Since March 2011, Syria has fallen into a vicious civil war in which over
100,000 people have lost their lives while 1.5 million have fled or been
displaced. Before the outbreak of the war, Syria hosted 499,189 registered
Palestinian refugees. The refugees have been wallowing in UNRWA facilities for
65 years with no attention given to a long-term solution.
Now their lives
are in danger.
UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency) estimates
that 235,000 Palestinian refugees (including 54,000 children) have been
displaced within Syria having been targeted from all angles, transforming UNRWA
facilities into war zones. Since the beginning of June 2013, 1,350 Palestinians
have been killed in the war. Many of have fled to Jordan and Lebanon, who do not
welcome this influx. The majority of the population relies solely on UNRWA which
is charged as the provider for this population.
Since 1948 UNRWA serves
not only those who were displaced in the war of 1948 but also their descendants.
This self-created definition of “refugee” for Palestinians is significantly
different than that of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)
which serves all other refugees in the world. UNRWA focuses almost exclusively
on immediate emergency needs.
This is due to the Syrian government’s
historic policy of keeping the Palestinian refugees without citizenship or full
legal rights, subjecting them to lives of disenfranchised non-citizens.
UNRWA’s crisis response report for 2013, their work description and budget
layout demonstrate their focus on immediate material needs: “The primary
rationale... is to enhance the socioeconomic resilience of Palestine refugees
and thus strengthen their ability to withstand and survive the tragedy of the
Any kind of planning for long-term solutions for
refugees outside of the territories has not been and is not within the purview
of UNRWA. The organization’s six-month budget is dedicated to cash assistance,
food and non-food items, emergency health, education, rehabilitation and
capacity and management support. Concrete aid items such as bedding,
kitchenware, garbage services and emergency medicine constitute a large chunk of
where the money goes.
While all of this is necessary, comparatively,
UNRWA’s budget requirement for Syria in the past six months was $75,087,733, a
whopping 90.44 percent of the required budget requested by the UNHCR’s Syria
budget – charged with all other Syrian refugees (approximately
UNRWA issues a few reports each week that address the current
situation on the ground in Syria. However, the organization fails to address the
actual concerns of the population it serves.
commissioner-general Fillipo Grandi visited Syrian UNRWA facilities in March, he
was met with requests for a job-creation program and trauma support for children
as means of self-empowerment and recognized human dignity. Without addressing
these requests, Grandi replied, “UNRWA will continue to provide emergency
assistance to the displaced refugees to alleviate their suffering.”
April, the UN reported that UNRWA schools were acting as lastoption shelters for
over 9,000 people (some non-Palestinian refugees included), and at that point,
already 20,000 had fled to Lebanon where they were greeted with similarly horrid
In Syria, UNRWA facilities have continuously been the sites
of violence: 129 of its facilities have been significantly damaged from
fighting, and civilians have been injured and killed.
throughout the region, are ill-equipped, and refugees are either held as
prisoners in the camps (due to complications with their IDs and travel permits),
or are sent back to Syria where their lives are in constant danger.
UNRWA continues to maintain this alarmingly limited emergency aid focus,
three-quarters of the Syrian Palestinian refugees rely almost entirely on UNRWA
aid, which has been sustained by UNRWA since 1949 and the Assad government since
The motive behind keeping the descendants of the Palestinian
refugees displaced and segregated noncitizens is the eventual dismantling of the
State of Israel so that they may return to their pre-1948 homes.
“right of return” mantra, is systematically reiterated in the education programs
for Palestinian children who study in UNRWA schools.
receives hundreds of millions of dollars for emergency relief and short-term
aid, which only continues the cycle of Palestinian suffering. The UNHCR, by
contrast, addresses permanent resettlement of refugees in distress. Why an
opportunity for relocation has not been emphasized for Palestinian refugees is a
In 2009, the UNHCR relocated 1,000 Palestinian families
from nightmarish conditions faced in UNRWA facilities in Iraq to third-party
countries such as Chile, Australia and across Europe, and another 1,350 to the
US. This followed the extreme violence Palestinian refugees in Iraq faced after
the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s government.
According to UNHCR,
resettlement programs are running currently in response to the Syrian civil war,
with over 600 staff in Jordan conducting interviews for
Similar to the Iraq case, the Palestinian refugees are in a
particularly perilous situation in Syria given that they never had citizenship
or full rights when Assad was in power, and now their homes in the UNRWA refugee
camps have become war zones. Now is the time to encourage UNHCR to initiate a
targeted relocation program that offers permanent resettlement for the
Palestinian refugee population of Syria on a much larger scale, and to learn
from the accomplishments of the UNHCR just a few years ago with regard to the
threatened Palestinian refugee population in Iraq.
The author, originally
from Bellingham, Washington, now lives in Jerusalem and works as a researcher
and correspondent with the Center for Near East Policy Research.