The official position of Arab nations is unambiguous: solidarity with Palestine is paramount. But facts on the ground point to a disturbingly different reality, one in which Palestinians are mistreated beyond any rational justification in various Arab countries. The worst-fated among them are stateless refugees, who have for decades been granted only precarious legal status. In times of crisis thee refugees have repeatedly found themselves in a state of legal and political limbo.
At the recent Non-Aligned Movement summit held in Tehran, Arab leaders spoke with the same ardent passion about justice for the Palestinians. One Arab Emir warned that “preoccupation with issues of the Arab Spring… should not distract us from the Arab central cause of Palestine.” He labored to count all Israeli violations of Palestinian rights, as heads of states nodded in agreement. Absent from the speech, however, was any reference to the ongoing suffering of Palestinian refugees in Arab countries, where, arguably, Israel has no sway.
While there is no question that displaced Syrian refugees are going through a truly horrific experience during the civil war, the fate of Palestinian refugees is markedly worse. This is because Palestinians do not have the basic rights that passport-holding Syrian citizens do. ‘Stuck,’ ‘stranded,’ and ‘imprisoned’ are only some of the terms used to describe the state of Palestinian refugees, ill-treated and subjugated by none other than their ‘Arab brethren.’
Due to geographic necessity, thousands of Palestinian refugees are escaping the war to nearby borders in both Jordan and Lebanon. The UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) has registered nearly 5,000 fleeing refugees. But the number is likely much higher and will continue to grow as fighting escalates.
There are nearly half a million Palestinian refugees in Syria. Despite all attempts at sparing them the bloody outcomes of the conflict, they have still become embroiled in the fight. Regional powers desperate to gain ground in Syria have used their media to exploit the Palestinian issue, knowing well the sentimental value of the Palestinian narrative within the larger Arab discourse. The outcome has been devastating, and many Palestinians have been on the run for nearly a year and a half. Areas with a concentration of Palestinian refugees are no longer neutral territories. Despite pleas and assurances, Palestinian refugees in Syria remain most vulnerable.
In Jordan, hundreds of Palestinian refugees who fled Syria have been crammed into a poorly equipped living facility known as Cyber City, about 90km north of the capital, Amman. Human Rights Watch and other organizations have decried the mistreatment of refugees in Cyber City, reporting forced deportations back to Syria, and the prisoner-like status of those who have remained in Jordan.
In a July 4 report, ‘Jordan: Bias at the Syria Border’, Human Rights Watch claimed that those fortunate enough not to be deported are still threatened with deportation. “Since April 2012, the authorities have also arbitrarily detained Palestinians fleeing Syria in a refugee holding center without any options for release other than return to Syria,” stated the report.
One Cyber City resident, Samir, told UN humanitarian news network, IRIN: “It has been quite bad living like a prisoner, especially when you see other people come and go but you are trapped.” According to the report, “Palestinian refugees from Syria feel abandoned” and Palestinian refugees of Cyber City cannot cross over 30 meters from the main building.
Some of the stories imparted by Human Rights Watch are very disturbing to say the least. The organization acknowledges that Jordan has not signed or ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention; it is still required under international human rights law to respect the principle of non-refoulement, which “prohibits countries from sending anyone back to a country where their life or freedom would be threatened.” However, the phenomenon is reportedly recurring in the case of Palestinian refugees.
The situation in Lebanon is equally distressing. Margaret Besheer wrote from Beirut on the double misery of Palestinian refugees fleeing to Lebanon, mostly seeking shelter in the slums of the Shatilla refugee camp. There are 455,000 registered Palestinian refugees in Lebanon who are mostly distributed among 12 refugee camps throughout the country and subsisting in terrible conditions.
Since Lebanon’s Palestinian refugees are already victims of a host of discriminatory laws, one can only imagine the dilemma of newly arriving refugees. Ibtisam’s family shares one room with eight other people in the Shatilla camp. “We are three families staying in one room. What can we do? We escaped from the killing and shelling and now we are living like this.”
Ibtisam can be considered lucky for being allowed entry in the first place. However, unlike other refugees from Syria, Palestinians who are permitted to enter are expected to renew their permit on a monthly basis — at a cost of 50,000 LBP (US$33), an unaffordable feat for families lacking access to proper food or health care.
Many are not even fortunate enough to be able to leave Syria in the first place. According to NGO worker Rawan Nassar, families are forced to deposit large sums of money to obtain permission from authorities. The poor are naturally denied an exit permit, and some families risk their entire life savings to escape. Once at the Lebanon border, even more bribing is necessary. “I saw a Palestinian woman at the border, who did not know anyone in Lebanon and she was forced to pay $300 in bribes, $40 for each child,” a Syrian eyewitness told IRIN.
While hostility towards Palestinian refugees is rooted in histories laden with civil wars and conflicts, it is hard to justify the attitude of UN refugee agency, UNHCR, which manifestly differentiates between refugees of other countries and Palestinian refugees. The latter are supposedly the sole responsibility of UNRWA, which has only a tiny relief budget that is unable to keep up with even the most basic demands of those who bother to register.
The crisis ensuing from Palestinian refugees escaping regional conflict is not a new phenomenon, as wars in Iraq, Kuwait and Lebanon have demonstrated in the past. The tragedy is multiplied, however, because no real, long-term solution has been put in place despite the recurring humanitarian catastrophe.
Meanwhile, official speech decrying Israeli crimes continues unabated, with little attention paid to crimes committed elsewhere. This results only in the same disheartening outcome.
One refugee was quoted in UN news as saying: “People come and take pictures and speak with us, but they all leave at the end.” Such is the plight of the Palestinian refugees, sixty-four years after the Nakba.