Folke Bernadotte, the first UN Security Council mediator in Palestine, understood fully why refugees must be allowed to return to their homes. In a report published one day after he was assassinated in Jerusalem in September 1948, the Swedish diplomat wrote that it would be “an offense against principles of elemental justice” if Palestinians uprooted by Zionist forces were denied the right of return.
More than 66 years later, that right is still being denied. Arab governments and the West do not appear to care.
Worse, Palestinian refugees in Gaza and Syria have been the victims of brutal attacks in recent years. In many cases, they have been forced to flee once again. Sometimes, they climb onto packed boats for voyages in the Mediterranean that can lead to death.
My own experience is shared by numerous other Palestinians.
No longer safe
As a youth activist, I was impressed by its strong sense of community. Since 2004, I have worked on various refugee projects, not just with Palestinians but also with Lebanese and Iraqis.
When the uprising against Bashar al-Assad’s regime began in 2011, the Palestinians of Yarmouk tried to remain neutral. Our neutrality did not protect us from either Assad’s forces or from rebels, however. Not long ago, Yarmouk was the capital of the Palestinian diaspora in Syria. Today, the camp has been destroyed.
In November 2012, I left Syria. Continuous harassment of activists by the regime meant that I no longer felt safe.
I decided to head for Lebanon, where I had built up a strong network of contacts. There, I renewed my residency permit as often as I could.
“We don’t trust your intentions”
Living in Beirut, I attempted to obtain visas for a number of countries. My applications were refused on the basis that I am a Palestinian refugee from Syria.
In June 2013, I applied for a visa for the UK, aiming to attend an Oxford University summer school focusing on forced migration. I wanted to improve my knowledge about issues of migration and refugees beyond that which I had directly experienced.
Even though I had been accepted for the summer school by Oxford and a donor had generously agreed to pay my fees, the British authorities turned me down. A letter from them stated: “We do not trust your intentions.”
I had better luck with Sweden. Last year, I was able to get a visa to attend a “young leaders’ visitors program” run by the Swedish Institute. But I also got bad news while I was in Sweden: I learned that Lebanon was preventing Palestinian refugees from Syria from entering its territory. So I could not go back to Beirut.
Despite all this, you could say I’m one of the lucky ones. I’m in Sweden and have the option to study, work and travel inside the EU. The tens of thousands Palestinians who fled Syria to Lebanon face much worse.
Meanwhile, Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority’s leader, has renounced the Palestinian right of return. He appears more interested in having his photograph taken with world leaders in Paris than in defending the rights of his people.
Abbas does not represent ordinary Palestinians. For us, the right of return is a central issue. It will remain so — until this most fundamental of rights is realized.
Nael Bitarie is a Palestinian activist from Syria living in Sweden. He is co-founder of the Lebanon-based group Sawa for Development and Aid and is a board member and consultant for the Jafra Foundation in Syria.