The world would soon grow used to seeing inflatable dinghies full of refugees and migrants appearing on the shores of Greece, journalists from all over the world waiting on the shore with cameras and microphones, lifejackets strewn across beaches as tell-tale migratory detritus. But in Egypt, those migrations usually took place away from view, almost invisible until you started looking. Smugglers would clandestinely bus their refugee-customers through Alexandria, house them in apartments and move by night into the farmland and countryside lining the nearby Mediterranean coastline.
One of the few ways to locate people was in detention facilities: police stations dotted around Alexandria and the Mediterranean coastline beyond. At that time, Syrian refugees and Palestinian refugees from Syria (PRS) made up the bulk of people attempting to reach Italy from Egypt’s north coast, as well as those winding up in detention. And it was there that PRS’ legal vulnerabilities really became apparent. Without a proper protection mandate from UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestine refugees, or access to protection and assistance services from UNHCR, PRS were denied the durable solutions offered to other refugees fleeing the Syrian conflict; many were subjected to protracted spells in detention, deportations to Syria or third countries, refusals at borders, and other discriminatory practices. A political and legal regime once meant to protect the rights of Palestinian refugees to their homeland, in what is now Israel, meant that PRS frequently experienced deprivation of rights. This is known as the ‘protection gap,’ a key part of Palestinians’ experiences as stateless refugees.
Following conversations with a group of Palestinian-Syrian human rights defenders, we decided to document what was happening. Why was this particular group of refugees so vulnerable? And what could be done to try and change that? With the help of generous funding from the Euro-Mediterranean Foundation of Support for Human Rights Defenders (EMHRF), I gathered more than 40 hours of interviews with Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, Sweden and Germany to document stories of displacement. Those interviews formed the backbone of a new report, Syria’s Palestinians: A new Nakba, released on March 18, the 10-year anniversary of Syria's uprising and conflict.
Palestinian refugees in the Syrian conflict
Nakba is the Arabic word for ‘catastrophe’ but also the name that Palestinians gave to their first displacement, in 1948, at the hands of Israel. Once understood as a single event, over the years displacements have followed displacements, giving rise to a newer understanding of Nakba as a process rather than a historical event. Palestinians in Syria have come to describe events in the country in the same way, as a ‘second Nakba’, a ‘continued Nakba’, a ‘forever Nakba’.
On the eve of the country’s 2011 uprising, Syria hosted 12 official and unofficial Palestinian camps as well as a series of ‘gatherings,’ mostly rural-urban communities on the outskirts of Syria’s main cities, that were home to at least 560,000 Palestinian refugees. The majority lived in and around Damascus. Yarmouk camp, in the capital’s southern suburbs, was the largest Palestinian community in Syria, home to approximately 160,000 Palestinians as well as a significant, and growing, Syrian population.
After anti-government protests were met with spiraling levels of repression by Bashar al-Assad’s government, the uprising morphed into an armed rebellion, then all-out conflict. Palestinians were impacted from the very beginning, either as active participants or bystanders trying to remain neutral. They started fleeing Syria almost from the very beginning of the uprising in the southern city of Deraa in March 2011, followed by mass waves of internal and external displacement from 2011-2012 onwards as more Palestinian camps and communities were drawn into the fighting.
The cost for the community has been high. At least four thousand Palestinians have been killed across Syria, with 1,796 detained and a further 332 unaccounted for, while the majority of Syria’s pre-war Palestinian community have been internally displaced, many at least once, and one in five PRS (around 120,000 people) have fled Syria altogether. According to UNRWA, there are currently 27,700 PRS in Lebanon and another 17,343 in Jordan. Smaller displaced communities can also be found in Egypt and Turkey. Those who reached Europe are estimated to be in the tens of thousands, although accurate data is hard to come by.
Navigating the ‘protection gap’
The legal vulnerabilities of Palestinian refugees are, on the one hand, well-documented in academic journals, refugee studies groups and online articles. What we wanted to understand was the human cost of secondary forced displacement within the Palestinian-Syrian community. Why did people make the journeys they did? How? What happened to them on the way because they were Palestinian and/or stateless? As a result, the report divides up the journey from Syria to Europe from the moment of a refugee’s displacement to borders, Lebanon and transit countries, the sea and Europe. It features in-depth testimonies from refugees meant to illustrate some of the key challenges they faced during those journeys.
In short, refugees’ statelessness (and Palestinian-ness) defined almost every part of their displacement journey. Several Palestinian refugees looking to reach Europe said they had actually researched asylum and stateless determination procedures before leaving Syria—with Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands and Germany often being seen as desirable destinations—whereas others less aware of their legal situation before the war experienced protection gaps once they fled their homes.
Additional restrictions on freedom of movement meant that Palestinians were more likely to use irregular channels to reach Syria’s national borders, and by 2014, would also have to use irregular channels to leave the country—issues either not experienced by Syrian citizens, or not until later in the conflict. This had a knock-on effect on refugees’ legal status: by entering a country irregularly, refugees may not be able to access legal residency, meaning they cannot adequately access job opportunities, education, freedom of movement, or a safe and secure existence free from the fear of arbitrary detentions and refoulement to Syria. The gaps in UN agency mandates means that there is inadequate protection for Palestinian-Syrians as a result, only making matters worse.
- Some of the examples are extreme, others droll in how routine they are. Sana’a, a Palestinian refugee from Yarmouk camp who was still a teenager when she fled Syria in 2012, would eventually cross the borders of 14 countries, encountering immigration-related and arbitrary detention, two rounds of deportations, extended periods of irregular stay, as well as other risks related to irregular migration.
- Ahmad in Beirut said he carried around a “map in my head [to] avoid dangerous places” and checkpoints, after being issued with two deportation orders by Lebanese authorities for not having legal residency.
- Nawar, who was held for months in an Egyptian police station, spoke about the significance of her experiences as a Palestinian: “It wasn’t just [the police station] that reminded me of the Nakba—everything that happened in Syria [reminded me of it]. When I saw the people leaving Yarmouk, it was another Nakba. When I saw people trying to leave Syria to travel across the sea towards this strange and unknown future, it was another Nakba. Until today…[it stays with you]. Whenever I’m watching a Syrian drama series, and I see something about travelling by boat or across the sea, I start shaking.”
These kinds of protection gaps in neighbouring countries pushed many towards irregular routes to Europe. While many described Europe as an alternative, a future, when compared with the ‘slow death’ lived out in neighbouring countries, PRS encounter difficulties in Europe because of their statelessness.
There are no hard-and-fast figures on the numbers of PRS who have migrated to Europe from Syria or neighbouring countries since 2011, and estimates can vary significantly. This statistical blind-spot is not helped by the way that PRS are processed by different European states and then recorded in European asylum databases because PRS are classified alongside other stateless populations, without distinguishing the origins of different stateless populations. This reflects one of the central themes of PRS statelessness—an existence that defies categorisation, meaning people fall into protection gaps and statistical blind-spots. According to several participants who went through procedures in Europe, everyone from asylum caseworkers to frowning border-guards, bank clerks to university reps, would ask the question to which there are no easy answers: ‘Where are you from?’
In one case, Wael had to tell a bank clerk about his family’s displacement from Palestine in 1948, then from Syria in 2012, in order to open a bank account, because there was no ‘stateless’ category on the application form.
What future exists for Palestinian refugees from Syria?
There is a growing narrative around Syria—first pushed by the Syrian government and its Russian allies—suggesting that the war is all but won, that refugees can begin returning home and the long work of rebuilding the country can begin. However, many of the key drivers of displacement remain. The Syrian government appears to be increasingly struggling to govern areas under its control, or even provide basic services to communities in those areas. Meanwhile, reconstruction plans threaten to entrench the wartime displacement of millions of IDPs and refugees.
Syria’s Palestinians have become one of the most vulnerable groups affected by the conflict, but also remain vulnerable to many of the crucial post-conflict challenges that will come to define discussions around Syria now and into the future: reconstruction and housing, land and property (HLP) rights; safe and voluntary returns from neighbouring countries; and the rehabilitation of communities ravaged by war. More needs to be done to protect them, particularly those now outside Syria.