UNGA Must Address Legal Rights for Palestinian Syrians

In host countries, Palestinian Syrian refugees fleeing the conflict are deprived of any legal protection. The international community must prioritize legal rights for the most vulnerable communities, writes the director of the Jafra Foundation, Wesam Sabaaneh.

Written by Wesam Sabaaneh Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
A man walks in a street inside the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in the Syrian capital Damascus on April 6, 2015. AFP/ YOUSSEF KARWASHAN

BEIRUT – Twice and sometimes even three times displaced, Palestinian refugees from Syria now face increasing deprivation and hardship, denial of basic legal protection and are encountering hazardous travel routes to safety. This week’s discussions and decisions by world leaders at the United Nations Summit on Refugees and Migrants must be followed with action to legally protect those most vulnerable in the region.

Of the 560,000 Palestinian refugees officially registered inside Syria before the conflict in 2011, more than 3,000 have been killed in the ongoing fighting. Many of those who remain have been forced to move multiple times, and are now entering their fifth winter without an end to the war in sight. Those who were able to flee Syria are now scattered across Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Europe and the Gaza Strip, where they have found that they are not offered any legal protection.

Refugees since 1948, Palestinian Syrians were provided rights inside Syria that were often denied to their counterparts elsewhere in the region. But after five years of war, many Palestinian camps and lives have been destroyed beyond recognition. I myself grew up in Yarmouk Camp, a bustling and lively southern suburb of Damascus. In April 2015, after three years of siege and seizure by ISIS, the U.N. secretary general described the lives of those who remain inside the camp as “the deepest circle of hell.” Since 2013, 186 people have perished from starvation and lack of medical supplies inside Yarmouk Camp. Other camps receive less media coverage, but their residents – those displaced and those who remain – suffer a similar fate as refugees in Yarmouk.

The status of Palestinian refugees is gravely uncertain, and they represent a microcosm of the impact war has had on men, women and children who have been forced to flee their homes and lives. Many host countries refuse to grant entrance visas for Palestinian Syrians, many of whom have been turned away or sent to other neighboring countries after their long, dangerous journey to safety.

Those who remain inside Syria are trapped inside a brutal conflict without legal protection or rights. While the international community’s focus is often on immediate humanitarian relief – desperately needed by millions – there needs to be an emphasized effort and direct action to strengthen the legal rights of refugees. This can provide solutions not only for refugees but also for host states; decreasing the vulnerability of displaced populations means more security and stability, not less.

An issue close to the heart of all Palestinians, is the right to return. All refugees should be granted this right, both on paper and in practice. Once peace is on the table, return for all Palestinian Syrian refugees should be prioritized. Until that time, strong protection measures should be put in place. These must be adapted to refugees’ reality, must actively provide legal and social safeguards to decrease refugee vulnerability, must increase livelihoods and must offer security and protection for refugee families. Most importantly, these measures should be implemented with the direction and participation of Palestinian communities.

Within this new framework refugees will be able to support themselves, relieving host states and decreasing the community’s increased dependency on aid.

My friends and I originally set up our organization, the Jafra Foundation, to train youth in life and job skills, and subsequently, we began to provide relief to displaced persons inside Yarmouk Camp. Even after more than 80 percent of the population fled the camp, our youth volunteers continued their work in the area. Families who remained inside the camp continued to send their children to school, organizing alternative education services to support them throughout the siege alongside Jafra volunteers. Many of the youth trained by Jafra carried these lessons to new locations starting their own projects in education, children protection and relief.

The organization has blossomed since then, providing services for Syrian and Palestinian communities alike. Operating in six camps, our spirit and reach continues to be community-based, with youth at the heart of relief and development processes.

While we continue on this road, we know the lives of those in the Palestinian Syrian community and Palestinians across the region remain unprotected and their futures uncertain. Our principal request has always been legal protection and recognition. We understand the struggles of our Syrian brethren, and we hope they will not suffer the same fate that we Palestinians have throughout our exile. We hope this week’s U.N. summit will increase awareness and result in action towards protection measures for all refugees, whatever their background or origin.

Today, peace seems only possible in a distant future. If peace is to arrive and endure, there is an ever-pressing need to keep protection of refugees as a principal focus. If any cessation of hostilities is to last it must work for those who have endured the brutality – those displaced inside Syria, those forced to flee and those who someday wish to return.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Syria Deeply.

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