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Home al-Majdal Ongoing Nakba (Spring 2006) Palestinians Exiled in Europe

Palestinians Exiled in Europe

Written by  Tareq Arar

Palestinian diaspora or refugees?

Numerous Arab and foreign studies allocate great importance to the situation of Palestinians in host countries, notably in countries neighboring Palestine. This importance may be related to the high number of Palestinians residing in those countries, such as Jordan; the implications of a resolution of the conflict, including the refugee question; and, the role that these countries may play in regional and international fora.

 It is noteworthy that Palestinians in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt are given more importance in research than those from Iraq, the Gulf States, Libya, North and South America. There are also very few studies on Palestinians in Europe, although a few were recently conducted.

Studies on Palestinians in Europe are related to the popular term "Diaspora". Over the past decade, we passed from studying "refugees" to studying "diasporas". This does not mean that there were no studies of "Palestinian Diaspora" in the past. There was, for instance, a 1986 study by Ilya Harik entitled, "The Palestinians in the Diaspora" and an article, "The Palestinian Diaspora" by Ann Pamela Smith in the Journal of Palestine Studies, also from 1986. But it is the work of Bassma Kodmani-Darwish, La Diaspora Palestinienne, which undoubtedly created most debate among Arab and Palestinian society over the term to be used, both descriptively and normatively, to qualify the phenomenon of Palestinians’ dispersion across the world. Today, some prefer to use the term "refugees" to recall the attachment to the right of return. In both the Arab world and elsewhere, there is, in fact, a great debate to define the dispersion of Palestinians. In referring to the displacement of the Palestinians numerous terms are employed (refugees (laji'oun), displaced (nazihoun), or expelled (mouhajjaroun)). The term most used is refugees, no doubt for legal reasons related to Resolution 194 of the United Nations General Assembly pertaining to the right of return of Palestinians to their homes of origin.

The use of the term "Diaspora" does pose a certain number of problems. Some Palestinians and Arab writers, such as Bassma Kodmani-Darwish, findthat, "in the past few years, diasporas have become a field of study in itself and the integration of the Palestinians within this field is legitimate from an historical, sociological and economic perspective. But the object of study (diasporas) seems to accept a situation of dispersion and make of its provisional character a subject of investigation and analysis, which implies the abstraction, for the duration of the analysis at least, of the right of return. Identifying the Palestinians as refugees is to recognize that there exists a problem requiring a solution. To qualify them as diaspora, is to eliminate the language necessary to change their situation"(1). Indeed, the use of the term "Diaspora" is very dangerous. Why forego the real description of refugee, recognized by the international community, and replace it by this term, diaspora?

As long as 60 percent of the Palestinian nation is in forced exile because of the 1948 War, it is necessary to maintain the term "refugees" to describe those Palestinians, whether in the Arab world or in other parts of the world, including Europe.

Palestinians in Europe

British Mandate policies, such as confiscation of Palestinian land, privileges given to Jews, and the ease with which the British Mandate facilitated the immigration of Jews from around the world to Palestine, contributed to the exodus of the Palestinians from their homeland. In addition, thousands of Palestinians who were in the Americas since the beginning of the 20th century tried to return to Palestine but their requests were turned down by the British Mandate Government; only some hundreds were allowed to return to Palestine. Displacement to Europe differs from the migration of Palestinians to Latin America, where currently the most important Palestinian Diaspora reside. Palestinian displacement to Europe is relatively recent and limited.

Palestinian migration to Europe began in the 1940s with a few students. The capacity of students to travel was limited to a few from rich families and the bourgeoisie. Only a few students were able to leave Palestine to study in Europe because of the relatively high cost of living in Europe compared to Palestine. Many students stayed after their studies because of the tense situation in Mandate Palestine and the revolts against the British Mandate. The arrival of Palestinians really started in the second-half of the 20th century, effectively since the 1948 War, when Palestinians were expelled from their land and country.

After the establishment of the state of Israel, the British Government passed a law that eased the process of obtaining British nationality and encouraged the departure of Palestinians to England. This explains the easy and fast nationalization of Palestinians that arrived in Britain in the 1950s compared to other Palestinian exile communities in Europe, although very few Palestinians requested British nationality because they believed they would be able to return to Palestine once the situation had calmed down.

After the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, the Israeli government prohibited the return of all Palestinians who were outside the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. This affected thousands of people who became refugee sur place. Israel's military occupation, the tense political situation, arrests, assassinations and house demolitions triggered more forced displacement of Palestinian communities from the occupied Palestinian territories. Thousands of Palestinian workers left to work in Europe with contracts offered in cooperation with the governments of Jordan and Germany, or through a Swedish-supported assistance program to Palestinian refugees. A large portion of these workers remained in Europe.

The formation of a Palestinian resistance movement created tensions with Arab governments in the Middle East, such as Jordan in 1970 and Lebanon in the 1980s. These governments perceived the Palestinian resistance as a threat to national security and the stability of their regimes, and as a result, the PLO was evicted from Jordan to Lebanon, and to thin Tunisia. The politically charged atmosphere dominated the politics of some Arab states, especially Jordan and Lebanon; freedom of movement and civil rights of Palestinians were severely restricted, leading to difficult socio-economic living conditions, particularly in the refugee camps in Lebanon. Approximately 80% of Palestinians in Europe are Palestinian refugees from Lebanon.

Relocation of Palestinians to Europe was not geared towards one particular country. Palestinians rather chose countries which would fulfill the rights they had been deprived from: residency, civil, security and freedom. Gradually, more Palestinians went to East Germany and then to West Germany, because asylum was more easily granted than in other countries and because work opportunities were available. In the 1980s Germany closed its frontiers to Palestinians and became a stop-over for Palestinians heading to Scandinavian countries. The majority of the Palestinians in Denmark and Sweden today passed through Germany in the 1980s. The number of Palestinians in Germany today is estimated to be between 30,000 (Mohammad Kamel Dori) and 80,000 (Abbas Shablak), and they represent the most substantial Palestinian community in Europe.

Relocation, displacement and migration of Palestinians are usually related to conflict in the countries where they live. The major waves of Palestinian movement to Europe came after the 1967 War, after the 1970 Black September massacre in Jordan, and from Lebanon where civil war started in 1975 and was followed by the Israeli invasion and the massacres of Sabra and Shatila in 1982 and the subsequent "war of the camps". The 1991 Ta'ef Agreement, which ended the civil war in Lebanon, resulted in further deterioration of the economic and political situation of Palestinian refugees due to discrimination in Lebanon’s reconstruction policies.

Following the signing of the 1993 Oslo Accords between Israel and the PLO, Palestinians in Lebanon felt even more ignored and marginalized, because they did not see their plight and rights addressed. Due to Israel’s refusal, the question of the return of Palestinian refugees was delayed and was not even discussed.

All of the above represent factors which have pushed Palestinian refugees to move on to Europe in search of a more stable legal status. Currently, the number of Palestinians in Europe is estimated to be between 200,000 - 300,000, mainly in Germany, Great Britain, Denmark and Sweden. Although efforts have been made to organize their work and to build a solid mechanism to pressure and lobby in support of Palestine, they have remained without much influence on the Middle East policies of their host countries.

*Tareq Arar is a PhD candidate at l'institut Francais de Geopolitique à Paris, and the secretary for the committee for the right of return, France.


(1) Unofficial Badil translation from French «les diasporas sont devenues en quelques années un champ d’étude en soi et l’intégration des Palestiniens dans ce champ est légitime d’un point de vue historique, sociologique et économique. Mais la definition meme de l’objet d’étude semble entériner une situation de dispersion et faire de son caractère provisoire un sujet d’investigation et d’analyse, ce que implique de faire abstraction, le temps de l’analyse au moins, de l’objet entretenu du retour. Identifier les Palestiniens comme des réfugiés, c’est reconnaître qu’il existe un problème appelant une solution. Les qualifier de diaspora, c’est éliminé par le langage la nécessité de changer leur situation.»


Tareq Arar

Tareq Arar

*Tareq Arar is a PhD candidate at l'institut Francais de Geopolitique à Paris, and the secretary for the committee for the right of return, France.


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