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The Current Situation of Palestinians in Syria: An Eye-witness Testimony[1]

Rubble and heavy damage to al-Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus, Syria. 9 April 2015 (© AP Photo). Rubble and heavy damage to al-Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus, Syria. 9 April 2015 (© AP Photo).

Before it had been affected by the conflict, al-Yarmouk refugee camp received more displaced Syrians than Turkey and Jordan. However, at the moment the living conditions at al-Yarmouk are growing grimmer by the day. Beginning in mid-December 2012, its inhabitants started to leave the camp, marking a new Palestinian displacement. Ever since, the majority of residents of al-Yarmouk have been displaced to Damascus and its surrounding area. Lacking shelter and sustenance, those displaced are experiencing very harsh conditions, as both Palestinians and Syrians lost their livelihoods. Al-Yarmouk used to be a significant commercial and industrial hub, accommodating several major markets within the boundaries of the city of Damascus. Palestinian and Syrian inhabitants of the camp have sustained irreparable damage. In addition to many casualties, al-Fida’iya neighborhood in the camp has been largely destroyed.[2]

The greatest single predicament that affects displaced inhabitants of al-Yarmouk, as well as all Palestinian communities in Syria in general, is a deteriorated economic situation. Palestinians have been left homeless in the cold winter of Syria in 2013, 2014, and 2015. In light of increasing prices and declining economic and production input across the country, the majority of Palestinians are incapable of renting or affording the exorbitant costs of new homes. The suffering of those who remain in the camp (approximately 18,000 Palestinians) is compounded by declining standards of living and untenable daily sustenance, including food, medicine, fuel and electricity.

Legal Status

As early as 2015, almost 560,000 Palestinian refugees were registered with UNWRA and the Syrian General Authority of Arab Palestinian Refugees in the Arab Republic of Syria. According to Syrian regulations, like Syrian citizens, Palestinian refugees who arrived in the Syrian territory after 15 May 1948 were subject to Syrian civil laws. Law No. 260 was passed unanimously by the Syrian Parliament, and signed by the President Shukri al-Quwatli in 10 July 1956. Regarding rights and obligations, the law emphasizes full equality between Palestinian refugees who had arrived in Syria before this law was promulgated and Syrian citizens. The only differences are in the right to nationality, including Syrian identity card and passport, as well as participation in parliamentary and presidential elections.[3]

Another group is composed of Palestinians who settled in Syria after Law No. 260 had been enacted; i.e. after July 1956. Having been registered by the General Authority of Arab Palestinian Refugees (GAPAR) and UNRWA, these Palestinian refugees are subject to the same rights and obligations of the first Palestinian comers. However, they can only access the labor market through temporary contracts, and they are exempt from compulsory military service. Palestinian refugees who arrived in Syria after 1967, are treated like this latter group.

Distribution of Palestinian refugees in Syria

Palestinian refugees live in 15 camps in Syria, as well as in Syrian cities. The majority of Palestinian refugee camps and communities are located in the Damascus area. Published statistics show that the refugee camps located in Damascus accommodate almost 59% of Palestinian refugees. 75.9% of the total registered Palestinian refugee population in Syria used to live in al-Yarmouk refugee camp (150,000), making it the largest Palestinian community in the diaspora. 6% of the Palestinian refugees live in the Dera’a refugee camp and in al-Muzeirib, a Syrian town containing a residential compound for 8,500 Palestinian refugees; 4.7% in Homs city and Homs refugee camp; 2% in Hama refugee camp; and 2.2% in al-Ramel refugee camp of Latakia. Aleppo provides shelter to 7.3% of the total Palestinian refugee population in Syria. Of these, 73.3% live in the Neirab and Ein Al-Tal refugee camps.[4]

Qabr Essit camp is located on the road to as-Suweida governorate southeast of Damascus city; Jaramana refugee camp is on the road to the International Airport southeast of Damascus; Khan Dynoun refugee camp is located on the Damascus-Dera’a highway south of Damascus; Khan Eshieh refugee camp is on the road to Al-Quneitra, Golan Heights, west of Damascus. Being only 60 kilometers away from the border, this camp is the nearest to Palestine; al-Huseiniya refugee camp is located far southeast of Damascus; Sbeineh refugee camp, south of Damascus; Ramadani refugee camp is located on the Baghdad road east of Damascus.[5] In northern, central and coastal areas of Syria, Palestinian refugees are concentrated in the Neirab and Ein el-Tal refugee camps in Aleppo; Homs refugee camp in Homs; Hama refugee camp in Hama; and al-Ramel refugee camp in Latakia. In the south of Syria, Palestinian refugees live in the Dera’a city, Dera’a and Muzeirib refugee camps, and Dera’a Emergency camp. Several hundred Palestinian families scatter around Huran villages in southern Syria.[6] 

Although UNRWA officially recognizes ten camps only, it delivers healthcare, education and social relief services to all refugee camps. UNRWA schools are run in all Palestinian communities and refugee camps, as well as across Damascus city. Unrecognized refugee camps include al-Yarmouk, Ramadani, and al-Huseiniya in Damascus; Ein el-Tal in Aleppo, and al-Ramel in Latakia.

Secondary Displacement

During the beginning of the Syrian crisis, Palestinian inhabitants of al-Yarmouk have been displaced for the second time after the 1948 Nakba to Damascus. These include al-Amin, al-Maydan, az-Zahira, al-Qa’a, al-Baramika, al-Mazza, Dahiyat Qudsiya, Damar, Damar Project, Sahnaya, al-Ashrafiya, Jaramana, Damascus Industrial Zone, and to buildings housing the UNRWA Vocational Training Centre in al-Mazza. They have also moved to the City of Palestine Martyrs and Mujahedeen’s Sons in the Adra area in the north-eastern of Damascus countryside. Others were forced to leave for relatively stable Palestinian refugee camps and communities, including Khan Dynoun on the Damascus-Dera’a road and Jaramana refugee camp southeast of Damascus.[7] According to the UNRWA, “the war in Syria has caused the displacement of almost three quarters of Palestinian refugees from their refugee camps across Syria. Of these, 70-80% are now displaced due to the conflict around the country.”[8]

The scale of the conflict forced Palestinians to seek refuge outside of Syria. Thousands fled to Lebanon, where many Palestinian refugees have family ties. However, in August 2013 Lebanon closed its borders to Palestinians coming from Syria. The same happened in Jordan, where the Jordanian authorities closed the border to Palestinian refugees in April 2012, while leaving it open for Syrian refugees. Some Palestinian refugees from Syria managed to find shelter in Egypt. However, the unwelcoming policies of the neighboring states towards Palestinian refugees, in addition to the lack of action of the PLO and the majority of Palestinian factions, have forced thousands to try to reach Europe by using the so-called death boats to cross the Mediterranean Sea.

The Palestinians of Syria are hanging in the balance at a time of forced displacement. Whether they are at sea or inside al-Yarmouk refugee camp, Palestinian refugees are at the mercy of a fate that haunts down all children, women, youth, and the elderly. Under such circumstances, the Palestinians of Syria cannot be blamed for leaving and migrating to other foreign countries. Ultimately, Syrians can resort to neighborhoods of their own cities, towns or villages. Options are open to them. Palestinian refugees do not have many options.

Fear and distress are now visible in the eyes of all inhabitants of al-Yarmouk refugee camp as well as of the general Palestinian refugee population across Syria. In their heart lies the panic of copied painful experiences in the journey of tragedy witnessed by successive Palestinian generations since the Nakba.

In 1974, Israeli combat aircraft completely destroyed and pulled to the ground the Nabatiyeh refugee camp in Lebanon.[9] In 1976, during the Lebanese Civil War, the Dbayeh and Jisr Al-Bashah refugee camps in East Beirut were destroyed together with al-Karantina compound in Eastern Beirut. In summer 1976, the Tel al-Zaatar refugee camp in East Beirut was destroyed. Recently, similar incidents have affected the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank and Nahr el-Bared refugee camp near Tripoli, in northern Lebanon. Will al-Yarmouk and other refugee camps in Syria face a similar destiny? With almost double the population of the previously mentioned communities, the tragedy that affects al-Yarmouk refugee camp has the potential to become a calamity in the broadest sense of the word - God forbid.

Fear and distress are now visible in the eyes of all inhabitants of al-Yarmouk refugee camp as well as of the general Palestinian refugee population across Syria. In their heart lies the panic of copied painful experiences in the journey of tragedy witnessed by successive Palestinian generations since the Nakba.

* Dr. Ali Badwan, a Palestinian writer and a political analyst lives in Syria. Dr. Badwan was born in al-Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus, after his family was forcibly displaced from Haifa to Syria during the Nakba in 1948. The author is a local resident and first-hand witness to the ordeal that befell the al-Yarmouk refugee camp.
[1] Editorial Note: this article was submitted before ISIS invaded the camp.
[2] On 24 July 2014, a few days before he had resigned his office, Filippo Grandi, former Commissioner General of the United Nations Works and Relief Agency (UNRWA), visited the destroyed block near to the entrance to the al-Yarmouk refugee camp. According to the UNRWA press statement, Grandi felt shocked at the status of Palestinian refugees he spoke with a well as at the scale of damage caused to their homes. Grandi followed up on distribution of urgent humanitarian aid to Palestinian inhabitants, who remained in the refugee camp. He stated: “I am particularly alarmed by what I have seen today. Palestinian refugees I talked to have suffered a great deal. Many clearly needed immediate support, particularly food and medical treatment. What I have seen and heard today highlights the need for a timely implementation of the Security Council Resolution 2139 to ease humanitarian aid delivery and provide relief. All parties should adhere to implementing this resolution.”
[3] See Syrian Ministry of Social Affairs, General Authority of Arab Palestinian Refugees, Brochure of Decrees and Laws on Palestinian Refugees Residing in the Arab Republic of Syria, Damascus, 2001.
[4] According to data released by the General Authority of Arab Palestinian Refugees in Syria and other sources, including Badwan Ali, Palestinians in Syria: Ascent to the Homeland, Dar Al-Manarah, Damascus, 2004.
[5] Badwan Ali, Palestinians in Syria: Ascent to the Homeland, Dar Al-Manarah, Damascus, 2004.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Several sources, including the General Authority of Arab Palestinian Refugees in Syria, UNRWA, and field research carried out by the author.
[8] UNRWA, “Statement by the Commissioner-General on Palestine. Refugees Trapped inside al-Yarmouk.”
[9] UNRWA, “Israeli Air Raids.”