On January 27, 2014 the Brookings Doha Center (BDC) hosted a public event with Ibrahim Sharqieh, Fellow at the BDC and adjunct professor at Georgetown University in Qatar, and Salvatore Pedulla, Senior Regional Adviser at the UNRWA Executive Office. Sharqieh and Pedulla focused on the current state of Palestinian double-refugees: Palestinians who fled Syria due to the civil war. Other topics discussed included restrictive entrance policies towards Palestinian double-refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, and Egypt, and recommendations to prevent the crippling of humanitarian assistance offered to Palestinian double-refugees and their Syrian counterparts. The event was moderated by Khaled Hroub, professor at Northwestern University in Qatar, and attended by members of Qatar’s diplomatic, business, and media communities.
In his opening remarks, Sharqieh noted that approximately 500,000 Palestinian refugees lived in Syria prior to the fighting, but now many of them have fled to other countries with at least 51,000 travelling to Lebanon, 11,000 to Jordan, 6,000 to Egypt, and smaller numbers to Gaza, Europe, and elsewhere.
Unfortunately, Sharqieh stated, most Palestinian double-refugees have met imposing barriers in trying to enter neighboring host countries. Jordan has initiated a policy of banning Palestinian refugees from entering the country. In Lebanon, recent policies put in place have made it difficult for Palestinian refugees to enter the country and force them to reside on visitor visas that must be renewed at great cost. Furthermore, Palestinians in Egypt have been denied access to UNWRA assistance, as the organization is only mandated to operate within Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and the Palestinian Territories. UNHCR, who operates in Egypt did not step in to support Palestinian double refugees treating the problem as the responsibility of UNRWA. Compounding the problem, Egyptian authorities refuse to acknowledge the Palestinians’ refugee existence in Egypt, as they do not want their country to be identified as a country of refuge.
This, Sharqieh argued, has led to desperate attempts by Palestinian refugees to escape the conflict. For example, he noted that a number of Palestinians have risked their lives attempting to reach Europe by crossing the Mediterranean on what are referred to as “convoys of death.
Sharqieh stressed that current barriers to entry for Palestinians in Lebanon, Jordan, and Egypt should be removed. In Lebanon and Jordan, Sharqieh stated that reforms in current visa laws must be made. He also charged the international community with bearing responsibility for protecting refugees, while reminding the audience of the original displacement of Palestinian refugees during the 1948 war, arguing that Israel should not be left out of the picture and take responsibility for causing the first displacement. “There is no better time for the implementation of the UN resolutions for the right of return than now,” he said. All other alternatives of resettlement of Palestinian double refugees have failed and only the right of return can guarantee a sustainable resolution for the refugees and stability of the region.
In response to Sharqieh, Pedulla noted that Palestinian refugees are beginning now to get some help in Egypt. Pedulla stressed that UNRWA “is an extended family” for Palestinians who have been affected by the Syrian crisis, providing them with humanitarian assistance as well as providing access to health care and education. While he conceded that “the picture is not terribly bright” for Palestinian refugees from Syria, he stated that UNRWA would continue to provide assistance in light of the worsening crisis.
Sharqieh remained critical about the UN’s response to the Palestinian issue at large, noting that the international organization is not working “as an agency, but as different departments, each with sometimes conflicting agendas. Pedulla countered, affirming that UNRWA continues to be vocal about Palestinian refugees, specifically mentioning the organization’s current advocacy for the 18,000 Palestinian refugees in Yarmouk camp near Damascus. “UNWRA has lost staff inside Syria,” he said, in its attempts to ensure UNWRA facilities remain open within the country despite increased violence.
When asked about the contributions of the Arab community towards Palestinian double-refugees, both panelists acknowledged that Arab countries have been supportive on the whole. Pedulla mentioned that while many Arab countries do not provide funds for UNRWA’s general budget, many GCC countries have been “providing assistance for infrastructure projects.” Sharqieh asserted that “such a crisis on this magnitude requires a strategy” involving a more holistic approach that goes beyond purely financial support.
With regards to moving forward, both parties agreed about the need for a long-term political solution to the Palestinian question at large. According to Sharqieh, the appearance of the “double-refugee” phenomenon will continue as long as the Palestinians remain a “vulnerable community without a land, citizenship, or passport.
The situation with Palestinians in Syria is not unique, stated Sharqieh, as similar displacement was seen amongst Palestinians in Iraq after the US Invasion of Iraq in 2003. The situation of the Palestinians in Syria, he asserted, emphatically illustrates that, in the long run, “Palestinians cannot live outside of Palestine.
Pedulla shared similar sentiments. When questioned about the potential for UNRWA’s existence to “normalize” the status of Palestinian refugees, he noted that “what perpetuates the Palestinian situation is not the presence of UNRWA.” Rather he pointed to “lack of a political solution,” as the true cause for the ongoing crisis. While both agreed that the future for Palestinian double refugees remains unclear, Sharqieh sees this as an opportunity to finally implement UN General Assembly Resolution 194, which calls for Palestinian refugees to return to their homes.