There are over 500,000 Palestinian “refugees” in Syria, as counted by the UN agency handling Palestinian “refugees,” the UN Relief and Works Agency or UNRWA. The quotation marks are especially apt in this case, for the great majority of the “refugees” were born in Syria and have lived there all their lives. Only under UNRWA’s definitions of “refugee” (Palestinians who left what is now Israel in 1948, and all of their descendants until the end of time) would they qualify.
According to UNRWA:
Palestine refugees in Syria have been severely affected by the armed conflict in the country, with virtually all their residential areas experiencing armed engagements or the use of heavy weapons. The number of Palestine refugees in need of assistance in Syria is rapidly approaching the total population of 529,000 registered refugees. Over half have already been displaced from their homes.
How are neighboring Arab countries reacting? Here is what UNRWA says about Jordan:
The Government of Jordan announced a policy of non-entry to Palestinians fleeing the Syria conflict in early 2013. This stemmed the flow of Palestine refugees from Syria towards Jordan and compounded the extreme vulnerability of Palestinians seeking safety in Syria, as well as that of those who managed to enter Jordan.
Then there’s Lebanon:
“The Lebanese have made it clear they don’t want to see more than a certain number of people coming here,” a high-ranking aid official told [the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs] on condition of anonymity….Officially both Jordan and Lebanon are keeping their borders open for all refugees from Syria. But unlike Syrians, who can freely enter Lebanon for up to six months, Palestinians receive only a one-week residency permit. Once that expires, they must pay 50,000 LBP (US$33) each month to renew it.
How about Egypt? Here is a Reuters story dated today:
After escaping shelling in Damascus and terrifying bloodshed at sea, 14 month-old Palestinian twin girls are now among hundreds of people living in limbo in grimy Egyptian police stations, with no end in sight to their plight. Of the 2 million people who fled Syria’s civil war, none may have it worse than Palestinians, who have known no other home than Syria but do not have Syrian citizenship and have therefore been denied even the basic rights secured for other refugees. The United Nations says the Egyptian government has refused it permission to register Palestinians from Syria as refugees and give them the yellow card that allows them to settle. As a result, hundreds of Palestinians civilians have ended up detained in police stations, with no place else to go….
If the family were Syrian citizens, once detained they would most likely have been permitted to leave Egypt for refugee camps in other countries in the region, says Human Rights Watch….The overwhelming majority of the Palestinians have never set foot in the Palestinian territories and have considered Syria their only home. But Egypt refuses to allow the United Nations refugee agency to treat them like other refugees from Syria. ”It is the view of the government of Egypt that Palestinians fall outside of UNHCR’s mandate,” said Teddy Leposky, a UNHCR spokesman in Cairo. “UNHCR has therefore not been able to provide assistance or advocate effectively on behalf of Palestinian refugees in Egypt.”
In one sense this is an old story: Arab states using the Palestinian issue against Israel often treat Palestinians badly. Jordan is the only country that has given them full citizenship rights.
But there is another story here: the way UNRWA’s special treatment of Palestinians has backfired. It is not just a whim that the government of Egypt does not allow UNHCR to treat Palestinians the way it treats all other refugees, for in fact Palestinians are the only refugees over whom UNHCR has never had jurisdiction. When those fleeing Syria attend UNHCR or UNRWA schools, or receive medical attention at UNHCR or UNRWA clinics, that division is perpetuated and deepened. Once upon a time Palestinians thought this special status was a great boon. For Palestinians fleeing Syria it’s hard to see it that way today. UNRWA can now add to its achievement of perpetuating “Palestinian refugee” status the achievement of separating Palestinians from all other Syrian refugees. And now we can use the word refugee without quotation marks, for we are speaking of people born and raised in Syria and now driven from their homes there. This is just another piece of evidence that UNRWA has outlived its usefulness and is doing more harm than good for Palestinians.