Challenging the International Framework for Palestinian Refugees in light of the Syria Crisis

A Palestinian refugee from the Syrian refugee camp of Yarmouk holds up his passport in front of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) offices in the Cola district of the Lebanese capital, Beirut, on 19 December 2012. (Source: A Palestinian refugee from the Syrian refugee camp of Yarmouk holds up his passport in front of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) offices in the Cola district of the Lebanese capital, Beirut, on 19 December 2012. (Source:


In 2011, fighting broke out in Syria, creating over three million refugees fleeing mainly to surrounding Arab countries such as Lebanon and Jordan.[1] Alongside the Syrian citizens affected by the conflict is a population of about half a million Palestinian refugees.[2] As former Commissioner-General of United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), Filippo Grandi, put it in a January 2014 lecture at the American University of Beirut:

In some cases, Palestinians (and indeed other civilians) have left en masse, either fleeing from fighting or forced away at gunpoint. The dynamics shift along with the geography of the conflict, each camp experiencing it in different but equally devastating ways. Even Palestinian camps that have been relatively safe and are housing many displaced refugees, like in Homs, or in Jaramaneh near Damascus, sit precariously adjacent to battle zones. In the space of a few months, between the end of 2012 and the first months of 2013, life suddenly became very precarious for thousands of Palestinians in Syria. Just a week ago - in one more example of the blatant disregard for the laws of war that has characterized this conflict - an explosion close to an UNRWA school near Dera’a, left 18 dead, including five UNRWA school children and one staff member.[3]

While Syrian citizens generally find a difficult time in the countries of refuge, Palestinian refugees fleeing the same war in Syria in many cases face additional obstacles such as denied access and forcible return. The exclusion of Palestinians from protection is not only a phenomenon occurring on a national political level but can also be found in international law. The establishment of the UNRWA - and with this the separation of Palestinian Refugees from the mandate of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) - was intended to protect the identity and rights of the Palestinian people. However, it contributed to the construction of a separate and unique category of 'Palestine refugees', and therewith created an environment in which discriminatory policies can flourish.

This paper aims to analyze the interplay between the international framework for Palestinians and the respective policies in place in Jordan and Lebanon, with a special focus on the refugee movement from Syria. I argue that the international measures adopted for Palestinian refugees are unsuitable and inadequate to manage their protracted and multiple displacements occurring since the 1940s. With this analysis, the paper aims to contribute to an ongoing legal debate on international protection of Palestinian refugees. By focusing on the effects this separate international protection regime has on Palestinians' ability to receive protection in case of multiple displacements, this paper adds an additional component to the debate by pointing out the need to rethink the international approach to the Palestinian refugee situation in light of the Syrian crisis.[4]

The Syria crisis and Jordan

As of March 2014, nearly 600,000 'Syrian refugees' are registered with UNHCR in Jordan. The vast majority of refugees from Syria live in non-camp setting mainly in the North of Jordan, while only about 120,000 are hosted in the UNHCR operated refugee camps in Zaatari and Azraq.[5] The UN interpretation[6] of Article 1D of the 1951 Convention[7] and Paragraph 7(c) of the UNHCR Statute[8], leads to the exclusion of Palestinian refugees residing within UNRWA’s area of operations from UNHCR's mandate. Hence, Palestinian refugees are not covered by the assistance provided by UNHCR inside and outside of the camps, and therefore not displayed in UNHCR's official numbers of the Syria crisis. According to UNRWA, by April 2014 over 13,000 ‘Palestine refugees’[9] from Syria have fled to Jordan.[10]

In January 2013, the Jordanian government officially announced a non-entry policy for Palestinian refugees from Syria. Subsequently Palestinian refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria have been blocked from entering the country through official ways. With this policy, the Jordanian Government is clearly in breach of the international principle of non-refoulement[11]. In an interview with the pan-Arab newspaper Al-Hayat on 9 January 2013, Jordan's Prime Minister Abdallah Ensour reaffirmed the country's commitment to finding a solution for the Syrian people and emphasized that the country was fulfilling its obligations by accepting large numbers of Syrian refugees.

Jordan has accepted tens of thousands of Syrian refugees. We hope the bloodshed ends as soon as possible, and we emphasize the need to resolve the Syrian conflict politically.[12]

Referring to Jordan's official non-entry policy for Palestinian refugees fleeing from Syria on Syrian travel documents, Ensour stated:

There are those who want to exempt Israel from the repercussions of displacing the Palestinians from their homes. Jordan is not a place to solve Israel's problems. Jordan has made a clear and explicit sovereign decision not to allow the crossing to Jordan by our Palestinian brothers who hold Syrian documents. Receiving those brothers is a red line because that would be a prelude to another wave of displacement, which is what the Israeli government wants. Our Palestinian brothers have the right to go back to their country of origin. They should stay in Syria until the end of the crisis.[13]

This statement is the strongest example of how Jordanian policy-makers view the situation of Palestinians coming from Syria and it deserves closer examination. The argument is rooted in the original Arab rhetoric prevalent during the drafting of the 1951 Convention with regard to Article 1(D) and its 'exclusion clause'. Referring to their right of return and Palestinians' status as Jordan's ‘brothers’, Ensour places emphasis on his country's role as the protector of the Palestinian cause. He argues that should Jordan allow Palestinians from Syria into Jordan, it would weaken the Palestinian cause by removing the responsibility of first displacement from Israel. This type of thinking is not a new development and has been a constant feature of populist reasoning related to Palestinian refugees. However, this disregards the fact that Palestinians have already been subjected to multiple displacements have not ‘lost’ their status as Palestinian refugees. Contrasting this Jordanian statement with the previous one on Syrian refugees, it becomes evident that there is a clear compartmentalization between Syrians and Palestinians. In doing this, Jordan places different burdens on these two peoples, resulting in discriminatory policies towards Palestinians coming from Syria.

In order to safeguard their right of return, Palestinian refugees have been compartmentalized. This has shaped the international legal regime with regards to the codification of a separate Palestinian refugee status, separate institutions, and separate understandings of responsibility. The international community, at the behest of the Arab states, institutionally excluded Palestinians from the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. In practical terms, this separation in international laws and institutions allows some states to discriminate against Palestinians under the guise of safeguarding their right to return, whilst claiming legitimacy under the cloak of internal law.

The Syria crisis and Lebanon

As a result of the crisis in Syria, Lebanon has been experiencing one of the biggest influxes of displacement in its modern history. In May 2014, the number of Syrian refugees who fled to Lebanon exceeded one million.[14] With a local population of about 6 million and nearly half a million Palestinian refugees, the new movements of refugees from Syria challenges the fragile state system and peace in the country. With violence spilling over, refugees from Syria are perceived a threat to Lebanon's fragile peace. In fact, the new influx of refugees from Syria puts enormous pressure on already existing refugee communities and infrastructure in the country.

Overcrowded and underfunded refugee camps and rising rental fees paired with a lack of income due to the restrictive employment policies for Palestinians, have led to Palestinian refugees from Syria to be hosted by the poorest host communities in Lebanon, posing a serious worry to the existing structures. Economic survival seems to be the main concern of the community, as a needs-assessment conducted by the American Near East Refugee Aid (ANERA) indicates.[15] With households exceeding 15 persons, there is a high risk for communicable diseases and stress in certain areas. Since August 2013, Lebanon has repeatedly deported and turned away Palestinian refugees at its border.

Lebanon's official response to incoming refugees is governed by the Memorandum of Understanding between its government and UNHCR from 2003. However, this MoU does not apply to the current Syrian crisis, as it mainly deals with individual cases and does not recognize large-scale refugee influxes. As of the beginning of 2014, there has not been any new MoU to deal with the influx from Syria. Until the Lebanese government and UNHCR reach a new agreement, its response to the situation is reliant on its respective ministries' policies. The Ministry of Education grants access to public schooling at a reduced rate for registered refugees and the Ministry of Health provides access to primary healthcare.[16] With UNHCR as the point of registration for refugees, and Palestinians being excluded from its mandate, they are not qualified for such basic public services. Palestinians from Syria are registered with UNRWA and, through this, only qualify for its pre-existing benefit structures for Palestinian refugees. As mentioned previously, Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are denied access to public education and healthcare and are treated differently from those considered to be 'Syrian refugees'.

Current Lebanese policies are shaped by extreme marginalization of Palestinians in the country. Treating the Palestinian population from Syria as Palestinian refugees - rather than being part of a group of refugees from Syria - is discriminatory as it places them into an already marginalized group. A better approach would be to view the populations coming from Syria as one refugee influx in need of special protection mechanisms. This could, in the eyes of the Palestinian population already present in Lebanon, be viewed as discrimination against them. However, it is necessary to acknowledge the temporary and pressing protection needs of an entire group fleeing the Syrian conflict, irrespective of their territory of origin. Under the current system, the UN pushes an extremely vulnerable group into a pre-existing system of marginalization.


This paper analyses the interplay between the international framework in place for Palestinians and the respective policies in Jordan and Lebanon focusing on the most recent refugee movement from Syria. My argument has been that the international measures adopted for Palestinian refugees are unsuitable and inadequate to manage the protracted and multiple displacements they have faced since the 1940s. I outlined and assessed the international legal framework, as well as the policy responses in Jordan and Lebanon. In doing so, I concluded that the internationally-established separate regime for Palestinian refugees allows for discriminatory policy responses in Jordan and Lebanon. This is not a one-way street as these countries, along with their fellow Arab states, played and continue to play an active role in establishing and shaping the separate international legal regime for Palestinian refugees.

In summary, the existing international legal framework is based on the understanding that Palestinian refugees are distinct from other refugees, due to the nature of their first displacement. At the time of drafting the 1951 Convention, Arab states had argued that, unlike most other refugees, Palestinians had not become refugees because of actions conflicting with international principles of the UN but rather as a direct result of a decision taken by the later. The common understanding therefore has been that the UN should be obligated to protect those refugees and find durable solutions rather than the host states. As a result, historically, Palestinian refugees as such are institutionally as well as linguistically separate from the refugee concept outlined in the 1951 Convention. Over the past 60 years, this exclusion has contributed to the marginalization of Palestinian refugees on the international and domestic level, and resulted in a gap with regard to their individual protection due to the early collapse of the United Nations Conciliation Commission for Palestine.

By looking at the most recent policy approaches of Jordan and Lebanon to Palestinians displaced from Syria, the practical implications of the protection gap[17] become apparent. Both countries distinguish between Syrian nationals and Palestinians, even though both are fleeing the identical conflict, resulting in discriminatory policies towards the latter in terms of entry and access to basic services.

Linking their discriminatory policy responses with the greater struggle of Palestinians against Israel and their right to return, the Jordanian government postulates itself as safeguarding the Palestinian cause. Jordan argues that its policies are 'positive' discrimination. This logic imitates the earlier rhetoric used by Arab states after the initial displacement of 1948, which led to the exclusion of Palestinian refugees from the 1951 Convention.

The scenario in Lebanon, though different to Jordan, also has its roots in the compartmentalization of refugees from Palestine and the internationally institutionalized separation of Palestinians. The end result remains discriminatory treatment towards Palestinian refugees. The rights of Palestinian living in Lebanon are restricted in terms of education and employment, leading to extreme socio-economic marginalization of long-standing as well as more recently arriving Palestinian refugee populations.

Syrian refugees are registered with UNHCR and covered by its protection mandate. The ad-hoc protection system set up by UNHCR in co-operation with the Lebanese government equips them with a broader set of rights. Palestinian refugees fleeing from Syria, however, are unable to register with UNHCR but with UNRWA, due to the former's interpretation of Article 1D as an exclusion clause. They are therefore not covered by the ad-hoc system but by the restrictive pre-existing framework for Palestinian refugees. The UN's policy therefore directly allows for the discrimination against this newly arriving refugee group.

As long as international laws maintain separate treatment for Palestinian refugees, they create a space for a legally sanctioned type of discrimination that is extremely detrimental to displaced Palestinians. The focus should be to integrate Palestinians into the international protection system in place under the 1951 Convention, while simultaneously upholding their future rights such as the right to return. This does not require any radical developments. For example, one option could be to actively implement the aforementioned contingent inclusion clause in Article 1D of the 1951 Convention. To consider this and other options, there is a need for inter-governmental and interagency debate towards a reconfiguration of how Palestinian refugees are placed within the international system.

[1] UNHCR, “Press Release: Refugee Total Hits 3 Million as Syrians Flee Growing Insecurity and Worsening Conditions,” August 29, 2014,

[2] United Nations Information System on the Question of Palestine (UNISPAL), “Extremadura Supports Health in Syria,” July 7, 2014,

[3] Filippo Grandi, “Crossroads of Crisis: Yarmouk, Syria and the Palestine Refugee Predicament” (American University of Beirut, 2014),

[4] For the purposes of this paper, the phrase 'Palestinian refugees' will be used to refer to all those displaced from Palestine, including both those legally defined as 'Palestine refugees' and 'persons of concern'. The term 'Palestine refugee' will only be used when referring to the sub-group of those displaced during the 1948 War and who are legally defined as such by UNRWA.

[5] UNHCR, “Syria Regional Refugee Response - Jordan - Mafraq Governorate - Zaatari Refugee Camp,” October 28, 2014,; UNHCR, “Syria Regional Refugee Response - Jordan - Zarqa Governorate - Azraq Camp,” October 28, 2014,

[6] UNHCR, “Note on UNHCR’s Interpretation of Article 1D of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and Article 12(1)(a) of the EU Qualification Directive in the Context of Palestinian Refugees Seeking International Protection,” May 2013,

[7] UN General Assembly, “Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees,” July 28, 1951.

[8] “Statute of the UNHCR,” 1950, 7(c). “Provided that the competence of the High Commissioner as defined in paragraph 6 above shall not extend to a person who continues to receive from other organs or agencies of the United Nations protection or assistance.”

[9] UNRWA, “Palestine Refugees,” accessed November 20, 2014,

[10] UNRWA, “PRS in Jordan,” accessed July 4, 2014,

[11]The principle of non-refoulement is the prohibition to expel individuals to a country where they have reasons to fear persecution. The principle has been defined in a number of international instruments, including Art 33(1) of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees.

[12]Al-Hayat newspaper, Jordan’s Prime Minister Abdallah Ensour interview, January 2013,

[13] Ibid.

[14] UNHCR, Syrian Refugees in Lebanon Surpass One Million, April 3, 2014,

[15] ANERA, “Palestinian Refugees from Syria in Lebanon: A Needs Assessment,” March 2013, 1,

[16] UNHCR, Lebanon Baseline Information, October 10, 2013,

[17]International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), “Professional Standards for Protection Work,” 2013,; BADIL Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights, Survey of Palestinian Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons, 2010-2012, vol. VII (Bethlehem, Palestine, 2012), 2010–2012.