In Ayn al-Hilwe, Lebanon’s largest Palestinian refugee camp, you frequently hear a new term: “Death Convoys” (Qawafel al-Mawt). It refers to the extremely dangerous voyages across the Mediterranean that Palestinian refugees are resorting to after fleeing Syria and failing to find refuge in neighboring countries. In the Lampedusa tragedy in October 2013, dozens if not hundreds of refugees drowned. Within Syria, more than 85 Palestinian refugees have died of starvation or related causes since June in the besieged Yarmouk camp. These are just the starkest examples of how Syria’s Palestinian refugees have suffered since the country’s conflict began. Syria’s fighting has turned many of the country’s approximately 540,000 Palestinians into “double refugees.” At least 51,000 have fled to Lebanon and 11,000 to Jordan, where their misery endures. The UN and Syria’s neighbors have failed to alleviate their suffering. This must change immediately.
Origin of Palestinian Displacement
The first displacement of Palestinians occurred during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war when approximately 750,000 were forced out of their homes and sought refuge in neighboring countries. Israel continues to deny those refugees their right of return to their homes—even though it is prescribed by UN General Assembly Resolution 194—and so they continue to be pushed around the region from one place to another.
Enduring Hardships in Neighboring Countries
Jordan continues to receive Syrian refugees, but has made it nearly impossible for Palestinians to gain entry. Jordanian security tightly controls the movement of those that are admitted, and in a blatant violation of international law, Jordan has also forced Palestinians back across the border. Lebanon has been similarly unwelcoming, often rejecting Palestinians simply because they lack a clear destination or visas for a third country. They often end up in overcrowded, pre-existing camps, where multiple families regularly share single rooms, and food, water, and electricity are scarce. Unlike Syrian refugees, Palestinians are not allowed to work, exacerbating their hardship. After one year they must pay an expensive fee or return to Syria before attempting to re-enter Lebanon. Both options being untenable, double refugees instead live “illegally” in Lebanon, vulnerable to exploitation and radicalization.
The UN has utterly failed in its response to the crisis of the double refugees. UNRWA’s historical funding limitations leave Palestinian refugees in constant limbo. UNRWA is limited to providing health and education services where advocacy for the protection of refugees is quite limited. The UN High Commissioner of Refugees (UNHCR) is leading the effort to care for refugees of the Syria conflict, but insists that Palestinian double refugees are UNRWA’s responsibility. As a result, the refugees are receiving different levels and types of assistance. In December, UNHCR was paying $70 a month per “vulnerable refugee” in Jordan while UNRWA was paying only $35.
What is the answer for the Palestinians? This long journey of suffering that began when Israel caused their original displacement in 1948 must end. The current crisis confirms that there is no viable alternative to the Palestinians returning to their own land. Continued displacement will only exacerbate their suffering and destabilize the region through systematic radicalization of such a group. Israel should accept its responsibility toward a solution by accepting the UN-mandated right of return.
In the meantime, Jordan and Lebanon should repeal their discriminatory entry and residency policies. Lebanon especially must remove this “tourist status” and allow the Palestinian double refugees to remain for as long as the threatening conditions persist, and without paying exorbitant fees. Lebanon should also establish or expand refugee camps. Lebanon must finally define and address this issue rather than continuing to avoid it.
Role of the International Community
Jordan and Lebanon should not be left with the entire burden of handling the refugees. The international community should take more of the responsibility and contribute significant additional resources to deal with the crisis. Moreover, other Arab countries should offer to host some of the refugees fleeing Syria. The UN must better integrate UNRWA within its system, recognizing the limits of its mandate. UN agencies must include Palestinian double refugees in their planning and stop assuming that UNRWA can handle all the Palestinians’ needs.
It is in the interest of everyone to end the suffering of the Palestinian double refugees. Eventually, they may cease being passive participants in their misery and take matters into their own hands.
Ibrahim Sharqieh is a foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Doha Center and adjunct professor at Georgetown University in Qatar. He previously taught International Conflict Resolution at George Mason University and George Washington University. Follow @sharqieh and facebook: Ibrahim Sharqieh