Throughout the 20th century, the Palestinian refugee crisis destabilized the Middle East. Today, the Syrian civil war and its refugees appear to follow a similar path. Can the world afford to make the same mistake again? (Featured Image © Fred Csasznik)
With the Syrian military close to reclaiming the rebel stronghold of Eastern Aleppo, the battle for Syria’s largest city appears to be coming to an end. Assad’s victory does carry a heavy human toll. Reports from the United Nations speak of hundreds going missing in Aleppo, and rumours of soldiers executing civilians are beginning to surface.1 If anything, the battle for Aleppo is a testament to the cruelty of the Syrian civil war. No wonder then that many Syrians are still choosing to flee their country for safe(r) havens.
This presents the international community with a difficult question: how do we accommodate millions of Syrian refugees? For the EU, the answer seems clear. The policy of making sure refugees find shelter in their own region – the Middle East – has become the norm. The experience of Palestinian refugees, however, reveals how this policy is not without its faults.
Spread out in camps across the Middle East, the Palestinian refugees have destabilized Arab politics for almost seven decades. In the process, they regularly fell victim to humanitarian disasters. As the Syrian conflict and refugee crisis drags on, signs are showing that Syrians risk following in the footsteps of the Palestinians.
The Palestinian refugee crisis
The Palestinian refugee crisis traces its origins back to the first Arab-Israeli war. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) defines a Palestinian refugee as “[descendants of] persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine during the period 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948, and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict.”2
Today, almost 70 years later, Palestinian refugees are still without a home. Israel, insisting the Palestinians left by their own choice, rejects any repatriation of refugees and chooses to focus on resettlement instead.3 But restrictive residential and civic rights for refugees in many Middle Eastern states also prevented the Palestinians from successfully integrating in their host countries.4 This meant that Palestinian refugees became a de facto stateless people, forced to live their lives in overcrowded refugee camps and urban centres.5
Life in refugee camps proved unforgiving for the Palestinians. Tough living conditions and limited social, economic and educational opportunities provided a basis for radicalization and violence.6 “The resultant bitterness and frustration in the camps was the fertile ground from which the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organisation) would emerge, and with it the revival of Palestinian nationalism”, writes the Israeli historian Ilan Pappé.7
For Lebanon and Jordan especially, this growing Palestinian nationalism presented a problem. Due to their relative size and political influence, the Palestinians in these countries were increasingly seen as a ‘state within a state’. During the late sixties and seventies, tensions between Palestinian refugees and their host countries rose to a breaking point.8 The Palestinians finally found themselves evicted from Jordan after a violent but short conflict with the Jordanian army in 1970. Their presence in Lebanon later served as an important catalyst for the civil war – as well as the invasion of Lebanon by Israel in 1982.
But the effects of the Palestinian crisis can not be expressed in political terms alone. In their vulnerable position, Palestinian refugees fell victim to some of the worst humanitarian disasters in recent history. The most infamous of these are the massacres of unarmed and innocent Palestinians in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila during the Lebanese civil war.9 Even today, the Palestinians are caught in the crossfire of the Syrian conflict.
Before the outbreak of the civil war, some 560.000 Palestinians lived in Syria; of which 450.000 remain there today.10 The majority of them are now displaced within Syria, and roughly 95% are struggling for food.11 Thousands of Palestinians have also fallen victim to the ongoing violence in Syria. The London-based Action Group for Palestinians of Syria reports 3400 Palestinians dead and over 1000 jailed in Syria.12 In reminiscence of Sabra and Shatila, thousands of Palestinians have found themselves victims of violence and cut off from aid in the Syrian refugee camp of Yarmouk.13
L’histoire se répète
As the Palestinian and Syrian refugee crises seemingly merge into one, the question of the future of these crises becomes all the more pressing. What are the odds of the Syrian refugees following in the footsteps of their Palestinian precursors? With 4.8 million having fled Syria and another 8.7 million internally displaced, Syrian refugees certainly have the numbers to destabilize the Middle East further.14 The Palestinian refugees – who originally numbered ‘only’ 700.000 – almost pale in comparison.15
Since many Arab countries – including Lebanon and Jordan – never ratified the 1951 convention on refugees, Syrian refugees today face the same or similar legal uncertainties the Palestinians struggled with.
Worryingly, Lebanon and Jordan are once again amongst the countries receiving the largest number of refugees. Since many Arab countries – including Lebanon and Jordan – never ratified the 1951 convention on refugees, Syrian refugees today face the same or similar legal uncertainties the Palestinians struggled with.16 Without a political solution to the Syrian conflict or large-scale international efforts to resolve the refugee crisis, Syrian refugees seem destined to follow the path of the Palestinians. The recent failure of diplomatic talks in Lausanne, however, highlighted how a Syrian peace agreement remains as distant as ever.17
The failure of the political process stands in stark contrast to the continued violence in Syria. Images of the total destruction of Aleppo make us wonder whether the Syrians will still have a country to return to at the end of the war. Or will the Syrians end up home- and stateless like the Palestinian refugees? Perhaps tellingly, Human Rights Watch (HRW) recently reported Kurdish fighters destroying the homes of Iraqi Arabs who fled from Islamic State.18 Given its divided society, it is not unreasonable to imagine something similar happening in Syria.
The long-term political and humanitarian effects of the Syrian refugee crisis are now showing up in Europe as well. Volunteers working in Greek refugee camps have reported an increase in anger and racism between refugees following a lack of food and progress in their asylum cases.19 Much like their Middle Eastern equivalents, refugee camps in Greece are underfunded and overcrowded.20 In an act of total desperation, refugees have even set fire to their own housing facilities.21
The Palestinian case shows us how closing our eyes to the effects of a refugee crisis can have dramatic political and humanitarian consequences.
With the Syrian crisis now reaching European shores – both literally and figuratively – the EU will become hard pressed to find a solution to the Syrian crisis. But with peace in Syria looking like a distant dream, we may need to consider alternative options to take some pressure off of Middle Eastern countries suffering from the massive influx of refugees.
The Palestinian case shows us how closing our eyes to the effects of a refugee crisis can have dramatic political and humanitarian consequences. Allowing the Syrians to repeat this process is not in anyone’s interest. As far as refugee crises are concerned, taking no action is not only morally condemnable; it is also practically unwise. Yesterday, it was the Palestinians, today the Syrians. What will tomorrow bring?