Since the Syrian crisis began, much of the talk about the Middle East have revolved around the refugee problem. The more than two million refugees who have fled Syria since then have been trying to settle in the bordering countries of Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. With the help of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), many NGOs have been working hard to aid these Syrians by providing them with shelter and food. Governments are working hard to sustain their countries’ stability amidst the influx of Syrians.
The issue, at this point, is well known for anyone who has been following news about Syria in the past years. But there is one thing about these refugees that not nearly enough people are talking about: not all refugees from Syria are Syrians.
There are almost 530,000 Palestinian refugees living in Syria registered under the UNRWA, the United Nations agency created specifically for Palestinian Refugees after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. As the world concentrates on the humanitarian crisis of the two million Syrian refugees, what about those who are fleeing from Syria for the same reasons as Syrians, but who had been there for decades already as refugees seeking shelter from their own crises? What about these Palestinians in Syria, who have now become, as some say, “twice-refugees”?
The Damascus neighborhood of Yarmouk, according to the State Department’s estimate, was home to about 150,000 of the Palestinian refugees in Syria. When the Palestinian refugee camp in Yarmouk was gassed by pro-regime forces in July 2013, these Palestinians realized they had to leave yet another country, joining the millions fleeing Syria. According to UNRWA's Commissioner General Filippo Grandi, of the 12 camps hosting Palestinian refugees in Syria, 7 are now inaccessible by the UNRWA due to the crisis; half of the total Palestinian refugees are displaced within Syria, while more than 70,000 have fled the country.
Unfortunately, because of the heavy influx of Syrian refugees, border countries like Lebanon and Jordan began to turn many of these Palestinians away for not having proper Syrian citizenship or passports. Grandi explains that the Syrian crisis has posed severe difficulties for the UNRWA's resources and complicated their work on the ground: “When you have two million refugees, a catastrophic situation inside, neighboring countries burdened by this huge crisis, of course this will drain a lot of resources and the Palestinian crisis will seem less urgent because it's been there for so long.”
This poses further complications for families of mixed nationalities. In such a family, for example, a Syrian husband and his children are granted asylum in a refugee camp in, say, Jordan, but the Palestinian wife would be forced to return to Syria.
Even worse, most of the Palestinian refugees from Syria who manage to enter bordering countriesare subject to discrimination and do not receive the same treatment as refugees of Syrian descent. Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, for example, are required to renew their permits every month, which costs the equivalent of $33 — a difficult payment for refugees who have lost most of their assets in the crisis. Palestinians in Lebanon are also banned from working in the public sector andmany professional fields, forcing many refugees into poverty.
Those who are somehow able to get to Jordan are not allowed to work, or even leave the camps for that matter - even though refugees of Syrian descent are allowed to move in and out of the camps freely and apply for work permits. The discrimination also applies to members of mixed-nationality families, where the spouse of Syrian descent is treated differently within the camps than the spouse of Palestinian origin.
Palestinians from Syria who flee to Egypt suffer from particularlly worrisome conditions, since the UNRWA does not operate in Egypt. This means Syrian Palestinians cannot be registered as refugees in Egypt, and Egypt's own ongoing crisis doesn't make things any easier
Granted, Lebanon and Jordan have their reasons to discourage Palestinian refugees from coming to their countries. Before the Syrian crisis, Lebanon already hosted about 450,000 Palestinian refugees, and Palestinians in Jordan are said to make up about half of the country’s population. These countries are concerned for their stability, whether the incoming refugees are Syrian or not.
But the issue remains: Palestinian refugees have become the most vulnerable population affected by the Syrian civil war, and sadly, the most ignored.