The failure of the Palestinian political leadership to chart a neutral path to avoid entanglement in the domestic affairs of Syria led to a situation where Palestinian refugee camps turned into battlegrounds in the war between the Syrian government’s forces and the opposition. This entanglement in the Syrian domestic affairs is a direct result of the lack of a national Palestinian vision to preserve the sanctity of the Palestinian cause. Soon the camps were no longer safe. Unlike their counterparts in Lebanon, Palestinian refugees in Syria had not previously been subject to internal displacement or homelessness, and had never suffered discriminatory government policies. With the intensification of the fighting in and around the camps, and dwindling supplies of food, Palestinian refugees faced two options: either remain in camps and wait for death, or leave Syria towards the unknown.
The violence of the Syrian crisis drove countless Palestinian refugees from Syria into exile in neighboring countries and beyond. Many sought refuge in Jordan, Turkey, Egypt and even the occupied Gaza Strip. Others lost their lives at sea in search for a new home. Lebanon, being the most accessible country, quickly became the largest host of Palestinian refugees from Syria. The bitterness which typified the experience of the refugees who went to Lebanon quickly became a hallmark for the difficulties and challenges faced by all Palestinian refugees from Syria. This bitterness symbolizes the threats facing their Right to Return.
The number of Palestinian refugees registered by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) in Syria and who reside in Lebanon as a result of the Syrian crisis stands at 54,000. They very rapidly became victims of the same political context already affecting Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. This is exemplified in the Lebanese authorities’ policy of exaggerating the number of Palestinian refugees. While the latest and most reliable data point to no more than 260,000 Lebanon-registered Palestinian refugees, the Lebanese government claims that the number is 460,000. The Lebanese government, which is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, refuses to legally classify Syrian refugees as such, choosing, instead, to define them as “displaced persons”, thus prohibiting the creation of new refugee camps.
The legal status of Palestinian refugees registered by UNRWA in Syria is even more complicated. In the absence of clear instructions and mechanisms for their entry to Lebanon, Palestinian refugees seeking entry to the country from Syria are subject to arbitrary whims of state functionaries at the border crossings. As of 3 May 2014, the Lebanese authorities were only allowing Syria-registered Palestinian refugees entry to the country if they had the documents needed to travel to a third country, with their stay in Lebanon limited to a maximum of nine hours. Palestinian refugees from Syria who were in Lebanon for a period of less than nine months before that date had the right to renew their residency in the country for a maximum period of three months before being required to leave Lebanon permanently. Palestinian refugees from Syria are allowed to enter Lebanon for the purposes of attending appointments at foreign consulates and embassies, but only if their names are provided by the relevant foreign missions in advance to the Lebanese authorities. These policies were adopted by the Lebanese government following the renewed policy of the Jordanian government to bar Palestinian refugees from Syria from entering the Hashemite Kingdom. The consequences of these policies on the refugees in question have been devastating, and can be seen in the way in which many of them resorted to human traffickers and illegal immigration.
Such restrictive measures resonate with the views expressed by Gebran Bassil, the Minister of Foreign Affairs. Commenting on the flow of Syrian refugees into the country, Bassil stated:
When we say we don’t want the displaced Syrians and Palestinians to take our place, this needs to be backed up by action. They are taking the place of the Lebanese by their mere presence, work and life here [...]. This comes out of our sense of nationality and not on racist bases. The emigration from our land must stop. Our youth is leaving and our place shouldn’t be given to others… I am not saying that we need to close the borders. Our borders should be for exporting goods abroad and for protecting ourselves and our country, Lebanon, from all that is bad and contraband. This is the reason for having borders, not as an avenue for strange and evil ideas to enter and eat us from the inside.
UNRWA is already heavily burdened with the relief of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. However, since they do not fall under the mandate of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), UNRWA is the first and last resort for Palestinian refugees from Syria who are also excluded from the aid provided by the Lebanese government for Syrian refugees. This includes education in state-sponsored schools. Any aid from UNRWA, meanwhile, is modest and limited. For example, UNRWA distributes $100 for each family every month. This sum is supposed to cover housing expenses, and $30 for food, pending the availability of funds. This leaves the refugees with the burden of finding shelter in a country where the average rent for a room exceeds the rental rates in large parts of the developed world, including Europe and the USA. One advantage they enjoy is that of the large Palestinian community in Lebanon, especially in refugee camps, that provides solidarity and assistance. This solidarity is manifest in different ways.
Ein el-Hilweh refugee camp, for example, hosts more than 15,000 Palestinian refugees from Syria, alongside 200 families of Syrian origin, despite the fact that the camp’s one square kilometer was already supporting a population of more than 80,000. The institutions entrusted with the welfare of these refugees have largely abandoned them in a moment of distress, leading to a protest which lasted for six months outside of UNRWA’s Lebanon Field Office, its main hub in Beirut. With lack of support from relief agencies, and the prolonged length of stay of Palestinian refugees from Lebanon, many property owners are demanding higher rent rates. As a result, the Popular Committees which provide a semblance of governance in the camps (and which are dominated by Palestinian political factions) are facing mounting challenges. In addition to internal conflicts, corruption and lack of capacity, they also lack the ability to manage humanitarian crises. Today, political factions are required to make additional efforts (instead of politics and national mobilization) to compete with civil society institutions in providing relief and aid work. Lacking the required expertise, however, these factions are failing to provide humanitarian aid, a failing that adds to the being politically ineffective.
There are modest efforts from Palestinian civil society in Lebanon. They focus on providing relief and assistance, which are as scarce as the resources available to that sector. On the political level, there is even less effort. A seminar held by the Aidoun Center for Refugee Rights concluded with an appeal for all parties concerned - the Syrian General Authority for Palestine Arab Refugee Affairs (GAPAR), UNRWA, the PLO, Palestinian factions and the state of Lebanon. The recommendations include:
Calls on the Palestinian factions to continue their work in order to make Palestinian refugee camps in Syria weapons-free, neutral zones, and to allow these camps to serve as the refugees’ starting points in their journeys to return.
Pleading the concerned authorities in Lebanon not to discriminate in the provision of relief services between Palestinian refugees and “displaced” Syrians, and to exempt Palestinian refugees from Syria from restrictions on residency rights and onerous fees.
Consequently, many Palestinian refugees opted to return to Syria: faced with the difficulties placed before them in Lebanon, and plagued by the failure of the Popular Committees and relief agencies to alleviate their plight, they felt that trying their luck in a country where they could be bombed at any instant would be more dignified than the situation they were facing in Lebanon. However, those who did return found the situation to which they came back more bitter than they expected. Return to Syria was always going to be a last resort for Palestinian refugees who went to Lebanon, only to be treated like criminals there. With the security forces forcing them to leave after one year, it was very clear to them that they had to either find another destination to move to, or to go back. The situation is summed up by a Palestinian refugee from Syria, previously resident in the Yarmouk Camp:
I can’t go back to Syria, even if the regime wins or the opposition wins. I was imprisoned by the regime and subjected to torture, only because I kept my home in the camp. They accused me of helping the opposition. And those who occupied the camp don’t represent me, they are strangers, and Lebanon does not employ Palestinian refugees who are here, how should I live? I have no other option but to immigrate to a European country.
The harsh security and humanitarian reality that Palestinian refugees suffer from in Syria and in the diaspora at large, the failure of the Palestinian factions to prepare the camps and keep them out of the Syrian crisis, and the failure of the international community to support them means that there is a clear threat to the realization of the Right to Return. This threat can be summarized as follows:
First: A pattern of systematic destruction of Palestinian refugee camps is emerging in recent years, like Jenin in Palestine, Nahr al Bared in Lebanon and now the camps in Syria. This destruction aims to dismantle the camps as incubators of the refugee issue. The deteriorating living conditions in the camps notwithstanding, they serve as physical vestiges of the Nakba and as bridges to a collective memory of Palestine. Throughout the struggle with the Zionist enemy, the camps remain a sanctuary and home of rebels and preserve the Palestinian national identity.
Second: The multiple displacements of Palestinian refugees serve to distract them from the larger issue of their return to Palestine. The evidence for this is given a dramatic illustration by the Palestinian refugees and Syrians who drowned in the Mediterranean in increasing numbers following the conflict in the Yarmouk Camp. The responsibility for these human tragedies lies on the shoulders of Egypt, which barred Palestinian refugees from entering its borders and humiliated others who were only trying to emigrate. Many of those in Egypt were given the choice between going to Gaza or returning to Syria. Other refugees who went to Lebanon were “greeted” by the authorities at Beirut Airport, where they were given a one-week deadline to leave the country.
Third: Palestinian political factions being forced to deal with the humanitarian crises distracts their focus from the original political struggle, primarily the right of return. Political factions are unprepared or qualified to provide humanitarian aid.
Fourth: The crisis in Syria shows that there is a gap between the suffering of Palestinian refugees and the priorities of the Palestinian Authority, which is busy in fruitless negotiations that do not include the refugees. The Palestinian Authority has failed, as it did in the past with Palestinian refugees resident in Iraq, to seize the opportunity to claim the right of Palestinian refugees to return from Syria to their villages as the only solution to end their suffering.
The consequences of the Syrian crisis are severe for the Palestinian refugees and their right of return. There is a need to give their cause its due attention: host countries of Palestinian refugees from Syria should treat them like other legally defined refugees and provide them with protection. The international community has the responsibility to secure the necessary assistance to safeguard the dignity of refugees in Syria and in the diaspora and support their steadfastness. Palestinian factions need to work at all levels: Arab, regional and international, to keep the Palestinian camps in Syria neutral in the Syrian conflict and keep these camps safe for their population until they return to their villages and lands in Palestine. Finally, the Palestinian Authority must raise the refugee issue at the negotiating table, and not miss an opportunity to put pressure on Israel and the international community to implement international agreements and UN Resolution 194.
Mahmoud Zeidan: Founding member of the Center for Refugee Rights – Aidoun, Lebanon and joint Manager, together with Diana Allan, of the Nakba Archive Project.
 UNRWA, Syria Regional Crisis Response: January-December 2014 – Mid-Year Review, 2014, 5, http://www.unrwa.org/sites/default/files/syria_regional_crisis_response_midyear_review_2014.pdf.
 American University of Beirut in cooperation with UNRWA, Socio-Economic Survey of Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon, December 2010, 24, http://fafsweb.aub.edu.lb/aub-unrwa/files/AUB_UNRWA_report_final_draft.pdf.
 Foundation for Human and Humanitarian Rights Lebanon, “Syrian Refugees in Lebanon and the Case for Camps Establishment,” April 2013, http://www.academia.edu/5624397/Syrian_Refugees_in_Lebanon_and_the_Case_for_Camps_Establishment; Migration Policy Center, “Syrian Refugees: A Snapshot of the Crisis – in the Middle East and Europe,” accessed November 5, 2014, http://syrianrefugees.eu/?page_id=72.
 Protection Working Group Beirut, Meeting Minutes & Report, May 28, 2014, http://data.unhcr.org/syrianrefugees/download.php?id=6377.
 Susan M. Akram et al., Protecting Syrian Refugees: Laws, Policies, and Global Responsibility Sharing (International Human Rights Clinic - Boston University School of Law, July 2014), 9, http://www.bu.edu/law/central/jd/programs/clinics/international-human-rights/documents/FINALFullReport.pdf.
 Gebran Bassil, “Statement Made on the Celebration of the Lebanese Wine Day,” January 2012.
 UNRWA, Syria Regional Crisis Response 78, September 2014, http://www.unrwa.org/newsroom/emergency-reports/syria-regional-crisis-response-78.
 “Lebanese Newspapers 25-26 May 2013”. Human Development Center, “‘Our Rights’, Bulletin N. 27.,” May 2013, 6–7.
 Seminar organized by the Center for Refugee Rights – Aidoun., May 2013.
 Patrick Kingsley, “Desperate Syrian Refugees Risk All in Bid to Reach Europe,” The Guardian, September 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2014/sep/18/desperate-syrian-refugees-europe-mediterranean.
 Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network, “EMHRN Position on Refugees from Syria,” June 2014, http://www.euromedrights.org/eng/2014/06/20/emhrn-position-on-refugees-from-syria/.