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While the war in Syria has turned some five million Syrians into refugees, the country continues to host nearly half a million Palestinian refugees.
Before the war broke out in March 2011, that number was even higher – an estimated 560,000, according to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). That has now dropped to about 450,000, as many Palestinians fled to Lebanon, Jordan or outside the region. Of those who remain, UNRWA estimates that 60 per cent have been internally displaced and some 95 per cent require ongoing humanitarian aid.
Most of the Palestinians who fled to Syria in 1948, during the violent creation of the state of Israel, came from northern Palestine, which encompasses the cities of Safed, Haifa and Jaffa, according to UNRWA. Approximately 100,000 people fled from the Golan Heights when the area was occupied by Israel in 1967, and several thousand more went to Syria from neighbouring Lebanon during the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990).
Palestinians living in Syria, including those who are born in Syria to Palestinian fathers, are not granted Syrian citizenship. Like most Arab nations – Jordan being the exception – Syria took the stance that granting Palestinians citizenship would erode the right of return for the Palestinian diaspora. This stance was outlined in the 1965 Casablanca Protocol, in which the Arab states agreed to certain conditions for the treatment of Palestinian refugees. However, the protocol has never been fully implemented.
Despite the lack of citizenship, the pre-war situation of Palestinian refugees living in Syria was better by many measures than that of those living in other neighbouring countries.
A 2001 report by the Oslo-based Fafo Institute for Applied International Studies, which surveyed 4,900 Palestinian households living in camps in Syria in conjunction with the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics and Natural Resources, noted: ‘The Palestinian refugees have been better integrated in Syrian society than has been the case in Jordan, and especially Lebanon; there lack of social rights and legislation barring them from public jobs and an extensive list of occupations and professions have produced excessive poverty and desolation.’
In Lebanon, for instance, Palestinians are prohibited from working in most sectors or owning property. In Syria, by contrast, Palestinians have the same rights to work and education as Syrian citizens and can access the same network of social services. Palestinians do not have the right to vote in Syrian elections, but can hold government posts. Men have the same compulsory military service requirements as Syrian citizens. Palestinians are also issued travel documents by the Syrian government, which give them the right to return to Syria if they travel outside the country.
In terms of economic and social factors, Palestinians are more or less on a par with their Syrian counterparts, the Fafo study found, although 23 per cent were found to live below the poverty line. A majority do not live in camps, and among those that do, most live in houses or apartments as opposed to ‘squatter-type dwellings’. Of the households surveyed, 92 per cent reported that they owned their homes.
“We lived a very good life in Syria,” Bisan, a 30-year-old Palestinian from Syria now living in Lebanon, told Fanack. Her family fled to Syria from Haifa in 1948. Growing up in the Syrian coastal city of Latakia, Bisan said she and her family were treated the same as their Syrian neighbours.
“Even now, during the war, their misery is the same misery,” she said. Bisan added that she never felt that she was different from other Syrians until she crossed into Lebanon at the beginning of the war in Syria. At the time, it was still easy for Syrian citizens to cross the border, but because she was Palestinian, she was sent to a separate line and questioned more extensively. “It was the first time I felt like I was a Palestinian,” she said. “I felt like an orphan.”
Since the beginning of the war, Palestinians have been divided between supporting the Syrian regime, supporting the opposition and trying to stay out of the conflict altogether. Many Hamas supporters joined the opposition, while supporters of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine supported the regime.
In the past, the Syrian regime funded Hamas, along with other armed Palestinian groups, in the conflict with Israel. However, following the outbreak of the war in Syria, Hamas broke with the regime and put its support behind the opposition Free Syrian Army.
The Yarmouk camp, near the Syrian capital Damascus, which was home to about 160,000 Palestinians along with a sizeable Syrian population, came under siege by the Syrian regime following clashes between the government and rebel groups that erupted in December 2012. The camp was under siege for almost two years before being taken over by the Islamic State in April 2015. An estimated 200 people died, mostly from starvation, and most of the camp’s population was displaced. In Yarmouk, as in many areas of Syria, aid groups were unable to deliver food or medical aid to either Palestinians or Syrians.
Since the beginning of the war, travel has become difficult for Syrians desperate to flee the country, and in some cases, especially so for Palestinians living in Syria. Jordan, for instance, began blocking Palestinian residents of Syria from entering in 2012 and declared an official non-admittance policy in January 2013. Human Rights Watch criticized Jordan in a 2014 report for deporting more than 100 Palestinians to Syria.
In Lebanon, where Palestinians already have limited legal rights, UNRWA found that ‘the space for refugees … has been shrinking, with increasingly stricter government policy on refugee access into Lebanon and legal rights, including their right to work and civil rights’. In 2015, about 98 per cent of Palestinian refugees from Syria living in Lebanon relied on UNRWA cash assistance as their main source of income, compared to 70 per cent in April 2014.