Palestinians attempted to keep a neutral position in this domestic Syrian affair since the outbreak of the Syrian crisis. However, the failure to maintain neutrality resulted in the displacement of over 270,000 Palestinians in Syria, of them approximately 200,000 in Damascus alone. 100,000 Palestinian refugees were displaced outside of Syria, over half of whom are in Lebanon.
Palestinian refugees from Syria in Lebanon
This new displacement as a result of the conflict in Syria has stripped Palestinian refugees of the social protection and independence that they had cultivated since they fled to Syria in 1948. In Lebanon, Palestinian refugees encountered extreme discrimination, whether from the government or the Lebanese society. The government announced its inability to provide any aid, and some of its members also called for closing the borders, as Jordan and Iraq have done. Others dismissed the worsening security conditions of Palestinians in Lebanon under the pretext of fearing their permanent settlement. The Lebanese government, as a result, did not provide places of refuge for displaced families, which forced them to live in the camps. This posed an extra burden on host communities due to the population density and the lack of provision of basic health necessities.
UNRWA was, and still is, unable to provide full protection, or even humanitarian assistance to Palestinian refugees from Syria. Firstly, UNRWA argued that the allotted services to Palestinians in Lebanon, which have a specific budget, were already deficient and could not bear any additional burden. Moreover, the assistance to Palestinians within Syria had been given priority, given the danger of areas of confrontation relative to other areas. Due to this, the already deficient budget allotted to them had been redirected to provide for the enormous exigencies of internal displacement. The budget could not be used to support the refugees in Lebanon, since the existing budget for those within Syria had become more urgent. Displacement of Palestinians within Syria reached 235,000 refugees in 2013, according to an estimate put out by UNRWA in May of that year. Finally, UNRWA claims that it issued several calls for funding its budget, but the incoming funds were funneled towards Syrians, and UNRWA did not receive but small amounts, which had already been distributed amongst the refugees over a protracted period of time.
However, UNRWA provided some services regarding emergency situations of forced displacement, and it continues to maintain that it is only an aid organization, not in charge of the entire Palestinian cause. Moreover, UNRWA contacted the Lebanese General Security forces to extend the residency of Palestinians displaced from Syria, and has provided very small monetary payments to individuals, and absorbed an equally small number of Palestinians in its schools. As a result, UNRWA needs to cooperate with the Lebanese government sharing the burden regarding Palestinian refugees, based on the agreements reached at the International Conference on Displaced Persons that took place in Kuwait in February 2012.
UNRWA issued several statements saying it would grant the Palestinian refugees from Syria the same treatment given to the Palestinians in Lebanon. These reports did not take into account that most of the Palestinians in Lebanon struggle daily and call upon UNRWA to grant them the most basic levels of treatment and hospitalization. It also ignored the meager health capabilities of UNRWA’s clinics, the lack of even the most basic of treatments; the fact that hundreds of Palestinian families from Syria were forced to beg for treatment at the doors of public and private hospitals, to no avail; and the decreasing capabilities of the Palestinian Red Crescent Society’s hospitals as well.
In terms of education, UNRWA reports indicated that about 6,000 students joined UNRWA schools. In addition, over 900 children attended transitional programs specified for them, in order to guarantee that they are properly acclimated and can continue their education. However, the larger portion of Palestinian refugee students, estimated to be approximately 11,000, was not taken into account. These students have no access to education. In addition, UNRWA was unable to provide enough instructors, due to the difference in curricula between Syria and Lebanon.
Lack of leadership
The official Palestinian leadership did not offer any support to the Palestinian refugees from Syria, except for some factions, institutions and popular committees. There is an evident lack of a single Palestinian leadership, whether central (as a political reference point) or local (popular committees). This led to the neglect of responsibilities and shifting them from one party to another.
The inability to anticipate the possibility of a Palestinian exodus from Syria also had an impact on how the Palestinian leadership handled this crisis. The conditions in which Palestinians lived in Syria and the favorable state policies made the current situation unthinkable and caused the lack of preparation for assisting these massive waves of refugees.
The greatest gaps in the performance of the Palestinian social and political bodies can be felt in Lebanon, in the way they dealt with the case of Palestinian refugees coming from Syria:
- Lack of preparation and sufficiently comprehensive emergency plans by factions, popular institutions, civil society institutions, or social groups.
- Dominance of individualistic, factionalist and exclusionary types of logic when working in the field of humanitarian aid, which results from the increase in the prevailing exclusionary culture as a result of political divisions.
- Slow pace in dealing with Palestinian refugees from Syria, resulting from a short-term political vision that saw it as a crisis that will take a matter of days.
- Unpreparedness of UNRWA and its inability to aid the refugees.
- Refusal of the Lebanese government to take responsibility for the refugees, which has shifted to UNRWA, coupled with the silence of other political and social organizations.
- Slowness of the Palestinian leadership (the PLO, the Consulate, the political factions, etc.) in dealing with the issue of aid seriously, instead shifting the responsibility towards UNRWA.
- Lack of a body in charge of organizing wealthy Palestinians outside of Lebanon and Syria, so that they may play their role in systematically aiding the refugees.
The Legal Status of the Palestinians Displaced from Syria to Lebanon
The point of entry into Lebanon was subjected to strict bureaucratic measures ever since Palestinians began to come in from Syria. In addition to having to provide travel documents issued by the Syrian authorities, the refugees also had to pay fees for entry reaching $150, which only provided the right to stay in the country for one week. For a three-month extension additional fees were required. These fees are very costly, especially when compared to the fees paid by the Syrian citizens traveling to Lebanon. Nonetheless, waivers were included in these fees as a result of repeated request from the leadership of the Palestinian factions. The identity cards and travel documents issued by the Syrian authorities for Palestinian refugees remain the first condition for legal flight across Syrian-Lebanese borders. The agreement between both countries allows the holder of these documents to pass, including the fee requirements and an adherence to the agreed-upon period, but most refugees never requested for such documents to be issued, which prevented many of them from even thinking of fleeing to Lebanon. Palestinians do not enjoy the same level of protection as Syrian citizens. The UNHCR diverted the responsibility over Palestinian refugees from Syria to UNRWA, since it is the official international body responsible for assisting Palestinian refugees.
- Secure displaced Palestinians from Syria with legal international protection and take into account the situation of emergency and security risks that surrounds them.
- Cancel all decisions and policies that discriminate against Palestinians displaced from Syria to Lebanon.
- It is necessary to find a mechanism or to create a database and share information among all bodies, local committees and regional organisms for relief of Palestinian refugees from Syria.
- There is also a need to coordinate the relief operations on the basis of equitable distribution and integration of disciplines, in addition to monitoring the quality of the materials distributed.
- Finally, a strategy must be devised to involve embassies, international aid organizations, human rights and charities, and to coordinate all efforts to provide for the needed support. This would include customizing programs to address the social, educational and work-related problems. It would also involve activating the role of unions to contribute in providing medical services to refugees in cooperation with existing institutions like UNRWA or the Red Crescent Society.
*Souheil El- Natour:Palestinian expert in law and General Director of the Human Development Center, an NGO working for the rights of Palestinians refugees in Lebanon. He is the author of "The Palestinians of Lebanon" (in Arabic, 1993), Role and Future of UNRWA (1996), and Les Palestiniens du Liban (in French, 1999). He is also the Secretary of the Palestinian Union of Jurists in Lebanon.
**Samer Manna’a: Palestinian Journalist and human rights and refugee activist. He is the executive manager of the Human Development Center, and a contributor of the al-Hayat Journal, Houququna (“Our Rights”) Newsletter and many other publications. He is also the author of "To be a Palestinian in Lebanon", a short story book about the daily life of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.
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