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Since the outbreak of the Syrian uprising in March 2011 and the ensuing civil war, an estimated 12 million Syrians (about half of the original Syrian population) have fled their homes, taking refuge in neighbouring countries or in Syria itself. The number of Syrians who have fled to Syria’s immediate neighbours Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq, surpassed four million in July 2015, according to the figures provided by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). More than 7.6 million are internally displaced within Syria, as reported by the UNHCR, and hundreds of thousands have sought asylum in Europe; more than 138,000 refugees applied for asylum in 2014 alone.
The influx of refugees has, since early 2013, become an enormous challenge for Syria’s neighbours, with serious implications for the stability of the entire region. In 2015, Lebanon has the largest number of refugees per capita (1.17 million on a population of 4.2 million), putting great pressure on infrastructure, health, education, and the already saturated labour market. This led the government to close the borders to Syrian refugees in May 2015. Jordan, too, has suffered from the influx of refugees, putting great pressure on the country ’s energy supply and damaging the economy. Turkey is home to the largest number of Syrian refugees, more than 1.8 million.
Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have fled to distant countries, using their savings or other resources. Syrian refugees have joined refugees from Africa and elsewhere in trying to reach Europe via North Africa and the Mediterranean Sea, which has become a huge humanitarian crisis. Tens of thousands have been rescued from the waters between Libya and Italy.
In 2015, the United Nations experienced a funding shortage due to the surging number of refugees fleeing the war in Syria. By end of July, the UNHCR had only received 31 percent of the amount needed for assistance to refugees. The biggest donors to the UNHCR in 2015 were the United States ($115.8 million), Kuwait ($101.9 million), the European Union (EU, $55.4 million), and the United Kingdom ($42.9 million).
Although the EU has played an important role in the matter of Syrian refugees, as a provider of humanitarian aid and as a home for refugees, it has received only a fraction of the asylum requests that Syria’s neighbours have and has accepted even fewer refugees for resettlement. The EU member states pledged to resettle about 32,000 refugees in 2015.
The countries most involved in the war in Syria—through funding or by providing weapons—are the least willing to provide shelter to refugees. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, although one of the biggest financial donors to the Syrian refugee cause, have largely refrained from providing refugees shelter. According to Aron Lund, editor of ‘Syria in Crisis’ at Carnegie Endowment, the GCC states have taken in only five refugees in four years. Syria’s supporters in the UN Security Council, Russia and China, have resettled no refugees.
The UN has warned that almost two million refugees under the age of 18 risk becoming a lost generation, with many lacking access to education and employment. According to the United Nations Children and Education Fund (UNICEF), hundreds of thousands of Syrian children are missing out on education, with some two million children inside Syria out of school, while an estimated 700,000 (out of a total of two million) children outside the country are going without education.
Thousands of schools have been damaged or destroyed or are housing displaced families. More than 100,000 Syrian refugee children born in exile could become stateless, with dire consequences for the future of a post-war Syria.
Syria’s Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs)
In addition to the millions of refugees that have fled abroad, there are many internally displaced people in Syria itself, most of them in the regions of Damascus, Aleppo, Lattakia, Homs, Deir Ez-Zor, and Idlib. The numbers continue to increase. The UNHCR has reported that, as of July 2015, more than 7.6 million Syrians are displaced across the country, an enormous number, taking into account that Syria had a population of some 20.8 million.
Given the extreme violence wrought against the civilian population, which has seen the destruction of houses and supplies of food and water, there are presently three forms of internal displacement:
- Families that have been able to find accommodation with friends or relatives.
- Families that have free or paid individual accommodation. These lodgings, in which several families commonly live together, are often unsanitary.
- Families who are living in schools and public buildings.
According to UNOCHA, more than 705,000 people were displaced during just the first five months of 2015.
Many families have been displaced repeatedly. According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), the monitoring of internal displacement in Syria has been seriously hampered by the intensity of the conflict and changing front lines. Data gathering has been made difficult by the inaccessibility both of areas controlled by opposition groups and cities that have been besieged by government forces.
The inaccessibility of these areas has created an even more pressing problem: it has left people trapped, and access to food and medical aid has been severely restricted. According to a report by the Assessment Capacities Project (ACAPS), 4.8 million people lived in hard-to-reach areas in Syria, which means that the UN and other NGOs struggle to deliver aid. Parties with a stake in the conflict often deny assistance to people perceived to be affiliated with opposing parties. Even when assistance is allowed, it is highly dependent on the parties that control the area. Drought and harsh winter conditions have made the crisis more severe, as have violence, insecurity, and crime. On the whole, 12.2 million people in Syria were in need of humanitarian assistance, as of May 2015 (UNOCHA).
According to the UN, 422,000 people remain besieged in Syria (June 2015)—including 167,500 people besieged by government forces in Eastern Ghouta and Darayya in the rural Damascus region; 26,500 people besieged by non-state armed groups in Nubul and Zahra; and 228,000 people besieged by the Islamic State (IS) in western neighbourhoods of Deir al-Zor city—but the number is believed to be much higher.
In July 2015, the UN removed Moadamiya al-Sham and the Palestinian refugee camp Yarmouk from its list of besieged areas, although the remaining population there continued to be deliberately deprived of humanitarian aid while under attack. A report by the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), using their network on the ground, claims that more than 640,200 people are living under long-term siege in Syria.
SAMS has included 38 additional besieged communities in the Homs, Damascus, and Rural Damascus governorates that are completely surrounded by Syrian government forces who have blocked access to the civilian population, resulting in extreme shortages of food, medical supplies, and other essentials. SAMS criticizes the UN for underestimating the scale of the crisis.
Meanwhile, besieged areas are subject to indiscriminate attacks from barrel bombs, missile strikes, artillery shelling, and chemical attacks. The population there is highly vulnerable because of the collapse of healthcare and the lack of staff, equipment, and medical supplies. Patients are dying of injuries that are normally easily treated.
One of the most severely affected areas has been Yarmouk, a Palestinian refugee camp on the outskirts of Damascus, which was home to more than 200,000 Palestinians before the outbreak of the conflict in 2011. The vast majority of the population has since fled, but about 18,000 have been trapped in Yarmouk by a government siege since July 2013. Though the UN has no direct access to the area but has been able to deliver aid to nearby suburbs, that assistance, too, has been cut off since 8 June 2015, when the government withdrew permission to deliver aid.
In the last decade, Turkey has emerged as a regional power, aspiring to become a world player with a Muslim identity. Benefitting from the political vacuum in the Middle East, it took a firm stand on the Syrian crisis. It also opened its borders to Syrian refugees, whom the Turkish authorities do not regard as refugees. Instead, Syrians fleeing the country have received a temporary protection status designed for a mass influx of people.
As of July 2015, Turkey is home to about 45 percent of the Syrian refugees in the region. In Turkey, about 240,000 of the 1,805,255 Syrian refugees (UNHCR, July 2015) are hosted in camps mainly in the provinces of Hatay, Gaziantep, Kilis, and Sanliurfa. The Turkish government has apparently assumed responsibility for their assistance, shelter, and protection. Turkey also talks of setting up a buffer zone to allow refugees to be looked after on Syrian territory, but (Syrian) Kurdish spokespeople accuse the Turkish government of aiming to prevent Kurds from uniting their enclaves along the frontier by establishing such a buffer zone.
For the Turkish government, the situation is further complicated by domestic regional politics. In the region of Hatay, which is inhabited mainly by Alevis, there is strong prejudice against the refugees. The Alevis accuse the central government of wanting to change the demographic composition by establishing Sunni Syrians on “their” land. They have been demonstrating in border towns against the welcoming policy advocated by the AKP, the Turkish ruling party.
A Buzzfeed News/Ipsos poll on immigration views in Turkey revealed that 85 percent of Turks have a negative opinion of migrants and their impact on public services and jobs.
Turkey is also carrying out more stringent security checks on the refugees, which is causing delays as they cross the border. The tighter checks come amidst Turkish fears that Turkish Kurdish rebels may be entering the country via Syria. Foreign jihadists are moving in and out of Turkey to fight the Syrian regime and its supporters. Critics of the Turkish government have accused the government of not doing enough to stop jihadists from crossing the border with Syria. Initially, the government allowed only one Turkish humanitarian association, the IHH, a group that is close to the AKP, to operate in the camps.
Despite its fair-handed humanitarian work, the organization is essentially religious, and it took advantage of its privileged position to spread religious teachings among the refugees. With the worsening humanitarian situation and with more refugees arriving in Turkey, however, the Turkish government has now opened the field to various national and international organizations, albeit with some restrictions.
In July 2015, Turkey’s EU Affairs Minister Volkan Bozkir warned that Turkey would not be able to cope with a new influx of refugees from the war in Syria and that new refugees would end up trying to get to Europe. He said that Turkey had spent $6 billion on aid to the refugees until July 2015, without significant help from international aid organizations or the United Nations.
Shaping Syria’s education in the camps
The Kilis refugee camp has a school run by a Turkish director and a board of volunteer Syrian teachers providing classes for anyone aged between five and eighteen, as well as a kindergarten, with seventeen Turkish teachers and several Syrian translators.
The Karkamis refugee camp, which was established in August 2012, soon housed 6543 refugees, of whom 3367 were children under the age of fifteen. In addition to 550 family tents (4.5 persons per tent), four larger tents have been set up to house schools.
The Nizip refugee camp, also established in August 2012, now accommodates 10,000 people. Again, Syrian teachers have volunteered to set up what is, given the circumstances, a well-functioning school system with teaching organized according to a modified Syrian curriculum. As one might expect, the primary and secondary school system is not yet in place, and attending school is not required. Nevertheless, 33 Syrian refugee teachers took matters into their own hands and divided four large tents among grades 1 to 12, with two daily shifts that should accommodate all the children whose parents allow them to study. There are handicraft classes for women and Turkish-language classes twice a week.
Illiteracy was one of the most sensitive problems in the Syrian Arab Republic, even before the beginning of the conflict. Syrian society has generally been severely stratified, as the various social classes scarcely interacted with one another. Yet, despite the different social backgrounds and factions in the camps, all Syrians have to deal with the same situation—being refugees. Yet some parents distrust the camp’s school and refuse to send their children. Many refugee families are from rural or remote communities that have been socially marginalized for decades.
Suphi Atan, Coordinator General of the Turkish Foreign Ministry’s humanitarian task force, stated, “We are trying to improve educational facilities in coordination with UNICEF.”
Unlike Lebanon, Jordan, which had more than 629,000 Syrian refugees registered with the UNHCR up to June 2015, has set up camps in the desert. In June 2015, about 80,000 of these refugees were housed in the Zaatari camp, where living conditions are poor. Zaatari refugee camp, opened by the Jordanian government at the end of July 2012 to house five hundred people, had by May 2014 swollen to a population of more than 100,000, two-thirds of whom were children. The Jordanian Army maintains a strong presence inside and outside the camp. Refugees are not allowed to leave without special permits.
At the end of July 2015, after the third anniversary of the founding of Zaatari, the UNHCR reported that, while Zaatari had reached its capacity, the number of refugees seeking shelter in other camps throughout the country had increased. In the first half of 2015, more than 3600 refugees entered the Azraq camp (21,105 inhabitants) from urban areas, where life has become increasingly difficult. According to the UNHCR, 86 percent of the refugees in urban areas lived under the Jordanian poverty line of 68 dinars ($95) per capita per month. Many of them have depleted their savings and are struggling to find secure income. Furthermore, they are increasingly under pressure because the World Food Programme (WFP) has cut the amount of their monthly food vouchers.
Syrian refugees are also scattered through Jordanian towns, which hurts Jordan’s already weak economy. The Jordanian government has used the crisis as a bargaining tool to request more international aid. Assisted economies such as Jordan’s inevitably exploit the situation in the refugee camps in order to launch appeals for aid, but Jordan is indeed under heavy pressure from the refugee flow. Costs of hosting refugees have been rising, as have those of imported energy. These costs have been estimated at between 4.2 and 5.1 billion Jordanian dinars between 2012 and 2015.
The influx of refugees has also affected the Jordanian labour market, as nationals are often replaced by cheaper Syrians. The presence of refugees has also put pressure on Jordan’s health and education systems. The Jordanian educational system has been critically affected by the influx of more than 140,000 Syrian students, leaving schools overcrowded and forcing the education ministry to operate schools in two shifts. Since the crisis began, the number of Syrian refugees seeking health services has increased by 250 percent and the number of medical operations in public hospitals by 600 percent.
According to Jordanian authorities, who estimate the number of refugees at more than 1.5 million (more than double the number estimated by the UNHCR), the country is exhausted and has reached its limiting in assisting refugees. According to a national plan for 2014-2016, Jordan needs $5 billion to handle the effects of the flood of Syrian refugees. Humanitarian organizations claimed that this burden led the government to close its borders to new refugees in October 2014. The government noted that the border had not been closed but only that restrictions had been put in place.
King Abdullah said that the flood of Syrians into his country was straining its national resources. Nevertheless, the number of refugees entering Jordan from Syria fell from about 2000 per day in mid-2013 to several hundred per day by the beginning of October 2014, when the border was closed. Injured people, women, and children continued to cross, but the numbers of those entering were subject to security assessments in the field.
In March 2015, Jordan restricted entry via informal border crossings in the eastern part of the country, which were, until then, the only entry points into Jordan open to Syrian refugees. According to Human Rights Watch, between March and May 2015, hundreds of Syrians were stranded in remote desert areas within Syria, with no access to food and water. Although the economic effects are often cited as the major factor behind the decision taken by Jordan, others believe it was related to politics and security. In fact, Jordan is part of the coalition engaged in air strikes against IS, and analysts believe a threat from IS and other Islamist groups may have caused the government to impose stricter border controls.
Lebanon has the highest proportion of refugees in the region, relative to its small population. With almost 1.2 million refugees (UNHCR, July 2015), one in every four people in Lebanon is a refugee. Most reside in the Bekaa and Akkar regions, close to its northern and eastern borders with Syria, and in Beirut. Numerous refugees find themselves in a precarious situation, with almost no financial resources. Lebanon, which is officially neutral but is struggling with internal political disputes, refuses to set up refugee camps and sometimes pushes Syrian immigrants back across the border. As Lebanon already hosts about 455,000 Palestinian refugees (UNRWA, July 2014), the government fears that setting up official camps would lead also to the permanent settlement of Syrian refugees.
Although Lebanon has kept its border open to Syrian refugees since the beginning of the war in Syria, authorities have been imposing restrictions since August 2013, when Palestinian refugees from Syria were required to have a pre-approved visa applied for by a guarantor in Lebanon. In May 2014, authorities enacted further requirements, effectively closing the border to Palestinian refugees. In October 2014, the Council of Ministers in Lebanon decided to reduce the number of Syrians in Lebanon, and further restrictions on the flow of Syrian refugees (including Syrian citizens) were enacted.
On 6 May 2015, UNHCR Lebanon temporarily suspended registration of new refugees following instructions from the Lebanese government.
According to Amnesty International, the Lebanese authorities and the army have increasingly targeted informal settlements/refugee camps, carrying out raids to arrest people suspected of being Islamist militants. Evictions have also been justified for security reasons. Amnesty criticizes Lebanon for forcibly returning Syrian refugees to Syria, where they would be at risk of persecution, human rights abuses, or violence.
The absence of formal camps has had dire consequences; while more affluent Syrians have been able to rent accommodation, poorer Syrians have had to set up their own shelters and are especially vulnerable. Those who are able to rent accommodation are susceptible to exorbitant rates and end up in unsafe places, such as garages and unfinished buildings.
Meanwhile, dozens of humanitarian organzations are working to support the growing number of Syrian refugees. The Lebanese High Relief Committee and the UNHCR are leading the coordination and implementation of relief efforts on behalf of the Lebanese government. Several ministries and institutions are participating in the efforts, including the Ministry of Social Affairs, the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Health, the Lebanese armed forces, and the internal security forces.
Refugees are dispersed throughout the country, and vital aid and services do not always reach those who live in remote areas.
The burden of Syrian refugees has been raising tensions in Lebanon. Local communities are experiencing socio-economic and security effects. Because of the influx of Syrians needing to earn their living, wages have decreased and unemployment has grown. The presence of so many refugees has put even more pressure on overburdened Lebanese public services, such as electricity and water. It has been estimated that Syrian refugees cost the Lebanese economy 4.5 billion USD per year. Moreover, because most of the Syrians are Sunnis, the present sectarian balance in Lebanon is imperilled.
UN aid agencies have experienced a major gap in funding the Syrian refugee crisis—less than 25 percent of a $4.5 billion appeal had been funded—and the WFP announced at the end of June 2015 that it would halve the value of food vouchers given to refugees in Lebanon, to $13.50 per month.
The UNHCR has registered 132,375 Syrian refugees up to July 2015, most of whom are in Alexandria, greater Cairo, and Damietta. The actual number of Syrian refugees in Egypt is probably higher. Most Syrians are scattered in urban neighbourhoods, renting and sharing accommodation and benefiting from access to public services such as health care and education.
Syrians fleeing the conflict in their home country were initially welcomed in Egypt and were able to find relative security, but this changed with the political changes in Egypt—the revolt against the regime of President Mohammed Morsi and the military coup that followed in July 2013—and hostility towards Syrians increased. Syrians in Egypt were accused of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood. In the summer of 2013, Egypt began to impose visa restrictions on new arrivals. Hundreds of Syrian and Syrian-Palestinian refugees have been detained since July 2013. According to Amnesty International, in 2014, at least 150 refugees from Syria were deported by the Egyptian authorities to Syria and other countries, including Lebanon and Turkey.
The restrictions imposed by the Egyptian authorities—Syrians are required to obtain a visa and security clearance—make it virtually impossible for Syrian refugees to enter Egypt.
Like the better-off Syrian refugees who, early in the conflict, fled to Lebanon and Jordan using their savings, those who have fled to Egypt have seen their savings depleted, and they are unable to work legally in Egypt. At the same time, aid agencies have been faced with decreased budgets and have had to decrease their assistance to refugees. In July 2015, the UNHCR had only received 19 percent of its requested budget for 2015 ($189.5 million). The WFP was forced to lower the value of food entitlements to Syrian refugees by 30 percent in the first half of 2015.
Although Syrian refugees in Egypt do have access to Egyptian public services, unlike their counterparts in other countries, life is becoming increasingly challenging. Health care is poor, and refugees do not always have access to more complex medical treatment. Syrians face regular harassment, exploitation, discrimination, and sexual and gender-based violence.
Palestinian refugees who have fled Syria face an even greater struggle, because they cannot register with the UNHCR office in Egypt, due to the Egyptian policy of excluding Palestinians from the UNHCR mandate in the country.
Syrian Refugees in Iraq
According to statistics published in November 2015 by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), nearly a quarter of a million Syrian refugees resided in Iraq, accounting for 6% of all Syrian refugees living in countries neighbouring Syria. These refugees live in nine camps in Iraqi cities and the Kurdistan region, in addition to al-Ubaydi camp in al-Anbar Governorate and other areas outside the camps. Some refugees were resettled in other Iraqi cities, including Baghdad. It is difficult to identify the true numbers of Syrian refugees in Iraq, because not all register with the UN.
The rising number of Syrian refugees in Iraq has affected the already fragile infrastructure after years of war (against Iran, 1980-1988, against international alliance after its invasion of Kuwait, 1990-1991, and against the US, 2003), after the nearly total UN embargo (1990-2003, after the invasion of Kuwait), and after the return of Iraqi refugees from Syria at the beginning of the Syrian crisis.
To date, the Iraqi parliament has passed no law on refugees. A draft law remains under study and amendment, but it has not been presented to the Iraqi parliament for a vote and ratification. Iraq is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 protocol.
According to the UNHCR, the Syrian refugees are found mainly in four Iraqi governorates, al-Anbar and three in the Kurdistan region—Arbil, Dohuk, and al-Sulamaniyah. The Kurdistan region hosts 97% of the Syrian refugees who are officially registered by the UNHCR, because the overwhelming majority of them are Syrian Kurds and have kinship and tribal relations with the Kurds in Iraq; nearly 8,000 people were resettled outside the region and are concentrated in the city of al-Qaim, in al-Anbar. Only a few Syrian refugees are resettled in other governorates. Kurdistan bears the greatest pressure from the influx of refugees into Iraq; Syrian refugees account for almost 4% of the total population of the region.
Official statistics published by the UNHCR show 247,352 Syrians (including 87,610 families), 94,468 of whom live in refugee camps. The UNHCR figures do not include the Syrian refugees living in Iraq who are not registered as refugees. The refugees live in the al-Ubaydi camp, the settlement of Akra, Dumez Camps 1 and 2, and the camps of Kuelan, Basrmah, Dar Shokran, Kaurgost, Kostaba, and Arabat. Dumez Camp, in the city of Dohuk, is the largest in the Kurdistan region; it hosts more than 50,000 refugees, mostly from the eastern governorates of Syria. The residents of these camps suffer from overcrowding and poor services. The Syrian refugees in Iraqi camps amount to approximately 38% of the camps’ total population.
The Iraqi Kurdistan region is suffering economic, social, and political crises, which have harmed the Syrian refugees directly. The region is suffering from a financial crisis and the influx of Syrian refugees, which began in 2012, as well as the internal displacement of Iraqis to the region after the emergence of Sunni extremist Islamic State (IS) and its occupation of Mosul in June 2014 and large swaths of other Iraqi territory. Moreover, the Kurdistan region’s war on IS consumes a great deal of financial and human resources. (In the fight against ISIS from 10 June 2014 to 3 February 2015, 999 Peshmerga fighters have been killed and 4,596 wounded.) There is also political tension between Kurdish parties.
Repercussions on the economic situation in the Kurdistan region are worrisome. According to a report by the World Bank, economic growth in the region contracted by 5 percent and the poverty rate more than doubled, from 3.5 percent to 8.1 percent in 2015. This has affected directly the level of assistance that the Syrian refugees receive from the Kurdistan region’s government and the way that host communities deal with the refugees.
Return of Syrian Refugees
Some refugees return to Syria through the Habur border crossing for various reasons, including the difficult living conditions in the Kurdistan region given the scarce or unrewarding job opportunities and the reduction in humanitarian aid to these refugees to $27 a month per person. This prompts them to leave the region and return to Syria, where they seek opportunities to emigrate to Europe for a decent life for themselves and their families. Many Syrian refugees return, if only temporarily, to Syria during the harvest season.
A report by Amnesty International on the status of female Syrian refugees in the Iraqi Kurdistan region states that more than 60% of the refugees are children and women and that women make up more than half the population of the refugee camps in the Kurdistan region.
With the difficult economic conditions and the lack of financial compensation from the government and the UNHCR, women have to look for jobs inside or outside the camps, but they are faced with their families’ opposition to work in the market and with the shortage of jobs offered to women. The spread of child marriage is a real problem facing girls for social and economic reasons. Laws in the Kurdistan region prohibit the marriage of girls who are under 18 because of the health hazards that such marriage may inflict on the women and their pregnancies. Marriage of female minors nevertheless remains a frequent practice.
Many female Syrian refugees are subject to domestic violence resulting from the psychological pressure that their men suffer from as a result of poor physical conditions and the lack of social security.
The Syrian refugees have had a role in exhausting the economic infrastructure and resources in Iraq, which were already suffering from structural problems before the outbreak of the refugee crisis. This situation has exacerbated political and economic challenges and contributed to agitating Iraqi public opinion and host communities.
Because most Syrian refugees are of Kurdish ethnicity, they tend to reside in the Kurdish area of northern Iraq. The host communities in the Kurdish region, who are also host to significant number of Iraqi internally displaced persons, had been showing hospitality to refugees. With time, the increasing number of refugees has led to an increase in prices of basic supplies and services, labour-market competition, and pressure on public services, all of which have led to social tensions.
When the Syrian protests erupted in March 2011, most Palestinian refugees initially remained on the sidelines, although a few joined the protests against President Bashar al-Assad. As the regime began to use violence against protesters and shelled cities, the popular uprising escalated into armed resistance against the Syrian regime. With battles taking place in the outskirts of Damascus, many Syrian residents from the shelled neighbourhoods sought refuge in the Yarmouk refugee camp, which at first remained a relatively safe haven from the violence.
Since mid-2013, the UNRWA and other UN agencies and international organizations have expressed concerns about the impact of the armed conflict in Syria on the Palestinian refugees residing in the country, especially Yarmouk camp in Damascus, which hosted at least 130,000 before the outbreak of the conflict in Syria and is thought to be the largest community of Palestinians refugees in Syria. In summer 2015, about 18,000 refugees remain in the desolate camp (UNRWA, July 2015), although the (Palestinian) Maan News Agency reported in May 2015 that fewer than 7000 remained in the camp.
In mid-2015, there were 480,000 Palestinian refugees remaining in Syria, of the 560,000 who were registered before the conflict. According to UNRWA, an estimated 95 percent are in continuous need of humanitarian aid. More than half of all registered refugees remain displaced within Syria. While food is still available in Syrian urban centres, food prices have risen dramatically, causing more Palestinian refugees to be dependent on UNRWA for a minimum level of food security. With many hospitals damaged or destroyed, UNRWA has become the sole provider of health care to Palestinian refugees.
The escalating violence has made access to those in need increasingly difficult. The UNRWA suffers increasingly from underfunding, making the task of providing aid to everyone even more complicated and worsening the situation of Palestinians inside and outside of Syria. Up to June 2015, only 28 percent of the requested funding for the whole year had been received.
At the beginning of the Syrian uprising, in 2011, tensions arose in Yarmouk between pro- and anti-Assad Palestinian residents. Beginning in August 2012, the tensions deteriorated into clashes between the main parties of the conflict in Syria. More than 21 civilian refugees were reported killed in August, when the Syrian army shelled Yarmouk. In December 2012, fierce fighting took place in Yarmouk, in which Syrian jets bombed the camp for the first time.
Activists reported that a school and mosque sheltering refugees were hit and at least 23, all civilians, were killed. On 17 December, rebel forces gained full control of Yarmouk and another Palestinian camp, with help from anti-Assad Palestinians, pushing out the pro-government Palestinian fighters. On 20 December, the Free Syrian Army said it had forced all pro-government fighters out of Yarmouk and handed it back to the Palestinians.
Shortly thereafter, government and rebel representatives agreed that all armed groups should withdraw from Yarmouk and leave it a neutral zone, but a spokesman for the pro-rebel Palestine Refugee Camp Network said that “the implementation of the truce has been problematic” because of “intermittent” government shelling of Yarmouk and clashes on its outskirts.
Forces loyal to al-Assad succeeded in controlling access to the camp in February 2013. Military checkpoints were opened to allow aid to enter and residents to escape, but in July 2013, government forces began blocking access, and Yarmouk has since been under siege. As the blockade has gone on, the humanitarian situation in the camp has become increasingly dire.
Fighters linked to IS entered the camp in early April 2015, causing an escalation of fighting and leading the UNRWA to suspend the distribution of aid to the camp. To the shock of Yarmouk’s residents, the UN removed Yarmouk from its list of besieged areas inside Syria, because it delivers aid to nearby suburbs. That assistance has also, however, been cut off since the government on 8 June 2015 withdrew permission to deliver aid. Government forces maintain checkpoints and prevent people from entering and leaving the camp.
Reception in Neighbouring Countries
The governments of Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, and Turkey are refusing to grant Palestinian refugees from Syria refugee status, stripping them of their rights to protection and aid from the UNHCR, despite the fact that, in September 2002, the UNHCR reinterpreted Article 1D of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. The article previously excluded Palestinians because they were receiving assistance from the UNRWA. The UNHCR now emphasized the second paragraph, which clarifies that Palestinian refugees are, ipso facto, refugees and are to be protected by the UNHCR if the assistance or protection provided by another UN agency is terminated. This means that Palestinians should fall under the UNHCR protection mandate.
Palestinian-Syrian families seeking asylum in neighbouring Jordan have been turned away at the border, as Palestinian-Syrian refugees carry a “Syrian Travel Document for Palestinian Refugees” and thus lack Syrian citizenship. On 27 October 2012, Jordanian Prime Minister Abdullah al-Nsour stated in the Arabic-language daily al-Hayat that “Jordan has made a clear and explicit sovereign decision not to allow the crossing to Jordan by our Palestinian brothers who hold Syrian documents.”
According to the UNRWA, the number of Palestinian-Syrian refugees who had fled to Jordan reached 14,348 by June 2015. In Jordan, the Zaatari camp has stopped accepting those without Syrian identification, and Palestinians are directed to Cyber City, where they are detained until approved for asylum status. The facility is dilapidated, and its occupants are forbidden to leave for any length of time.
Although Jordan has not signed or ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention, Article 3 of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT) provides that no state shall expel, return or extradite a person to another state where there are substantial grounds for believing that he or she would be at risk of being subjected to torture. Human Rights Watch stated that, “Since April 2012, Jordanian authorities have automatically detained all Palestinians who enter Jordan without passing through an official border post, without the possibility of release. No such policy exists for thousands of Syrians entering the same way. The Palestinians are arriving under the same circumstances as the fleeing Syrians and should not face threats of forced return.”
Palestinian-Syrians in Lebanon are likewise ineligible for assistance from the UNHCR. The UNRWA states that there were approximately 53,000 refugees in Lebanon in April 2014. In a country already home to some 450,000 Palestinian refugees, Lebanon is not ready or willing to accommodate more Palestinians and has therefore denied them the right to set up new camps on Lebanese soil, complicating the challenge of sheltering the displaced persons immediately. The UNRWA is trying to provide families with cash and access to medical and education services, but these are meagre resources, as aid agencies are strapped for cash.
Then president Mohammed Morsi of Egypt issued a decree in September 2012 granting exceptional rights to Syrian refugees in Egypt, including the right to protection, residency permits, and access to government schools. The UNHCR and its partners opened their doors to the Syrians in Egypt and expanded their outreach efforts and level of assistance, but the presidential decree did not include Palestinian-Syrian refugees. At Cairo’s airport, some families were allowed entry on short-term tourist visas. Many young men between the ages of 18 and 40 were, however, sent straight back to Damascus to face the distrust of the Syrian authorities towards asylum seekers rejected by Egypt.
In Egypt, by March 2013, deportations and arrests of Palestinian-Syrians became more regular. By the end of March 2013, their number was estimated at 11,000 (approximately 1,900 families), arriving from the Yarmouk refugee camp and other camps in Syria. Palestinians in Egypt are not assisted by the UNRWA and lack formal UNHCR protection. This lack of protection faced by Palestinian refugees has resulted in their being denied access to many basic services, including health, education, and employment. This also makes them vulnerable to the arbitrary detention policy of the Egyptian authorities and to deportation. As a signatory of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and several other covenants on civil and political rights, Egypt is obligated to guarantee basic rights to Palestinian refugees.