By Anne Irfan
PHD CANDIDATE, LONDON SCHOOL OF ECONOMICS
This paper was presented in a Parliamentary seminar in the House of Commons on 21 March 2016.
As we are all too aware, Syria today is in the midst of a major humanitarian
disaster. More than 5 million Syrians have fled the country since the start of the
Civil War 5 years ago, leading the UN to describe the situation as the worst
refugee crisis since the Second World War.1 What we have heard much less about
is the plight of the many Palestinian refugees also fleeing Syria, and in the process
becoming twice or even three-times displaced as a long-term stateless population.
This evening, we want to highlight not only the numbers of Palestinian refugees
from Syria but also their particular vulnerabilities. To put it simply, Palestinian
refugees are suffering from further persecution and torment simply because they are
At the core of their plight is of course their statelessness, which makes them
inherently vulnerable for the obvious reason that they lack the protection of a
state. In the case of Palestinian refugees from Syria, they are additionally
vulnerable because they also lack the protection of many other states and
international organisations which are responding to the crisis by focussing
exclusively on Syrian refugees, rather than all refugees from Syria. While this might
sound like merely an issue of semantics, it is in fact an important distinction.
Before the beginning of the Syrian war in 2011, there were around 560,000
registered Palestinian refugees living in Syria.2 This population can be traced to the
original refugees from Palestine in 1948 and their descendants. Their conditions in
pre-war Syria were relatively good; although they lacked citizenship, the
Palestinians were well-integrated into Syrian society and enjoyed many of the same
rights as Syrian citizens, including access to healthcare, education and
employment. Their situation was much better, by comparison, than that of
Palestinians in neighbouring Lebanon, who are denied the right to work in
professions, to own property or access state services.
Today the situation of Palestinians in Syria has changed drastically. More than
100,000 Palestinians have fled Syria, and it is estimated that around half of these
(45,000) have sought refuge in Lebanon. 3 The numbers fleeing to Lebanon
increased after January 2013, when the Jordanian government imposed a ban on
Palestinian refugees from Syria entering the country (although it has continued to
accept Syrians). The Jordanian ban drove many Palestinians escaping Syria to
travel to Lebanon instead, putting a huge amount of pressure on already overstretched
Lebanese resources. The Lebanese government subsequently closed
its doors to Palestinian refugees from Syria in May 2014.4
This has left those Palestinian refugees fleeing Syria with very few options. As
already mentioned, these people are uniquely vulnerable because of their
statelessness; they are also uniquely vulnerable because the international
organisations that were theoretically created to help them, actually leave them at a
major institutional disadvantage. Under international convention, Palestinian
refugees are administered and categorised differently not only to Syrians but to
every other group of refugees in the world. If this seems absurd, it is worth noting
that it is nothing new; it is certainly not limited to the last 5 years. In fact, this kind
of ‘Palestinian exceptionalism’ has always been the case, dating back to the very
beginning of their existence as a large-scale refugee population.
To recap briefly, the Palestinian refugee crisis began in 1948, in what is known as
the Nakba (meaning ‘the catastrophe’) when around three-quarters of the
Palestinian population lost their homes and became refugees. The newly-created
United Nations, which had been operational for 3 years at the time, intervened
directly. In 1949, it created the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine
Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), to respond specifically and exclusively to
the plight of Palestinian refugees. UNRWA became responsible for their welfare
in the 5 geographical fields with the largest Palestinian refugee population: the
West Bank, Gaza, Lebanon, Jordan and of course Syria. Since then, the Agency
has provided a huge range of major services that would conventionally be the
domain of the state, including healthcare, education and poverty relief.
The year after the UN created UNRWA, it moved to establish a broader
organisation for refugees across the world. In 1950 it created the office of the UN
High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). When the UN created UNHCR, the
crucial decision was made that UNRWA would not be merged with it. Instead,
both organisations continued to exist alongside one another, with UNRWA
responsible for Palestinian refugees, and UNHCR responsible for all other
refugees globally. As a result, the Palestinians are the only group of people
excluded from UNHCR’s mandate.5
This set-up remains in place to this day, such that UNHCR is responsible for all
refugees in the world, except the Palestinians. Today, Palestinian refugees are
cared for by one organisation, and everyone else is served by another organisation.
One might ask why this matters, if the result is that everyone is ultimately being
served. It matters because there are fundamental differences in what these two
organisations – UNRWA and UNHCR – are mandated to do. UNRWA has a
much more limited mandate than UNHCR, which has put the Palestinian refugees
at a serious disadvantage.
Most crucially, there is a disparity in the two organisations’ mandates for
providing protection to the refugees they serve. UNRWA is not mandated to
provide protection to the Palestinian refugees or to pursue political solutions to
their plight. Instead, this is the role of yet another UN body, UNCCP.6 UNCCP
was established in 1948, just before UNRWA, with a mandate to pursue political
solutions to the Palestinian refugee crisis. In reality UNCCP has been inactive for
many decades now. UNRWA claims that it has a de facto mandate for protection,
and its work in this area has increased over the last two decades, but it remains
informal and adhoc.7 Ultimately no UN organisation is formally mandated to
provide protection or pursue political solutions for the Palestinian refugees.
By contrast, UNHCR is mandated to provide protection and to pursue political
solutions for the refugees it serves – for example, it explicitly promotes return as a
solution.8 Of course, the Palestinians are excluded from UNHCR’s mandate,
generating what is known as a ‘protection gap’ whereby the Palestinian refugees
are left uniquely vulnerable.
Moreover, in practical terms UNRWA is also limited by its geographical
constraints. UNRWA is only mandated to work in the 5 fields of the West Bank,
Gaza, Lebanon, Jordan and of course Syria. By contrast UNHCR has a much
larger mandate to operate across the world in every continent.
What does all this mean for Palestinian refugees from Syria? Unfortunately, this
disparity between UNRWA and UNHCR, and the resulting protection gap, had a
host of negative repercussions for Palestinians fleeing Syria today.
Firstly and fundamentally, it means that Palestinian refugees are lacking formal
protection at a time when they need it most. As Palestinian refugees are ineligible
for UNHCR services and are not Syrian citizens, too often they are falling through
the gaps and not being able to access the services they need. As they cannot
register with UNHCR, their numbers, needs and conditions are excluded from the
There is a particular problem when Palestinians from Syria seek refuge outside the
5 geographical fields where UNRWA works. In theory, in these situations they
should fall under the mandate of UNHCR; Palestinian refugees become eligible for
UNHCR services when they are outside UNRWA’s fields of operation. 9 In
practice, this is often quite complicated, and the Syrian refugee crisis has only
served to highlight the difficulties.
For example, Turkey shares a long border with Syria and has received many
refugees fleeing the civil war, both Syrian and Palestinian. Turkey is outside
UNRWA’s fields of operation, and UNHCR operates there through the Turkish
government. Unfortunately, there are reports that Palestinian refugees from Syria
have not been allowed to register with UNHCR in Turkey.10 As the Turkish
government does not allow UNHCR to perform refugee status determination, the
Palestinians’ legal status in Turkey remains unclear.11
The situation is even worse in Egypt, where the government does not allow
Palestinians to register with UNHCR on the explicit grounds that they come
under the mandate of UNRWA. As UNRWA is not mandated to work in Egypt,
the result is that Palestinians there lack any assistance whatsoever, let alone
protection. In contrast to Syrian citizens, Palestinians in Egypt cannot register
with UNHCR as refugees and therefore they cannot receive residence permits, or
access food vouchers, medical support or any emergency relief.12 Even worse,
there are reports that some have been forcibly deported back to Syria, in
contravention of the 1951 Refugee Convention.13
Even those Palestinian refugees from Syria who have been able to register with
UNRWA in Jordan or Lebanon, remain at a disadvantage. They must rely on the
very limited resources of UNRWA, which is already hugely overstretched.
UNRWA’s financial problems have only worsened due to the Syrian crisis, and it
is of course the Palestinian refugees who are suffering as a result.14
Finally, Palestinians are ineligible for many of the special programmes that have
been set up to aid Syrian refugees, including the one that David Cameron has
launched on behalf of the UK government. Mr Cameron announced in
September 2015 that the UK will take 20,000 Syrian refugees over the next 5
years. He also announced that these 20,000 refugees will be identified through
UNHCR, which will mean that Palestinians are automatically excluded.
In view of this, the question remains as to what action can be taken.
Fundamentally, there is a need to insert the plight of the Palestinians into the
many discussions taking place about Syria. Many people are simply not aware that
there are Palestinian refugees fleeing Syria at all, let alone that they suffer from
particular discrimination. The task of ‘raising awareness’ may sound clichéd, but it
is a vital first step to take.
In this spirit, the UK charity Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP) is launching a
new factsheet on Palestinian refugees from Syria, with the objective of spreading
the word about their plight. Highlighting the Palestinians’ exclusion from relief
programmes is also vital. MAP is petitioning the UK government to ensure that
its response to the Syrian refugee crisis does not exclude Palestinians. The petition
can be viewed and signed online at www.map-uk.org/Syria
Unfortunately, the conditions of many Palestinian refugees from Syria are dire and
getting worse every day. Action needs to be taken as soon as possible to prevent
total catastrophe. While raising awareness may seem basic, it really is a necessary
step to ensure that Palestinian refugees from Syria can get the protection and the
assistance they so desperately need.
5 Article ID of the 1951 Refugee Convention excludes ‘persons who are at present
receiving from organs or agencies of the UN other than the UNHCR protection or
assistance’. The Palestinian refugees registered with UNRWA are the only group to
whom this applies.
6 United Nations Conciliation Commission for Palestine
7 Lance Bartholomeusz, ‘The Mandate of UNRWA at Sixty’, Refugee Survey Quarterly, 28:2-
3, 452-474; Susan Akram, ‘Reinterpreting Palestinian Refugee Rights under International
Law’, in Nasser Aruri (ed.), Palestinian Refugees: The Right of Return (London: Pluto Press,
8 The preface to the UNHCR Handbook on Voluntary Repatriation states: ‘voluntary
repatriation is usually viewed as the most desirable long-term solution by the refugees
themselves as well as by the international community. UNHCR’s humanitarian action in
pursuit of lasting solutions to the refugee problems is therefore oriented, first and
foremost, in favor of enabling a refugee to exercise the right to return home in safety and
with dignity.’ UNHCR, Voluntary Repatriation: International Protection (Geneva, 1996).
9 See also Endnote 5. The second paragraph of Article 1D states that ‘when such
protection or assistance has ceased for any reason, without the position of such persons
being definitively settled…. these persons shall ipso facto be entitled to the benefits of this
Convention.’ This is usually interpreted to mean that when registered Palestinian
refugees have ceased to receive UNRWA services as a result of being outside its 5 fields
of operation, they consequently become entitled to UNHCR services. See also: UNHCR,
Revised Note on the Applicability of Article 1D of the 1951 Convention relating to the
Status of Refugees to Palestinian Refugees, October 2009.
13 Article 33 of the 1951 Convention prohibits signatory states from expelling refugees to
territories where their lives may be endangered (the principle of non-refoulement). Turkey
and Egypt are both parties to this Convention.
14 In 2014 UNRWA reported a deficit of over $60 million. Its funding crisis was so
severe last year that it had to delay the start of the school year while it sought emergency