Political Overview
Dr. Nayef Jarrad, Political Advisor to the PNC-West Bank

The adaptation of Palestinian refugees exiled to Syria after 1948 was eased by the historical connection between Syria and Palestine ("Greater Syria"). Despite political differences between the two countries after 1920, many Syrians had participated in the defense of Palestine against Zionist colonization, especially during the 1936-39 Arab Revolt. Damascus was a stronghold of Palestinian revolutionaries and, following the defeat in the 1939 revolt, became their shelter. This relationship continued until well after the 1948 Nakba.

Following the Nakba, consecutive Syrian governments adopted a supportive position towards the Palestinian people and their right of return to their homeland. Arab Nationalism, the prevailing ideology in Syria at that time, facilitated this approach. Palestinian refugees were granted rights equal to those of Syrian citizens in most respects, with some exceptions in regards to the right to own property. The Arab Nationalist climate in Syria, especially the Syrian Baath party, had a strong impact on Palestinian political awareness. The Syrian Baath party was one of the first Arab National parties to raise the idea of the Palestinian entity and the need to establish an army for the liberation of Palestine.

When the PLO was established as a result of an official Arab decision in 1964, and - in its first years - was under the strong influence of Egyptian and Jordanian positions, the Baath party aligned itself with the Palestinian National Liberation Movement (Fatah). It encouraged the activities of Palestinian revolutionary organizations formed in Syria (e.g. Palestine Liberation Front, a Palestinian branch of which had previously been established in Palestine by the Arab National Movement). The alignment of the leadership of the Palestinian Resistance represented by Fatah with Syria and al-Sa'iqa, the military wing of the Baath party, remained in force until the beginning of the 1980s even though Palestinian-Syrian relations went through periods of tension in Lebanon, especially in the years of 1976-78.

Palestinian-Syrian relations deteriorated considerably after 1983, when the PLO sided with the Egyptian government, despite an Arab League boycott against Egypt that had signed a unilateral peace agreement with Israel (Camp David). At that time, the Syrian government decided to support the separatist forces of Fatah and facilitate their activities in Syria and Lebanon at the expense of the mainstream Palestinian groups. Despite the official Syrian support of the separatist forces, Palestinians in Syria continued to support the major PLO factions. Research shows that the language of Arab Nationalism and recognition of the civil rights of Palestinians in Syria did not affect their positive attitude towards the PLO. Due to this fact, and due to the activity of Palestinian political forces in Syria, Palestinians in Syria closely follow the daily events related to Palestinian issues and respond to new developments. Recently, the Palestinian left opposition forces, headquartered in Syria, have played a major role in shaping the Palestinian debate in the country.

Since the launching of the current initiative for a peaceful settlement at the 1991 Madrid Conference, and until today, Syria has re-affirmed the Palestinian refugees' right to return to their homeland. Syria refuses to participate in the multilateral negotiations, because its government holds that Israeli withdrawal from Arab and Palestinian land is a pre-condition for the opening of talks about regional cooperation. For the same reason, Syria also stood up against the transformation of UNRWA from a relief agency into a development organization in the 1995 UNRWA donor meeting in Amman. The Syrian government is convinced that such a transformation would promote international refugee resettlement schemes.

Due to the absence of social discrimination and the equal rights accorded to Palestinian refugees in Syria, the Israeli government considers Syria as an ideal country for refugee re-settlement. The fact that Palestinian refugees in Syria comprise only 2.5% of the total population, is seen as facilitating their re-settlement from a demographic and economic point of view. On the other hand, there is ample indication that Palestinians in Syria reject the idea of re-settlement; their historical struggle and participation in the Palestinian National Movement, and their support of the independent Palestinian identity, are factors that contradict acceptance of re-settlement schemes among Palestinians in Syria. Syria thus serves as an example, which confirms that secure civil and social rights in the host countries can protect refugees from falling victim, for fear of discrimination, to the dangers of re-settlement and loss of their national identity. In this sense, the situation of Palestinians in Syria differs strongly from the situation in Lebanon, where frequent talk about the fear of re-settlement schemes is predominant, and presentation of such schemes is exaggerated to the degree of causing doubts as to the sincerity of the debate - especially since some Palestinians have been granted Lebanese citizenship.

Irrespective of current speculation about the Syrian position and Syria's demand for influence in both the Palestinian and Lebanese files, and despite the fact that Syria does not raise the Palestinian refugee question and the right of return among its priorities, Syria has taken measures against the pressure towards refugee re-settlement in its territory by issuing entry-restrictions on Palestinians with Egyptian, Jordanian, and Iraqi travel documents. In any case, the solution of the Palestinian refugee issue in Syria and in the other regional host countries requires Palestinian-Syrian coordination, as well as Palestinian coordination with the government of each host country. Since these governments are guided by their own interests, interests which might be affected by an agreement on the refugee issue, such coordination is vital for the design of a solution to the refugee question which is just and acceptable for all, and will reduce negative side effects.

Development Indicators Among Palestinian Refugees in Syria

Nabil Mahmoud as-Sahly
Researcher for the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics/Damascus


Research on Palestinian refugees is considered to be one of the most important areas of research in the humanities because it reflects the unique situation of Palestinians after being driven from their homeland by Zionist military forces. This study focuses on developments in the Palestinian refugee community in Syria according to demographic, social, economic and legal indicators.

The majority of Palestinian refugees in Syria are concentrated in the capital city of Damascus. In the first half of the 1950s, the majority of Palestinian refugees in Syria were attracted to Damascus due to its mosques and schools (religious and educational opportunities). At the same time, many poor Palestinian families rented houses in the middle of the city; this phenomenon also occurred in other cities such as Halab, Homs, and Dara’a. With the development of Syrian law, in particular Law No. 260 of 1956, Palestinian refugees gained access to Syria's social and economic sectors, thus providing many Palestinians with the opportunity to hold important positions in these sectors. The favorable economic climate in Damascus, relative to other areas in Syria, and the accessibility of services continues to be the major factor behind the concentration of Palestinians in Damascus.

Despite the deprivation and misery, which accompanied Palestinians through their eviction and into exile, Palestinian refugees in Syria, as with refugee communities in other areas, have maintained a strong memory of and attachment to their homes, playgrounds, fields, places of marriage, etc. In addition, the refugees have retained various documents relating to property ownership, birth, marriage, etc. Many still possess the keys to their homes. Moreover, refugare confident (according to a poll conducted during the 50th anniversary of the Nakba) that just as the Turks withdrew from Palestine after four centuries of occupation, as did the Crusaders before, so too will the Zionist occupation of Palestine come to an end some day. Palestinian refugees in Syria felt a strong sense of injustice with the signing of the Oslo agreements under which the refugee issue was postponed to so-called final status negotiations between the PA and Israel. The refugees continue to uphold their right of return as a basic element of any solution or agreement.

This study is based on several sources: publications of the Syrian Ministry of Justice, statements from Palestinian refugee institutions, surveys of the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PLO) in Damascus, and various other studies on the refugee situation in Syria and the other host countries. The study addresses the current legal status, demography, UNRWA, socio-economic and political situations of Palestinian refugees in Syria.

Legislation and Palestinian Civil Rights in Syria.

One of the most important laws in Syria, which provides for the administration of Palestinian refugee affairs and ensures provision of refugee needs, is Law 450 issued 25 January 1949. Law 450 authorized the establishment of a Palestine Arab Refugee Institution (PARI) under the auspices of the Syrian Social Affairs and Labor Ministry.(1) PARI was later replaced by the Syrian General Authority for Palestine Arab Refugee Affairs (GAPAR), also a department of the Social Affairs and Labor Ministry.

Half a decade later, the Syrian government adopted Law 260, 7 October 1956, which granted Palestinian residents nearly the same status as Syrian nationals. Palestinian refugees in Syria were granted equal rights, for example, in the areas of labor and employment, trade, and military service. At the same time, Palestinian refugees were able to maintain the right to their Palestinian nationality. On 2 October 1963, Law 1311 was adopted to provide Palestinian refugees with travel documents. Unlike Syrian nationals, Palestinian refugees are not allowed to travel using only the personal ID card. Recently, however, a new law has been issued that allows Palestinian refugees in Syria to travel to and from Lebanon using the personal ID card (commencing 1/7/1999).

Under Law 1311, refugees must be registered with the Palestine Arab Refugee Affairs Authority in order to acquire a travel document. One of the most important articles included in Law 1311 is Article 10 which allows Palestinian refugees to return to Syria without a re-entry permit. Travel documents given to Palestinians by the Egyptian government, for example, do not allow its holder to return to Egypt without a re-entry permit. (see al-Majdal, issue no. 2) As with Syrian nationals, the travel document can be changed or re-issued by any Syrian representative office abroad.(2)

Palestinian refugees in Syria have the right to own more than one business or commercial enterprise as well as the right to lease properties. These rights extend to trade and commerce. Union membership in Syria is also open to Palestinians. Palestinians are free to travel throughout Syria and have the right to establish residence in Syrian villages and cities. As such, Palestinian refugees in Syria have achieved a wide range of civil rights. There is, however, a noticeable gap in the home and land ownership laws. Unlike Syrian nationals, Palestinians may not own more than one home nor purchase arable land. Palestinian refugees in Syria do not have the right to vote or candidate for the Syrian National Council or Presidency.

Demographic Situation

Some 90,000 Palestinian refugees came to Syria in 1948. The majority of refugees found shelter in the Syrian capital with the rest distributed in the other Syrian districts. By 1960 the number of Palestinians in Syria reached 126,662, and nearly tripled over the next four decades. UNRWA figures for the year 1998, show that the number of registered Palestinian refugees in Syria by the end of 1998 was 370,035.(3) The refugee population in Syria is expected to reach 400,000 by the end of 2000.(4) The estimated total number of Palestinians living in Syria, including non-registered refugees, at the end of 1998 was 465,662.(5)

Palestinian Refugee Population in Syria 1948-2000 Year


Total / thousands











Sources: up to 1985, Figures are taken from the field surveys done by the Statistical Bureau (1980-1992). The figures for the years 1998-2000 are estimates based on the current population growth average (3.5%).

Economic opportunities and access to services, mentioned earlier, is some of the most important factors related to the demographic distribution of the Palestinian population in Syria. Overall demographic distribution of Palestinian refugees in Syria is as follows:(6)

Demographic Distribution of Palestinian Refugees in Syria

Khan Eshieh


Khan Danoun




Qabr Essit






Dera'a (Emergency)









Thirty percent of refugees in Syria (109,315 persons as of 30 June 1999) inhabit the 10 refugee camps recognized by UNRWA: Khan Eshieh camp, Khan Danoun camp, Sbeineh camp, Qabr Essit camp, Neirab camp, Jaramana camp, Homs camp, Hama camp, Dara’a camp, and Dara’a ‘emergency’ camp. UNRWA does not recognize al-Yarmoukas a refugee camp, although 120,000 Palestinian refugees, or one-third of the total refugee population in Syria, inhabit al-Yarmouk.

UNRWA Camp Population - Registered Refugees, December 1998

Khan Eshieh


Khan Danoun




Qabr Essit






Dera'a (Emergency)








Note: For a brief overview of the camps, see the UNRWA website (www.unrwa.org).

UNRWA education, social and health services are distributed to refugee camp neighborhoods, which are classified according to the original village of the inhabitants in Palestine. Al-Teera and Lubia neighborhoods in al-Yarmouk camp are good examples. Refugee communities in camps continue to maintain the traditions and customs, which were used in those villages.

Several booklets, which describe the situation in Palestinian villages prior to and after the Nakba, up until the present time, were issued between 1994 and 1999. Lubya in the Tiberias District, al-Tira and al-Tantura in the Haifa District, Nahr and Suhmata in the 'Aka District, and Dallata in the District of Safad, along with many other villages, were among those written about in the booklets. The books emphasize the struggle of Palestinians from these villages. Additional scientific research is necessary, however, to strengthen documentation and analysis. Upcoming booklets will be issued on additional villages, such as Balad Eshaikh where Izzediin al-Qassem is buried.

Note: For a brief overview of these villages in English see, Walid al-Khalidi (ed.), All That Remains. Washington, DC: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1992.

Origins of Palestinian refugees in Syria(7) % of total refugees in Syria

% of total refugees in Syria

District of Origin














Ramla, Lod, Beisan, others


The Palestinian refugee community in Syria is a young society. In 1998, 43.2% of the population was under the age of 15. Based on an average household of four persons, the number of Palestinians eligible for employment, relative to the size of the total Palestinian refugee population, is unable to cover average household expenses. The percentage of Palestinians eligible for employment does exceed 54.5% of the total Palestinian refugee population. Refugees 60 years and older comprise 2.3 % of the total number of refugees in Syria.(8) The birth rate among Palestinian refugees is 43 per one thousand with an average individual fertility rate of five.(9) The average life expectancy rate among refugees in Syria is 66. According to UNRWA, the average rate of child mortality for Palestinian refugees in Syria is 0.29. The average age of marriage for 1997 was 20 years.

Palestinian refugees in Syria and UNRWA services

According to the 1998-99 UNRWA report, the Ag's budget for all services in the areas of its operations was US$ 352.8 million. In Syria, this included 11.1 million for education, 4.6 million for health, 4.7 million social services and relief, and 1.8 million for capital expenses, which support all Agency programs. In addition, 1.6 million is budgeted for joint projects covering administrative and organizational services.(10) At the end of 1998, UNRWA was supporting 2,829 area staff posts and 9 international staff posts in Syria, comprising 13% of staff posts in all areas of UNRWA operations.

UNRWA administers 110 schools in Syria, accommodating 64,854 pupils at both elementary and preparatory levels. Approximately two-thirds of the pupils are enrolled at the preparatory level. Half of the total number of students in both levels is female. In the year 1998-99, the Vocational and Technical Training Center (VTTC) in Damascus, a program supported by UNRWA, provided training for 629 males and 166 females in 13 trade and seven technical/semi-professional courses. Palestinian refugees employed by UNRWA in education (1,864 staff) comprise the largest sector of UNRWA staff in Syria.

UNRWA also administers 23 clinics and dispensaries, which provide refugees with basic health care, including dental, laboratory and other health services.(11) In At the end of December 1998, UNRWA employed 444 staff to provide health services to Palestinian refugees in Syria. Hospitalization for Palestinian refugees is provided on a contractual basis with private hospitals, based on official government rates. UNRWA continues to provide assistance for Special Hardship Cases in Syria, with the number of cases increasing by 4.6% between June 1998 and June 1999. The withdrawal of the selective cash assistance program, however, left many refugee families unassisted in emergency situations. UNRWA social workers continued to be overloaded with an estimated 340 cases per year, far above the recommended rate of 250 cases.

Socio-Economic Situation of Palestinian Refugees in Syria

One of the most important indicators of the socio-economic situation of Palestinian refugees is education. In Syria, the illiteracy rate has been reduced due to improvements in the quality and delivery of education in Syria. Between 1985 and 1995, the illiteracy rate among males over the age of 15 fell from 9.9% to 6.5%. Female illiteracy, meanwhile, declined even further from 30% to 15%. The average of illiteracy among Palestinians (male and female) for the year 1998 was 11% of the total refugee population.

The policy of mandatory elementary education in Syria is also applied to Palestinian refugees. While nearly a quarter of Palestinian refugees do not attend school, they are not illiterate. With the cost of 4 or 5 or even 6 years of university education not exceeding US$ 200, many Palestinian refugees have the opportunity for post-secondary education. The Syrian government has also provided assistance for Palestinians to study abroad.

Educational Attainment of Palestinian Refugees in Syria Education

Education Level

% of Palestinian refugee population

Do not attend


Complete Elementary School


Complete Preparatory School


Obtain College Degree


Receive University Education



In addition to UNRWA, the Syrian refugee authority, and the Red Crescent have provided services for Palestinian refugees in Syria. Compared to the period between 1975 and 1994, however, these services have been reduced due to the resettlement of many Red Crescent staff in PA areas (West Bank and Gaza). Nevertheless, access to education has enabled Palestinian refugees in Syria to obtain high positions in government ministries, particularly education.

Palestinian refugee camps in Syria lack public parks. This situation forces many children to play in the streets and creates extra expenses for refugee families who are forced to take their children to public parks in the cities. Kindergartens, computer-training centers, and many information centers administered by the Syrian National Information Center are distributed throughout the camps. Sport and music clubs are limited to al-Yarmouk refugee camp.

Regarding the current economic situation among refugees in Syria, statistical data indicates that the total number of Palestinian refugees employed in Syria reached 108,887 worker in 1998. This means that, on average, only 29% of the total population is part of the workforce. The unemployment rate among Palestinian refugees in Syria, however, is very low. Between 1992 and 1998, unemployment did not exceed 9-13%.(12)

The Palestinian workforce in Syria is distributed among various sectors as follows:


Service sector










Electrical, Transportation, Money (etc.)


The percentage of workers in the agricultural sector is low due to the fact that Palestinian refugees are prevented from owning arable land. The average yearly income of Palestinian refugees in Syria is US$ 1200. Palestinian refugees in Syria fall within the mid-range of the UN Human Development Index.

Palestinian Refugees in Syria and Resettlement Proposals

Since the beginning of the 1950s, several resettlement projects have been proposed for Palestinian refugees in Syria. The first proposal was to resettle refugees in an area between the Turkish, Iraqi and Syrian borders. This proposal was completely rejected by refugees. Other proposals and scenarios for solutions were brought forward after the signing of the peace agreement between Israel and PLO in 1993. Former IDF General, Shlomo Gazit, in his study on refugees (issued by the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv) views Syria and Jordan as the two countries where it is most possible to resettle refugees. In Syria, for example, refugees are just 3% of the total population. Other proposals, including some American studies, have also proposed resettling some of the five million Palestinian refugees in Syria.

On the other hand, Palestinian refugees in Syria consider the right of return (UN Resolution 194 of 1948) as the only basis for a fair solution accepted by refugees themselves. A poll based on a sample of 200 refugees in Syria revealed the following results:

98% of Palestinian refugees in Syria prefer to return back to their homeland in Palestine.

1% would consider resettlement in areas under full Palestinian control in the West Bank and Gaza.

99% reject any resettlement or transfer proposals.

Nevertheless, it is apparent that there is a lack of organization among Palestinian refugees in Syria who are dealing with refugee issue, evidenced by the absence of grassroots organizations. While there is a committee for the right of return run by several Palestinian journalists, it is fettered by disagreement between political factions. Since 1996 only one workshop was held under the title “Israel's Demographic Policy Towards the Palestinians”.(13)


Based on the information presented above, the situation of Palestinian refugees in Syria can be summarized as follows.

Syrian laws have facilitated the participation of Palestinian refugees in the social and economic life of Syria in a way that is opposite with what happened in Lebanon, where Palestinians are barred from employment in more than 70 professions.

There are nearly 400,000 Palestinian refugees in Syria, representing 3% of the total population in Syria. They also represent 10.5% of the total refugees registered by UNRWA.

The economic burden for each individual worker is 4 persons. In other words, each worker, in addition to himself, supports 3 persons who are not members of the workforce.

The origin of most Palestinian refugees in Syria is the Palestinian Galilee, predominantly from the Safad District.

Palestinian refugees in Syria are clustered in groups according to their origin in the homeland.

The major part of the UNRWA budget for Syria supports the education and health sectors.

The service sector in Syria attracts the majority of the Palestinian workforce in the country.

Ninety-nine percent of Palestinian refugees in Syria reject resettlement.

The Palestcommunity in Syria is young, and has a high percentage of children as a result from the high fertility rate.

In Syria, there are no organizations or civil institutions that reflect the refugees’ positions regarding sensitive issues such as the right of return. The positions of refugees are reflected only by reactions of political factions from time to time.


1. Legislation Committee, Chapter 17. Ministry of Justice, Damascus, Syria.
2. Ibid.
3. Summarized from UNRWA estimates for the year 1998.
4. The total number of Palestinian refugees in Syria for the years 1998-2000 has been estimated according to the current population growth, which is 3.5% annually. The Palestinian Statistical Bureau, 1988.
5. Salman Abu Sitta, The Palestinian Nakba 1948. London: Palestinian Return Centre, 1998.
6. All figures taken from the Palestine Arab Refugee Institution, Data, Civil and Statistic Department, 2/1/1999.
7. Ibid.
8. Figures taken from the field survey done by the Statistical Bureau in cooperation with UNICEF, 1997-1998, cover samples from the Palestinian community in Syria.
9. UNRWA Report, 1998.
10. Ibid..
11. Palestinian Statistical Bureau field survey in cooperation with UNICEF, 1997-98.

12. This poll was conducted by the researcher in the period between March and April, 1998, the time of the 50th anniversary of al-Nakba, taking into consideration the demographic, sex and age distribution.
13. The researcher contributed to workshop with his working papers on the Israeli demographic policy towards Palestinians as an important part in the Zionist project in Palestine, a process of attracting Jewish immigrants and exiling Palestinians.