Syria has served as a host country to Palestinians fleeing Apartheid Israel’s policies of expulsion, extermination, murder and occupation of Palestinian land since1948. In fact, 85 percent of Syria’s Palestinians fled their homes in 1948. Another influx came in 1967, when more than 100,000 fled the Golan Heights. Then, in 1982, the Lebanese conflict led more to seek refuge. The last significant migration occurred during the 1991 Gulf War. A majority of what Syria’s Palestinians call home is now recognized by the International community as the northern part of Apartheid Israel. There are approximately 460,000 Palestinian refugees living in Syria, representing three percent of the country’s total population.
Despite the large number of refugees living in Syria, relatively little scholarship on the subject exists. The most comprehensive work was survey research conducted and implemented by FAFO and the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics and Natural Resources, which was published in FAFO-Report 514. The definitive report provides statistical and survey data on the conditions of the Palestinian refugees living in Syria. The lack of additional scholarship is problematic for two reasons. First, the Syrian model is ideal in comparison to what has been implemented by other host countries. Second, more studies and scholarship are needed for Palestinian and international activists working toward the creation of an International Movement for the Palestinian Right of Return; a movement that is desperately needed given that the right of return has not played an important role in international political dialogue. This article seeks to provide readers with a brief overview of conditions and situation of Syria’s Palestinian refugees, the role played by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) and the Syrian government, and makes an argument for the need of an International Movement for the Right of Return.
Syria and the International Community
Refugees in the international community are often disadvantaged when it comes to the protection of their rights, and Palestinians are no different. The presence of millions of Palestinians living as refugees is a constant reminder of Zionist imperialism and neo-imperialist occupations and policies that continue to plague the world and hinder the progress of humanity. The plight of the Palestinian Diaspora has beset the international community and the Middle East since the recognition of the Apartheid State of Israel in 1948. Despite this, the issue of Palestinian refugees and their right of return continues to be unsolved and pushed aside by the United States, Apartheid Israel and the international community-at-large.
Interest among the international community in the Palestinian refugee problem waned in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and as Palestinians were never part of the talks they were powerless to stop this. The US abandoned any serious discussion in 1949. From 1949 to the collapse of the former Soviet Union, US policy was occupied with its war of communist containment. US policy toward the Palestinians and countries such as Syria who defended the Palestinian cause, interests, and right of return were seen through this ideological lens. Many of the Arabs and Apartheid Israel were insincere and used the Palestinian refugee issue as a bargaining tool for their own domestic, regional and international interests.
Syria has always remained steadfast in support for Palestine and advocated the right of return. It has consistently argued that there will be no security in the region until the Palestinian refugee issue has been resolved. Syria sees itself as part of any solution, especially given the role that Palestine has played in its policy and interests since 1948. The historical connection between both Syrians and Palestinians has also played a role. Under Hafez Al-Assad, there was an ideological commitment by Syria to the Palestinian cause and the right of return, which was understood in terms of Arab nationalism and the need for greater Arab unity. When Bashar Al-Assad replaced his father, he openly linked Syria’s policy to Palestine. The difference between father and son, however, has been the latter’s pragmatic approach and the government’s avoidance of any ideologically-bound strategy.
Given the central roles of Palestine and the right of return in Syrian policy, it should come as no surprise to the reader that Palestinians living in Syria are treated as equal to their Syrian counterparts. They are granted the right to education, employment, healthcare, freedom of movement, and ownership of one piece of non-arable property. A 1956 Syrian law provided that Palestinians are considered Syrian by origin in all matters pertaining to laws and regulations, with the exception of the right to naturalisation and voting. While seen as equal in terms of laws and regulations, Syria views the Palestinians as a distinct nationality. Palestinians in Syria also see themselves as separate and distinct from Syrians. Separate identities, equal in the eyes of the law and living harmoniously, Syrians and Palestinians are united in their quest and struggle for Palestine. Syria’s treatment of Palestinian refugees could provide a basis for an international framework for the treatment of all Palestinian refugees.
Conditions of Syria’s Palestinian Refugees
There are a total of 13 refugee camps inside Syria, only 10 of which are officially recognized by UNRWA. There are seven camps in Damascus, two in Aleppo, and one in each of the Homs, Hama, Dar’a and Latakia governorates. Despite only ten being recognised, the agency provides a lower level of services to the “unofficial” camps. For example, in the largest “unofficial” Yarmouk camp, UNRWA runs a large number of schools and health centers. The overwhelming majority of the camps are urban in character. There is variance, however, in the conditions of Palestinians living in the urban and rural areas. Data on the conditions of Syria’s Palestinian refugees comes from FAFO-Report 514.
Housing Conditions. The image in an outsider’s mind of refugee housing conditions is that of tents and barracks. Tents in Syria were replaced by concrete, block, and brick housing structures between 1955 and 1965. The majority of Syria’s Palestinians live in their own home, while a smaller percentage (8%) rent from either the Syrian government or UNRWA. It should be noted that the majority rent from the former rather than the latter. Very few Palestinians remain living in the barrack-style houses. The majority of the barrack-style houses are found in the camps bordering Iraq, which are inhabited by those fleeing the 1991 Gulf War and the US occupation of Iraq. Palestinian refugees in Iraq faced growing hostility, threats from sections of the Iraqi population, and were targets of violence by some Iraqi militias. Syria, following Jordan’s refusal, agreed to take them in after they were stranded in no-man’s land for several months.
Palestinians are not confined to living in camps; they can live and move freely throughout Syria. Given this, the crowding plaguing camps in Jordan and Lebanon is not a serious problem. There are of course regional variations. For example, crowding is cited by 36 percent of the refugees living in the Aleppo and the Dar’a governorates; and, 15 percent in the Homs and Hama governorates. There are also camp specific variations. Overall, complaints of crowding are 2.5 times higher from refugees living in the rural rather than the urban areas of Syria, with the majority living in urban centers. To deal with some of the crowding issues, UNRWA has implemented some rehabilitation projects, in conjunction with the General Authority Palestinian Arab Refugees (GAPAR). GAPAR and UNRWA jointly administer Syria’s Palestinian refugee camps. For example, the Neirab Rehabilitation Project located in the Aleppo governorate was launched in 2002.
Conditions in the camps differ along the urban-rural variation. The rural areas have poor access to piped drinking and regular water, inadequate (if any) garbage and waste disposal, and poor infrastructure. UNRWA is responsible for sewage and solid waste disposal and control of infestations in the camps, while the Syrian government is responsible for providing basic utilities. The problems cited by Palestinian refugees are not specific to them, however. They are shared by all Syrians living in the rural areas of the country. The urban-rural divide is a common theme when looking at not only housing and housing conditions, but also education, employment, health and poverty.
Education Conditions. Palestinians with permanent residence in Syria and Palestinian refugees registered with GAPAR have full and free access to education facilities. While the Syrian government provides secondary education, UNRWA operates 61 elementary schools and 50 preparatory schools, which operate on double shifts. Most Palestinians attend UNRWA schools (95 percent), while the remainder attends government (4 percent) and private institutions (1 percent). Only ten percent of the Syrian government schools operate on double shifts. Despite running on double shifts, there is a widespread perception that UNRWA schools are better than those run by the Syrian government. This perception may change over time with the continued reduction of teacher’s salaries due to UNWRA’s continuing budget issues. The curricula in UNRWA schools are similar to those used by the Syrian government. In addition to elementary and preparatory schools, UNRWA also offers vocation and education training. The Syrian National Information Center administers nurseries, computer training and information centres. Overall, education accomplishments vary according to the urban-rural divide. Lower attainment in the rural areas is due mainly to Palestinians’ lack of access to secondary schools and health-related issues. Again, these problems are not limited to Palestinians. They plague all rural inhabitants.
Health Conditions. Like the education benefits granted by the Syrian government, Palestinian refugees also have access to primary and secondary health care. Primary care is provided free of charge and hospital care is subsidised for all Palestinians and Syrians alike. The economic situation in Syria, however, has led to a reduction in hospital care. UNRWA has also cut its provision of hospital care due to its own budgetary problems. UNRWA provides 23 health clinics, which provide primary healthcare to refugees registered with them and living in the camps. The Syrian branch of the Palestinian Red Crescent Society also provides medical and health services in some of the camps. While the majority of Palestinian refugees surveyed rank their own health as satisfactory, satisfaction with the UNRWA healthcare services ranked lower than that provided for by the Syrian government. The availability, access and quality of healthcare also suffer from the urban-rural variation.
Employment Conditions. Unlike Palestinians living in other host countries, the employment rate of Palestinian refugees in Syria is high and unemployment low. The character of the Palestinian employment workforce is comparable to Syrians, with thirty percent of Palestinians working in the public sector. Specifically, 80 percent are waged employees, 14 percent are self-employed, and five percent are employers. Highly-educated Palestinians are found to be employed mostly in the public sector—government, education, health and the social service sectors. Palestinians do not have the right to vote or run for public office, but some hold positions in the Syrian government. In all of sectors, the most underrepresented by the Palestinian workforce is in the agricultural sector, which is largely due to the fact that Palestinians are prohibited by Syrian law from owning a piece of arable land. Lack of participation by Palestinians in the overall workforce is explained by refugees as being due to their health conditions. Underemployment of Palestinian refugees is only reported at five percent of the total workforce. Given the high rate of employment, the overwhelming majority of the Palestinian poor are not materially deprived and do not suffer from a lack of basic necessities. 26 percent of Palestinian refugees are reported to be living below, and 22 percent at, the poverty level according to international standards. The high levels of poverty are associated with high dependency rates, support burden, age, and health conditions. There is also a geographical correlation in the concentration of poverty, with the rural areas having higher levels.
Conditions of Palestinian refugees are good overall. The most notable distinction and variance in the conditions fall along the urban-rural divide, which corresponds to a larger development problem faced by Syria and many developing countries. Geographically uneven development is a common problem faced by many developing countries that are forced to or voluntarily adopt the neoliberal development paradigm. This is even the case for those that adopt the neoliberal variation of the sustainable development model. It is likely that development will continue to be a problem for UNRWA and Syria in the future due to the models employed.
Conclusion: An International Movement?
Palestinians living in Syria are integrated into society at all levels and rarely suffer from discrimination in employment, ownership or political activity. Many of the problems faced by Palestinian refugees are similar to those faced by all Syrians, especially those living in rural areas. As the above discussion on the conditions of Palestinian refugees indicated, there is an urban-rural divide that hinders further advancement and development. This divide continues to persist despite UNRWA’s shift in the 1990s to a more sustainable development approach that many neoliberal economic development institutions and agencies began to adopt.
Although this article’s focus is not on development, it is necessary to diverge somewhat to provide a better understanding of development policy debates because of their impact on development in the Syrian Palestinian refugee camps. Older models of development based on the neoliberal paradigm were top-down and relied on coercive incentives to implement development policies in developing countries. If funds were allocated, then the reforms implemented were dictated by the neoliberal world economic institutions. The problem was they failed to taken into consideration local variations in development and were not grassroots oriented.
With the increasing failure and further decline of developing countries, some neoliberal institutions began to implement aspects of the sustainable development model that have kept development circles buzzing. It is the new neoliberal development model that incorporates aspects of the sustainable development model that UNRWA has begun to implement. What makes the approach new is that rather than being top-down as before, grassroots or community centres are created (after being trained and indoctrinated in the neoliberal approach) to foster development from the bottom-up. The problem is that a failed model, regardless of whether it is imposed top-down or bottom-up will not create sustainable development in the refugee camps or in Syria more generally. The sustainable development model, and not the one hijacked by neo-liberalism advocates, is needed for the Palestinian refugee camps in Syria and the camps in other host countries.
Development is not the only problem facing Syria’s Palestinian refugees. They also suffer from a protection gap, where politics, identity and the concept of international human rights have colluded to prevent adequate protection of their rights and resolution of the issue. Aid agencies and those designed specifically for Palestinian refugees such as UNRWA and GAPAR in Syria were created to focus only on humanitarian needs rather than also focusing on civil and political rights. It is the limited scope and a lack of coordination among humanitarian aid, civil and political institutions that cause the protection gap.
There is coordination between UNRWA and GAPAR, as well as their cooperation with other aid agencies inside Syria that look to the humanitarian needs of Palestinians. There is not, however, systematic, widespread and transnational coordination of those agencies with other civil and political organisations. This is a similar problem faced in the other host countries. In the absence of more effective coordination and better policies of mobilisation, there will continue to be a lack of development and political success in the area of Palestinian refugees.
What is needed is a transnational coalition of aid agencies that work in tandem with an international movement for Palestinian refugees. A movement that encompasses organisations, political movements and activists that are working on not just aid, but also the civil and political rights of Palestinian refugees; the creation of an international movement for Palestinian refugees is needed. Transnational, regional and local coordination will strengthen the social, civil and political rights of Palestinian refugees living inside and outside of Palestine, especially the right of return. As a whole, there is an absence of grassroots organisation and mobilisation; and, a lack of organisation and institutions dealing specifically with the right of return. Those that do exist specifically for promoting awareness of the right of return fail to coordinate, cooperate and expand their target areas. Given the lack of success and willingness of states in the International Community to deal with and tackle the right of return, which is at the heart of any peace in the Middle East, it is time for concerned humanitarians and activists to take the reins to build a transnational movement for the right of return.
Rachael M. Rudolph, PhD