Arab Countries Are Forcing Palestinian Exiles Back Into Syria
Before the war, Syria was home to a large community of Palestinian refugees. Now, as they flee their adopted home, Arab countries are sending them back into hell.
Ahmad is invisible. He uses a fake name, rarely ventures outside, and moves his family between apartments in Jordan’s capital of Amman frequently, sometimes at a moment’s notice if he thinks his cover has been blown.
Ahmad is a refugee twice over. His family fled land that now belongs to Israel for refuge in Syria, where he grew up. Now, he’s hiding from his foster country’s civil war in Jordan. Meanwhile, residents of his former neighborhood in Damascus who couldn’t escape survive by eating grass.
Ahmad is one of the estimated 70,000 Palestinian refugees from Syria living undercover in Syria’s neighboring countries, all but one of which explicitly turn away Palestinians at the border. In Jordan, Lebanon, and Egypt, hundreds of people like Ahmad have been caught and deported back into Syria.
A mutual acquaintance took me to meet Ahmad on a Friday. The narrow streets of his neighborhood in eastern Amman were empty—I later learned our visit had been timed to coincide with Friday’s prayers, when a foreign visitor attracts less notice. We parked down the block and walked to his apartment, which was completely obscured behind a tall gate.
Tracking down this hidden demographic feels like making contact with a sleeper cell: phone calls come in from unknown numbers; fake names are used; middle men choose anonymous meeting spots. These people have everything to lose if they’re discovered, so they remain undercover, trusting their existence to only a few outsiders.
Palestinians refugees from Syria—known as PRS—are the shadow refugees of a four-year crisis with no end in sight. They are flat-out barred from entering any of Syria’s neighbors other than Turkey. If they do find a way in, they’re rejected by humanitarian organizations, banned from refugee camps, and face deportation back into Syria’s nightmare.
“Legally there’s nowhere for this besieged population to go. There’s a sense that they’ll try anything to get somewhere,” says Adam Coogle, the Human Rights Watch researcher in Jordan. “The only thing they can do is try to stay off the radar, wait for the conflict in Syria to end and go back, or try to make a very, very dangerous journey.”
The trip to more welcoming countries can have deadly consequences. Turkey is the only country neighboring Syria that still allows in Palestinians fleeing the civil war, but getting there is perilous, expensive, and likely requires a trip through ISIS territory. Last week, a boat filled with Palestinians from Yarmouk Camp in Damascus capsized on its way from Lebanon to Turkey, killing nine.
As early as 2012, Jordan stopped allowing Palestinians from Syria into the country, and the policy was formalized the following year. “They should stay in Syria until the end of the crisis,” Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour announced at the time. Lebanon followed suit in 2014, and has also stopped renewing visas for Palestinians already inside. Egypt and Iraq have similar restrictions.
Despite this, thousands have managed to sneak across Syria’s borders. There are 15,000 Palestinian refugees from Syria in Jordan and 45,000 in Lebanon registered with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), which is the only international humanitarian organization allowed to provide them with assistance.
“Syrians have gone through hell. But the Palestinians—they’re not even in their own country, so life is even worse,” says UNRWA spokesman Christopher Gunness. “If you can imagine that.”
The political motives that shape these exclusionary policies remain opaque, but most of the host countries have historical issues with Palestinian refugee populations—along with concerns that offering permanent resettlement outside Palestine would negate the right of return Arab countries have been fighting for since Israel’s creation.
“I think Syria’s neighbors worry that another mass influx of Palestinian refugees would be difficult to absorb and possibly lead to the same instability Jordan and Lebanon witnessed after ’48 and ’67,” says Coogle, referring to the first and third Arab-Israeli wars. “Leaders often talk about protecting the right of return, but fear of the destabilizing effects of absorbing another few hundred thousand Palestinians is the real culprit.”
In his small, three-room apartment, Ahmad sat on the couch in a green sweatshirt and sweatpants. A long beard hung below his quick smile. In the adjoining room, his pregnant wife, daughter, sister-in-law, and nephew watched children’s cartoons on TV. The 33-year-old is paralyzed from the legs down, but this didn’t subdue his hospitality. He poured small cups of thick Turkish-style coffee, proffered a plate of sticky dates, and explained how he transformed from a political activist in Syria to a housebound refugee hiding in Amman.
Ahmad is from Yarmouk Camp, an unofficial refugee camp in Damascus that has functioned as the center of Palestinian life in Syria for half a century. At the end of 2012, a Syrian army bombing campaign turned the camp into a battlefield. Yarmouk became, and remains, one of the most desperate humanitarian situations in the world. Its border is sealed by the Syrian government, blocking food, water, and medicine from entering. Snipers encircle the perimeter, targeting anyone who dares to venture outside. Reports say its remaining residents—the population has plummeted from 200,000 to an estimated 8,000—survive on stray animals, grass, and dirt. In April, the camp was violently seized by the so-called Islamic State, widely known as ISIS.
Two weeks after the 2012 siege began, Ahmad smuggled himself and his family out with fake papers procured by a cleaner in the school where he’d worked. They made their way to Daraa, a city in southern Syria, where he began documenting the killings, arrests, and disappearances of Palestinians. One day, he was leaving the mosque when a double car-bombing exploded next to him. He thought he was dead, but woke up in a field hospital with a hole blasted through his spine.
This near-fatal accident proved his ticket out of the war-torn city. Ahmad was transferred to a hospital in Jordan in 2013. The doctors swapped his Palestinian name for a Syrian one when transferring him to Jordanian authorities.
During his four months in the hospital, he agonized over whether his true identity would be found out. “I even tried not to fall asleep so as to guess what they were saying about me in the ICU,” he says. “The government hospitals ask many questions.” He claimed they often try to suss out illegal refugees by interviewing them in the post-surgery drug haze.
Now Ahmad receives treatment under a false name from a private hospital, which is expensive but less risky. His wife, who gave birth shortly after we met, was also taken to a private hospital and they registered the child under a fake name.
Ahmad and his family have no official papers. “I can’t talk to anyone,” he says. Our mutual connection, a close friend of his from Yarmouk who works for an NGO, didn’t know he was in Jordan for the first two years. Ahmad hasn’t stopped moving: this is his fifth apartment in Amman. “If there is a regular visit from neighbors and they start asking questions; if I saw a car come and stop; if I had any doubts at all, I’ll move [out] directly,” he says.
Ahmad has seen what happens to the Palestinians from Syria who are discovered. His brother, a surgeon who also came to Jordan under fake papers, was deported back to Syria just before his wife gave birth. Now, she’s raising their five-month-old in the small, shared apartment.
According to UNRWA’s annual report (PDF), 117 Palestinian refugees were sent back to Syria in 2014. So far this year, there have already been around 50 forcible deportations. “It’s not in accordance with international law,” says Gunness, the organization’s spokesman. “We’ve made our objections perfectly clear, but the policies continue.” Last May, Human Rights Watch documented three dozen Palestinians from Syria returned from Lebanon into the war zone in one day. Egypt has been criticized for detaining hundreds for months at a time and forcing hundreds more to return to Syria.
Ahmad’s family survives on cash assistance from UNRWA that amounts to the equivalent of $30 per person every month. UNRWA is notoriously underfunded—this year, its Syria program only has one-third of what it needs—and it doesn’t provide resettlement services. But it’s the only humanitarian organization that gives any assistance to Palestinian refugees from Syria in Jordan. Because they aren’t given government refugee documents, they’re ineligible for other aid. This also bars them from refugee camps, where food and shelter is provided. In conversations with The Daily Beast, multiple humanitarian workers expressed a desire to provide for the underserved population, but said it would jeopardize their organization’s relationship with the Jordanian government.
“Even if you argue the only response is, ‘These are the rules. You’re Palestinian and this is enough for you,’” says Maysaa, a 35-year-old mother of three from Yarmouk Camp in Damascus. Her family also gets a small stipend from UNRWA, but when she tried to apply for assistance from other NGOs they turned her down. “Before the war we were all one: Palestinian, Syrian, it didn’t matter. Now we hear, ‘This is Syrian, this is Palestinian.’”
I met Maysaa at a community center in a Palestinian refugee camp about an hour outside Amman. The camp had been around for so long that it looked more like a small, shabby city. But it’s more hospitable than Yarmouk after the siege, when “sometimes we couldn’t even find grass to eat,” she recalled. When the barrel bombs intensified in 2013, she fled to Jordan with nothing, not even her family photos.
Maysaa is one of the lucky ones. Because her husband also has Jordanian citizenship, the family was able to gain legal residency status, but that isn’t always the case. Human Rights Watch has documented multiple cases of Jordanian citizenship being revoked from Palestinians coming from Syria at the border or not renewed after arrival. Some have had their documents confiscated and been returned to Syria, leaving them unable to move through checkpoints and stuck in limbo at the border.
“I guess that’s our fate as Palestinians, to be displaced and living in humiliation for the rest of our lives,” she says. “Now it’s obvious that it’s wanted for all Palestinians to die. That’s what the world wants.”
And many have, as the desperate conditions inside Syria and its inhospitable neighbors make a daring escape to Turkey or Europe the only option.
Mohammad Ghannam drove out of Damascus heading for Lebanon in 2013, shortly after getting released on parole after a year in prison for activism. In Beirut, he went to UNHCR—an organization that employed him in Damascus—to ask for resettlement. He was told that as a Palestinian refugee they could not help him. Shortly thereafter, Lebanon stopped renewing visas for Palestinians from Syria, and informed Ghannam that the freelance work he was doing for The New York Times was barred under the dozens of professions Palestinians can’t practice in the country.
“What should I do, throw myself in the sea?” Ghannam says. He asked for a Turkish visa and was also refused. Someone offered to smuggle him on a ship to Turkey. “Sometimes they suffocate,” he says of the journey. “It’s like $500, and maybe you’ll get killed.”
At the French embassy he was approved for political asylum and he arrived in Paris in March. But back in Damascus, his elderly parents have nowhere to go. His cousin is still in Yarmouk Camp, where he’s heard that a two-pound bag of rice can sell for $200 and a one-bedroom apartment rents for $1,800. For the right price, smugglers can help civilians escape the camp, but they’re still stuck in Syria.
“During war and revolution, these [bordering] countries played a role for me and other Palestinians who lived in Syria, to remind us again that you are Palestinian, not Syrian,” says Ghannam, who was born and raised in Syria. “From day one when you leave the country, Lebanon tells you, ‘You are Palestinian.’ Jordan tells you, ‘You are Palestinian, not Syrian.’ I know they’re not treating Syrians very well, but the Palestinians are [treated] way worse.”
“Give them the opportunity to have a life,” he says. “Not decent life, just a life.”