For the last three years there has been an enormous humanitarian crisis in Syria. As the violent conflict has spread throughout the country, hundreds of thousands of people have found themselves displaced, many crossing Syria’s borders and entering the surrounding countries (predominantly Lebanon and Jordan) as refugees.
Now, you may or may not be aware that, before the conflict at least, Syria was in fact host to the largest number of Palestinian refugees in the diaspora, with 499,189 people registered with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which is the international body mandated with providing for the needs of the Palestinian diaspora in the Near East. There are nine Palestinian refugee camps in Syria to which UNRWA is mandated to provide services (like education and healthcare) and one large unofficial camp called Yarmouk, which is just on the outskirts of Damascus. These refugee camps aren’t what you might immediately think of when you hear that term – they are not temporary structures, all tents and sand like stereotypical images of refugee camps – but permanent communities of Palestinian civilians including homes and public services, like schools and health centres, and contain businesses and shops. Most of these camps have been in existence since 1948 when there was a mass exodus of Palestinians from Palestine as a result of the Arab-Israeli War and the founding of the state of Israel (also called the Nakba, meaning ‘catastrophe’ in Arabic). However, notwithstanding this, many of the camps have limited access to basic services such as electricity and clean water. Also, their buildings tend to be cheaply constructed, often unregulated and tightly packed so living conditions can be challenging for the residents at the best of times.
As part of the on-going conflict in Syria, the Palestinian population has been affected in just the same ways as the Syrian population – caught in the cross fire – and so many Palestinians have found that they have also needed to escape violence and seek safety and shelter outside Syria’s borders. So in these circumstances what we’re talking about are people who are already described as ‘Palestinian refugees’ becoming de facto ‘refugees’ again by leaving Syria. Confused? Yes, it is a tricky one, and where does that leave this specific minority group and what rights do they have under international law?
What is the legal definition of a refugee?
The criteria for refugee status under international law (individual countries will also likely have domestic laws relating to asylum claims within their own borders) is set out in Article 1(A)(2) of the 1951 Refugee Convention – a person is a refugee if:
‘…owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.’
That (very long but very important) sentence can be boiled down to three main criteria for refugee status:
- The person is outside their country of origin or outside the country of their former habitual residence;
- Owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted, they are unable or unwilling to avail themselves of the protection of that country; and
- Their fear of persecution falls within one or more of five grounds: race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.
Also important in the law of refugee status is the principle of ‘non-refoulement’ set out in Article 33 of the 1951 Refugee Convention and embedded in customary international law. This means that the host country cannot expel or return the refugee to their country of origin ‘where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.'
What do people mean when they use the term ‘Palestinian refugees’ and why is that different to an ordinary refugee?
The origins of people that are recognised as official Palestinian refugees by the United Nations (UN) are those people (and their descendants) who were displaced as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war and the Six Day War in 1967 when Israel invaded certain territory including, Gaza and the West Bank. The UN body that is designated to provide services and relief to these groups is UNRWA, mentioned above. UNRWA is distinct from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (which is also known by the acronym UNHCR) which is responsible for providing support to refugees under the 1951 Refugee Convention.
However, it’s important to note at this stage that unfortunately the situation is not as clear and simple as the neat definition above might appear. As a result of on-going conflict and oppression arising from policies of the Israeli government over the decades since 1948, many Palestinians have been displaced and become de facto refugees by crossing over into neighbouring countries, including Syria. These people therefore do not fall under UNRWA’s mandate and this accounts for the populations of the unofficial camps, such as Yarmouk in Syria. UNRWA still provides some services to these unofficial camps, but they are also supported by humanitarian NGOs and their numbers are not included in those officially registered with UNRWA.
The fact that Palestinian refugees are supported by UNRWA, not UNHCR, is significant in terms of their definition and rights under international law. It is this that differentiates Palestinian refugees from ordinary refugees. Article 1D of the 1951 Refugee Convention states that:
‘This Convention shall not apply to persons who are at present receiving from organs or agencies of the United Nations other than the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees protection or assistance.'
Therefore, because Palestinian refugees, even unofficial ones, are deemed provided for by UNRWA they are excluded from the rights provided by the 1951 Refugee Convention. UNRWA is mandated to provide Palestinian refugees with humanitarian assistance, like providing sanitation, healthcare and education services, however, unlike UNHCR, it does not have a specific protection mandate meaning that Palestinian refugees are deprived of the rights and protections set out in the 1951 Refugee Convention and the support of UNHCR for their enforcement. For example, the following rights do not apply to Palestinian refugees which mean that they can be subject to less-favourable treatment in host countries:
- The right to non-discrimination
- The right to access wage-earning employment
- The right to access public education
- The right to freedom of movement within the host country
- The right to non-refoulement
What does this mean for the Palestinians currently displaced by the Syrian conflict?
The Palestinian refugees fleeing from Syria have mainly entered the neighbouring countries of Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan.
When ordinary Syrian refugees cross the border into Lebanon, Jordan or Turkey, they are covered by the protection of the 1951 Refugee Convention and are therefore entitled to UNHCR support. UNHCR is an agency with a long history and a great deal of expertise in dealing with sudden and large influxes of refugees and so, not to belittle the challenges it faces, has a greater capacity to effectively deal with the needs of these vulnerable displaced people. Palestinian refugees from Syria however are excluded from receiving UNHCR’s services. They are covered by UNRWA’s mandate. However, first of all, UNRWA does not operate at all in Turkey, meaning Palestinians there are left without access to any services except those provided by disaster relief NGOs or at the discretion of the Turkish government. Secondly, in Jordan and Lebanon, where UNRWA is operating, it has not traditionally had to deal with a sudden influx of displaced and vulnerable people. UNRWA-serviced camps tend to have relatively stable populations to which it provides social, not emergency humanitarian, services. UNRWA is therefore under-resourced and struggling to provide for the Palestinian refugees flooding the already over-crowded Lebanese and Jordanian Palestinian camps.
Furthermore, in spring 2013 Jordan introduced a policy of non-entry to Palestinian refugees fleeing Syria in early 2013. Such an act would be in breach of the 1951 Refugee Convention if Palestinian refugees were protected by it, which explicitly provides for the right to non-discrimination and non-refoulement. Being deprived of the formal legal rights that can usually be expected by refugees makes these Palestinians a uniquely vulnerable group.
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.
Charlotte Stevens – LPHR Secretary
- Article 33 of the 1951 Refugee Convention.
- Article 3 of the 1951 Refugee Convention.
- Article 17 of the 1951 Refugee Convention.
- Article 22 of the 1951 Refugee Convention.
- Article 26 of the 1951 Refugee Convention.
- Article 33 of the 1951 Refugee Convention.