunness. Meanwhile, UNRWA provides Palestinians with relief, protection, education, and health services. But it can’t do so if refugees are blocked at the border.

The situation is complex, Darkazally said, but refugees from Syria—Palestinian or not—need protection. “They’re fleeing a war. Where should they go?”

"Closing the door in the face of the most vulnerable cannot be the answer," Fakih said. "You cannot tell people, 'Just stay and die.'"

Reporting for this article was funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

Presented by

Alice Su is a journalist based in Amman, Jordan.

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