Middle East

The Invisible Palestinian Refugees

Chelsea Sauve

The Invisibile Palestinian Refugees

On Sunday December 16th, Syria’s civil war took the lives of at least 15 Palestinians when Syrian warplanes bombarded a densely populated Palestinian refugee camp called the Yarmouk camp located in southern Damascus. Formed in 1957, the Yarmouk camp is the largest Palestinian refugee community in Syria, with more than 148,500 registered Palestinian refugees.

The plight of Palestinian refugees living outside of the West Bank and Gaza is rarely addressed in the public forum. However, the political and humanitarian crisis of the approximately 3.9 million Palestinians in the West Bank and in Gaza, championed by activists and statesmen alike, is at the centre of international conversation.

It is the plight of an estimated 4.6 million Palestinians living in Arab countries that is met with silence. The human rights abuses suffered by Palestinian refugees in Arab countries such as Lebanon and Syria are largely left unquestioned.  It would seem that beyond the context of relations with Israel, the plight of Palestinians is largely ignored. Consequently, Palestinian refugees living in Arab countries remain invisible on the international forum.

First, some questions

This leads to the first question that one may pose. “If Palestinian refugees were granted the right of return (return to the homes they inhabited prior to 1948), they would no longer remain refugees in Arab lands.” Well, I will suggest to you that this is another counterfactual. In the present, the Palestinian Right of return does not look like it will become a reality. Through two Gulf wars, the Oslo peace process, Camp David and the Clinton Parameters, not a single Palestinian refugee has returned to their former home in Israel. In a future Palestinian state, existing sovereignly beside the state of Israel, Palestinian refugees will be welcome.

However, with a stalled peace process, there remains little hope for an immediate solution to the conflict and therefore little hope that these refugees will be repatriated soon So this begs the question, why perpetuate the suffering of Palestinians in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. Is there a reason why, 64 years after Israeli Independence (also referred to as the ‘nakba’ in Palestinian circles), Palestinians are still living in refugee camps?

This leads us to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the perpetuator of the plight of Palestinians in Arab countries.

What is the problem with UNRWA?

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the governing authority of Palestinian refugees, was established by the United Nations (UN) on December 8th, 1949. UNRWA provides subsidies and services to Palestinian refugees, who are defined as “persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948.”  As an official organ of the UN, UNRWA is allotted an annual budget of approximately $600 million.

According to UNRWA’s mandate, the patrilineal descendants of the Palestinian refugees from 1948 “are also eligible for registration” as refugees. In 2012 the number of registered patrilineal descendants of the original Palestine refugees, based on the UNRWA registration requirements, is estimated to be 4,950,000. To date, the Palestinians are the only refugee group that can legally pass on the status of “refugee” to future generations.

In their work, UNRWA serves to support existing Palestinian refugee camps. While this may seem helpful on the surface, these refugee camps are decrepit and crowded. There protracted existence maintains Palestinian status as refugees, preventing Palestinians from integrating and attaining citizenship in host countries such as Lebanon and Syria. Such actions merely serve to re-enforce the isolation of Palestinians in these countries and thus perpetuate the abuse they suffer.

What About in Lebanon and Syria?

Of the 4.6 million Palestinians living in Arab lands, approximately 3 million live in Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan where they live in harsh conditions. Living in Palestinian refugee camps, which UNRWA define as “a plot of land placed at the disposal of UNRWA by the host government to accommodate Palestine refugees and to set up facilities to cater to their needs,” leaves Palestinian refugees without the opportunity to integrate into the society of their host country.  Instead, the Arab governments of Lebanon, and Syria refuse to take action to improve the living conditions of Palestinians living in their midst. On the contrary, Palestinian refugees living in these countries are subjected to racism and other repressive measures that deprive them even of basic rights- many of which are enshrined in law.

Living Conditions of Palestinian Refugees in Syria

UNRWA has reported that there are approximately 500,000 Palestinians living in Syria, living in nine official and three unofficial camps across Syria. Since the start of the civil war between the Assad government and rebel forces, more than 400 Palestinians have been killed.

With both a pro- Assad Palestinian faction called the ‘Pro-Assad Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC),’ and a pro-Free Syrian Army faction, the Palestinians have been enlisted and armed by both parties. As targets of both sides of the ongoing civil war, Palestinians have found themselves in a precarious situation. The Palestinian Authority has called ‘on all sides of the conflict to preserve the safety of the refugees and to keep them out of the fighting;’ however, in the midst of civil war, the safety of Palestinians living in Syria has not been a priority.

Consequently, as clashes continue to ravage Syria, hundreds of Palestinian refugees have left their homes in Syria and made their way to Lebanon where their presence is far from welcome. Since the start of the war, over 3000 Palestinians refugees have fled Syria.

What can these refugees expect in Lebanon?

The internal political debate surrounding the “naturalization” of Palestinians in Lebanon is heated as issues related to the 400,000 Palestinians living in Lebanon are discussed. Most Palestinian refugees in Lebanon live in the country’s 12 remaining UNRWA camps or in the nearly 50 unofficial Palestinian “gatherings,” which are located on the outskirts of major Lebanese cities. To date, they are denied rights that are afforded to Palestinian refugees living in both Jordan and the West Bank.

Palestinians living Lebanon endure both structural marginalization and legal discrimination through restrictions that include: prohibition from attendance at public schools and denial of property ownership (PIPES). This racism carries into legislation concerning professional access. Currently, Palestinians are prohibited from attaining 25 professions, including: physician, lawyer, journalist and pharmacist (foreign policy). A study conducted by the International Labor Organization (ILO) in 2010 suggested that Palestinian workers are paid 20 percent less than their Lebanese colleagues (while working in the same position).

“Our official policy is to maintain Palestinians in a vulnerable, precarious situation to diminish prospects for their naturalization or permanent settlement,” explained a member of the Lebanese parliament when interviewed by the International Crisis Group (ICG). This policy of mistreatment has been attributed to a number of factors.


Firstly, scholar Daniel Pipes suggests that regulations such as those enforced in Lebanon, exist to “remind Palestinians that they are refugees and should one day return whence they came.” The question of Palestinians as refugees continues to be a catalyst for conflict and violent extremism in the region. Secondly, within many Lebanese circles, Palestinians (led by Yasser Arafat at the time) are widely blamed for having begun the 1975 civil war, which lasted for 15 long years. Since the war’s end, the Lebanese government has progressively stripped Palestinians of rights they once enjoyed and hold the title of worst offender against international norms.

UNRWA has deemed the living standard of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon as “catastrophic”. The ICG have described the Palestinians living in Lebanon as being “marginalised, deprived of basic political and economic rights, trapped in the camps, bereft of realistic prospects, heavily armed and standing atop multiple fault lines,”

In 2010, Lebanese politicians considered new legislation that would grant “civil rights” to Palestinians. The new bill included the right to own property, social security payments and medical care. Unfortunately the realities of this bill have failed to match the grandeur of its goal. The ILO study mentioned previously revealed that “despite the high hopes built around recent legal amendments toward improving the conditions of Palestinian refugees, tangible gains remain elusive.” For example, only 2 percent of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon have acquired a work permit since they were granted easier access to do so.

The Meaning of Human Rights

The politics of human rights are astounding.

Does a Palestinian living in Lebanon or Syria, not deserve the same fight for human rights that advocates provide for Palestinians living in Gaza and the West Bank? It would almost seem that the mistreatment of the Palestinian people is only discussed in a framework that will vilify Israel. Let us face reality. Palestinians exist beyond the realm of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They are hosted by Arab countries such as Lebanon and Syria, and are faced with challenges that threaten their human rights on a daily basis. We must put human rights before politics, and shed light on the situation of all Palestinian refugees, even those beyond Gaza and the West Bank.