The number of refugees fleeing the civil war in Syria has now reached one million, according to UN data. The neighboring states of Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon and Turkey have absorbed thousands of refugees, many taking shelter in the makeshift camps set up by the UN refugee agency UNHCR.
Yet less has been said about the thousands of those refugees from Syria who are Palestinian. Their number is certainly not insignificant; the UN estimates that almost half of the 500,000 Palestinians in Syria have now become displaced, in many cases for the second time.
Being Palestinian can create additional problems for those already facing the hardship of displacement. As they are not citizens of Syria, Palestinian refugees fleeing the war can be categorized separately. The Jordanian government, for instance, has issued stringent rules denying entry to any more Palestinians from Syria. Jordan claims to have provided ample assistance to the 5,000 Palestinians it has already absorbed from Syria and argues that it cannot take any more.
Meanwhile, Palestinians who have fled Syria for Turkey or Iraq often face major bureaucratic challenges in receiving international aid, as the UN agency for Palestine refugees UNRWA does not operate in those countries. Their registration must therefore be transferred to the UNHCR and the process is not always fast or efficient.
More than 30,000 Palestinians from Syria have instead taken refuge in Lebanon, where events have always been strongly influenced by developments in Damascus. As a tiny country with a national population of just 4 million, Lebanon has struggled to absorb the 330,000 refugees who have entered from Syria. It is often particularly difficult for those who are Palestinian, as I discovered on a recent trip to the country.
Visiting the Palestinian refugee camp Ein al-Hilweh near the city of Sidon, I met a group of twenty Palestinian women who had fled Yarmouk, an unofficial camp in Damascus and the largest Palestinian community in Syria. Despite its designated neutrality in the conflict, Yarmouk’s strategic significance has made it a major target. Only last week, it was reported that two Palestinians were hanged from trees within Yarmouk following accusations that they supported the Assad regime (“UNRWA deplores brutal killing of two Palestine refugees in Yarmouk,” UNRWA, 4 March).
UNRWA estimates that around 85 percent of Yarmouk’s residents have now become displaced (“Over 85 percent Palestinians fled Syria’s Yarmouk camp: UNRWA,” Al Arabiyya, 12 March). The women whom I spoke to in Ein al-Hilweh painted a bleak picture of recent life in Yarmouk as they described constant shelling, shootings and kidnappings.
They spoke of the particular terror caused by frequent kidnappings and resulting ransoms which most people cannot afford to pay. Many have relatives who are still in Syria, and are deeply concerned about their safety. With parts of the country cut off from network coverage, they are often unable to speak to them on the phone and are uncertain of their well-being.
The women themselves have taken shelter in Ein al-Hilweh, which is the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon. Their journeys here were blighted by a wide range of obstacles, as they faced problems caused not only by the violence itself but also by practical travel difficulties and bureaucratic complications at the border.
One woman, Maha, described the nightmare she faced accessing Lebanon. “There was confusion because another woman had the same name as me, so the Syrian authorities took my ID card at the border. The driver was not willing to wait while I argued with them, so he drove off with my luggage still in his car and left me at the side of the road. I had to borrow money from my brothers in order to travel to the necessary administrative office and renew my ID. It was four months before I could obtain the necessary documents and enter Lebanon. My seven children had all been able to enter but I had to stay behind in Syria and wait.”
Um Mahmoud faced similar problems. Once she arrived at the border, the Syrian guards told her that she could not take her children or even her husband with her out of the country. As a result, the whole family waited there from noon until night, trying to persuade the guards to let them pass. Like Maha, Um Mahmoud lost her luggage when the driver refused to wait and drove off without them.
Describing cold conditions and a lack of food at the border area, she recalled that her children started to cry as night set in. She continually begged the guards to let them pass, telling them that her mother was sick in Lebanon, and eventually they relented. After the Syrian guards signed exit papers for five persons, Um Mahmoud and her family walked to the Lebanese side of the border and then took a bus to Beirut. They came south to Ein al-Hilweh the next day.
Some of the women I talked to were old enough to remember their original displacement from Palestine in 1948. Anisa, aged 79, still vividly recalled her family’s flight from their home in Acre during the Nakba, the ethnic cleansing that led to Israel’s establishment. They traveled on a donkey through Lebanon and eventually settled in Yarmouk, where Anisa would later marry and raise her children. Nearly 66 years after her first displacement, Anisa found herself back in Lebanon, escaping another war. “Before it was Israelis killing Palestinians and now it is Arabs killing each other,” she said.
The systemic problems faced by Palestinians in Lebanon create further complications. Syria has historically provided some of the best treatment to Palestinians of any Arab host country. With no restrictions on their right to work, travel or to access services, Palestinians in Syria enjoy many of the same rights as Syrian citizens.
Fewer rights now
By contrast, Lebanon has the toughest restrictions on Palestinian rights of any Arab state. The 400,000 Palestinians registered in Lebanon are banned from working in more than 20 professions, and are not entitled to state assistance for services such as health care. There are extremely high rates of unemployment and poverty rates among Palestinians in Lebanon, which have shocked many of the new arrivals from Syria. “It was better in Yarmouk before the war. We have less rights in Ein al-Hilweh” said Um Mahmoud. “We hope that the situation will improve so we can go back.”
However, the women all spoke favorably about the generosity of the residents of Ein al-Hilweh. “People are good to us here,” said one. “They are very similar to us. We are all Palestinian, whether here or in Yarmouk.” In a humbling display of compassion, many Palestinians in Ein al-Hilweh have taken strangers into their home and given them refuge. While exacerbating Yarmouk’s already serious problem of overcrowding, this has at least meant that those fleeing Syria have some security.
Yet Ain al-Hilweh is not their home. Despite the violence now consuming Syria, the women’s affection for Yarmouk is clear. “Yarmouk is much bigger than Ein al-Hilweh; it’s like a full city,” one woman said. “It used to be very safe before the crisis began. We are living well here and people are welcoming but we would like to go back to Syria.”
Unfortunately, that does not look likely anytime in the near future.
Some names have been changed at the request of the interviewees.
Anne Irfan holds a master’s degree in Middle Eastern history and currently works for the nongovernmental organization Medical Aid for Palestinians.