With Syria's civil war entering its third year, 2 million Syrians are displaced internally while nearly 730,000 are refugees living outside Syria. But for the half million Palestinian refugees who have lived in Syria since 1948, the situation is even more dire. Jordan denies them refuge as a matter of policy, and Lebanon restricts entry by a visa fee that Syrian refugees are not required to pay. Palestinians are running out of places to go.
More than half of the Palestinian residents of Syria have been displaced, according to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the U.N. agency that provides aid and services to 5 million Palestinian refugees in the West Bank, Gaza, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria.
Speaking from Amman, UNRWA deputy commissioner Margot Ellis recounted a recent trip to Lebanon, where she visited a family of 23 Palestinians from Syria who lived in a two-room apartment in the Shatila refugee camp. They had to sleep in shifts because there wasn't enough room for everyone to lie down at the same time. Lebanon has allowed in more Palestinians from Syria than any other country, but it already hosted 490,000 refugees descended from those who fled in 1948. The vast majority is denied citizenship or the right to work in nearly every profession. They are dependent on international aid.
Jordan hosts the most Palestinian refugees, with 2 million from the generations displaced in 1948 and 1967, and their descendants. But while nearly 400,000 Syrians have found refuge in Jordan, the government has officially denied entry to the Palestinians amongst them since January, citing security concerns and the country's delicate demographic balance. The 9,200 Palestinian refugees from Syria who did cross the border into Jordan have been held in separate facilities, with local relatives prevented from obtaining their release.
In dozens of cases, Palestinians have been sent back to Syria, against the international norm of non-refoulement, or the principle of not sending refugees back to the place they are fleeing due to persecution or violence. There are hundreds of Palestinians on the Syrian side of the border who are prevented from entering Jordan.
Last year Israel offered West Bank residency to Palestinian refugees from Syria, but only on condition they renounce their claim to refugee status, meaning they would lose the right to UNRWA aid and give up their right of return. Palestinians have not taken Israel up on its offer.
The lack of options for Palestinian refugees in Syria brings one final status issue into stark relief. “Without a just resolution of the refugee question in the context of a negotiated Palestinian-Israeli settlement, Palestinians have nowhere to go,” Ellis said.
First flying from Damascus to Cairo, 1,500 Palestinians from Syria have gone to Gaza, where 67 percent of the standing refugee population of 1.2 million lives with food insecurity. About 6,000 Palestinians fleeing Syria have stayed in Egypt and less than 1,600 went to Turkey, both countries in which UNRWA has no mandate.
The only other alternative is to remain in Syria and risk being killed.
Where Palestinian refugees once lived in large concentrations in Syria, now there are “ghost camps,” Ellis said.
In December 2012, fighting spilled into the Yarmouk camp, a suburb south of Damascus and once home to the largest Palestinian refugee population in Syria. Since then, Ellis said, Yarmouk’s refugee population has declined by approximately 87 percent—from 160,000 to 20,000 or fewer.
Syrian government and opposition forces control different entry points and areas inside the camp, which has compelled Palestinians to flee. This phenomenon has been replicated in six of Syria’s 12 UNRWA camps, where staff members no longer have access.
In a single day in April, Ellis said 6,000 people were displaced from Ein el-Tal, an unofficial camp near Aleppo, after armed groups swept through the camp.
“If we can't get access, we can't help Palestinians in need,” she said.
Due to the conflict, this school year UNRWA has only been able to reach 55 percent of Palestinian students in Syria. Only 10 out of 23 healthcare facilities are operational, with six mobile health points added to adapt to the situation on the ground.
Palestinians call their displacement from Syria “a second Nakba,” Ellis said. The first Nakba, or catastrophe, was when Palestinians were displaced in 1948.
But whereas in 1948 Syria greeted them with open arms, today their adopted home is a war zone and the other Arab states that once welcomed them are turning them away.
If Israel and the Palestinians reached a two-state solution, there would be more flight options for Palestinian refugees, Ellis said. “Palestinians would know what their future held.”
Until that happens, Palestinian refugees are apt to be made refugees many times over.