Nour and Samir, a mother and son, fled Syria approximately two years ago in terrifying circumstances. Whilst escaping the horrifying siege of Yarmouk (for more information on the ongoing humanitarian catastrophe there see our Yarmouk Legal Q&A), the large Palestinian refugee camp on the outskirts of Damascus, they were attacked by snipers and sustained serious injuries. Nour’s hip was shattered and a bullet was lodged in Samir’s back.
Nonetheless, by fear and determination, they reached a refugee camp (Ein el Helwah) in Lebanon like thousands of other fleeing Palestinian refugees from Syria have been forced to do. In need of urgent medical help, they however found they did not receive the medical assistance they required solely because they are Palestinians; as detailed in the important joint briefing of LPHR and Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP) released last Friday.
Our joint briefing, moreover, illuminates how the operation of the UK government’s resettlement programmes exacerbates the protection gap through which many Palestinian refugees from Syria, like Nour and Samir, have fallen. LPHR and MAP will be using its briefing to urge the UK government to revise its resettlement programmes so that they vitally do include, rather than exclude, the most vulnerable Palestinian refugees from Syria.
Shining a light on the particular vulnerability of Palestinian refugees from Syria:
It is a complexity of the humanitarian disaster in Syria woefully under reported that before the conflict the country was host to the largest number of Palestinian refugees in the diaspora. Syria had 499,189 people registered with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).
UNRWA is the UN body that is designated to provide services and relief to Palestinians in the Near East. UNRWA is distinct from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) which is responsible for providing support to refugees under the 1951 Refugee Convention. Indeed, the first paragraph of Article 1D of the 1951 Refugee Convention excludes Palestinians from protection under the UNHCR because they are supposed to receive assistance from UNRWA .
This exclusion has long had a significantly detrimental impact on a Palestinian refugee’s access to rights under international law (for more background on this you can take a look at the LPHR blog post ‘Mind the (refugee status) gap’ of 6 February 2014) and durable protection solutions. In the extreme circumstances of the conflict in Syria, as we can see from Nour and Samir’s story – and the stories of many more of the 100,000-120,000 or so Palestinians to have fled the country since 2011 – that exclusion can have acute medical consequences.
When Syrian refugees cross the border into Lebanon, Jordan or Turkey, they are entitled to UNHCR support. On the other hand, Palestinian refugees from Syria who arrive in Lebanon or Jordan must rely on UNRWA services (UNRWA doesn’t operate at all in Turkey – and therefore Palestinians refugees from Syria who have fled there do fall under UNHCR protection) which has not traditionally had to deal with a sudden influx of displaced and vulnerable people, and is struggling and underfunded. The dire impact this situation has on Palestinian refugees from Syria has been emphasised by UNRWA in its emergency funding appeal this year:
“Those able to flee to Jordan and Lebanon face a precarious existence and are forced to subsist on humanitarian handouts. Confronted with hopelessness and fear, amplified by the unresolved issue of Palestinian statelessness, many are joining the refugee exodus within the region and into Europe, often on perilous sea journeys’”– UNRWA
So in the face of such obvious suffering, what is the international community’s solution? Well, paragraph 2 of Article 1D actually provides for an automatic right to UNHCR protection in the event that UNRWA assistance is unavailable for reasons beyond the control of the Palestinian refugee. This is particularly important because UNHCR operates critical resettlement programmes with the international community as part of the ongoing effort to find durable protection solutions to the current refugee crisis.
However, LPHR and MAP have doubts whether in practice there is a systematic process for transferring a Palestinian refugee from UNRWA’s to UNHCR’s auspices. If there isn’t such a process in place, the most vulnerable Palestinian refugees from Syria are accordingly being effectively denied access to vital resettlement programmes operated between UNHCR and volunteering states in the international community, including the UK.
The UK should include, rather than exclude, Palestinian refugees from Syria in its crucial resettlement programmes:
In response to the Syria crisis, UNHCR has given prominence to the use of resettlement as a durable solution for the most vulnerable Syrian refugees. The UK government responded in 2014 with the ‘Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement (VPR) Programme’. The scheme was extended in September 2015 to resettle up to 20,000 Syrians during this parliament.
‘Resettlement’ in this context means the selection and transfer of refugees from a state in which they have sought protection to another state which has agreed to admit them as refugees – like Syrian refugees being resettled from Lebanon or Jordan to the UK. It is a tool to provide protection and meet the specific needs of individual refugees whose life, liberty, safety, health or other fundamental rights are at risk in the country where they have sought refuge – a protection solution for the most vulnerable of the many thousands of refugees who have fled Syria.
Whilst we applaud the government for taking action to protect the most vulnerable of Syria’s refugees, we are hugely concerned that its flagship programme for resettling the most vulnerable refugees from Syria should exclude Palestinians. LPHR and MAP recently sought clarification of the UK’s position on this crucial issue, and received this response from the then Minister for Syrian refugees, Richard Harrington MP:
“Palestinian refugees from Syria who are now under the care of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for the Near East (UNRWA) in Jordan or Lebanon, or who have sought refuge in Turkey and other neighbouring countries and are under the care of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), are not included in the UK’s Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme, as this scheme is only available for Syrian nationals.”
This response is deeply worrying. It seems to exclude Palestinians from its Syrian VPR scheme solely on the basis of their status as Palestinians. Not only does it seem fundamentally unjust to exclude persons in clear and urgent need from available protection, LPHR and MAP are concerned that the UK government may be in breach of its legal obligations under the Equality Act 2010 by discriminating against individuals from Syria on grounds of nationality.
We believe that the exclusion of Palestinian refugees from Syria from the Syrian VPR scheme materially contributes to the discriminatory obstacles Palestinians face when seeking protection as refugees.
In addition, the fact that the operation of the Syrian VPR scheme is through UNHCR– as is the case with additional Gateway Protection Programme that the UK participates in with UNHCR – amounts to a significant administrative barrier to protection for Palestinians fleeing Syria. This assertion is supported by the fact that, as the Minister himself said in his response to us “…To date no Palestinian refugees have been resettled from Syria under [existing] schemes because no such cases have been referred to the UK by UNHCR”.
In publishing our briefing with MAP, we are asking the UK government to look again at the legality and fairness of their approach to protecting Palestinian refugees from the Syria crisis, and ensure the most vulnerable Palestinians caught in the cross fire are included in their vital resettlement programmes. Until then, what we said in our blog way back in February 2014, sadly still applies:
“What is happening in Syria is a tragedy for the entire population. However it is clear that the legacy of the 1948 and 1967 conflicts and the on-going occupation of the Palestinian territories is pervasive and destructive. The international community may have grown complacent about the unique status of Palestinian refugees under international refugee law, but the urgent and growing humanitarian crisis not only within Syria but in its neighbouring countries should give us pause as to how the deprivation of such rights can have far-reaching effects and devastating impacts on the lives of individuals.”
(See LPHR’s joint briefing with MAP here.)
Charlotte Stevens, Tareq Shrourou