The tragic case of two Syrian refugees killed by Egyptian border guards while trying to illegally escape by boat to Europe – at the outrageous price of $2,000-$4,000 a spot -- highlights once again how dire the humanitarian situation is for refugees in the region.
According to Egypt’s state-owned Al Ahram English:
“Coastal guards opened fire on the boat, which was carrying at least one hundred refugees, leading to the death of two Palestinians on board - 30 year-old Omar Delol and 50 year-old Fadwa Taha - according to rights lawyer Mahinour El-Masry.”
But the two Syrians killed were not just refugees; as Palestinian Syrians, they fall into a particularly complicated category of “twice refugeed.” This status leaves them among the most vulnerable people in the Middle East, caught in the clutches of both regional politics and the blind spots of international law.
The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, or UNRWA, was established in 1950 to provide assistance and protection. Today it serves some 5 million registered refugees in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
When the Syrian conflict broke out in 2011, Syria was home to 500,000 Palestinians who came in waves after the 1948 and 1967 Arab-Israeli Wars. Palestinians in Syria had nearly equal rights to other nationals, but as refugees they were not eligible for Syrian passports. Instead, they were given temporary Syrian residency cards, which many governments do not recognize at their borders.
Now the situation has grown increasingly unstable.
As the AP reported this month, UNRWA is facing a $54 million shortfall (its annual operational budget is around $600 million). With the Syrian crisis and a global recession still underway, donor countries have been tightening their aid budgets. UNRWA's Commissioner General Filippo Grandi told the AP:
Syria has drained a lot of humanitarian resources," Grandi said. "When you have two million refugees, a catastrophic situation inside, neighboring countries burdened by this huge crisis, of course this will drain a lot of resources and the Palestinian crisis will seem less urgent because it's been there for so long.
"On the ground, the Syrian conflict has increased the plight of Palestinian refugees who live in 12 camps in Syria. "Seven are not accessible to us because of fighting," Grandi said. "More than half of 530,000 refugees in Syria, are displaced inside Syria and I would say 70,000 have left the country. These people are already refugees from before the (Syrian crisis) and they become refugees again."
Most recently, a Syrian opposition group claimed that in July the Syrian government gassed the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp, Syria’s largest, in Damascus.
But when fleeing across Syria’s borders, Palestinian Syrian refugees often face both a bureaucratic and political nightmare, as groups like Human Rights Watch have been documenting.
The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan – itself made up largely of descendants of Palestinians - has absorbed around 5,000 Palestinian Syrians. While Syrians pouring into Jordan each day are sent to increasingly overburdened refugee camps, Jordan has been reportedly turning away Syrians with Palestinian IDs and threatening to deport them.
As the Atlantic reported in March:
"Jordan has a long and complicated history of harboring Palestinian refugees, and has borne a disproportionate refugee burden since 1948. While experts agree that Jordan's relationship with Palestinian refugees has improved over the past few years, a culture of suspicion and resentment persists in a country where more than half the population is of Palestinian descent ....
"In a facility known as Cyber City near the border city of Ramtha in Jordan, 200 Palestinian families await their fate. Many of them have already been turned away from the neighboring Zaatari camp, which has stopped accepting anyone without Syrian identification. Anyone with a Palestinian ID is automatically directed to Cyber City, where they are detained until approved for asylum status. Eyewitnesses say the facility looks like a worn-down, six-story dormitory, its occupants forbidden from stepping outside its walls for any length of time."
Over in Lebanon – where Palestinian refugees were an ongoing factor in the country’s two-decade civil war – Palestinian Syrians are not welcome either.
According to the Christian Science Monitor last month:
"The Palestinian community in Lebanon has made it through numerous conflicts, and camp residents have grown accustomed to hosting the newer waves of displaced Palestinians.
"But only 7 percent of Palestinian refugees from Syria have regular income, and almost all of them are living with host families whose employment prospects are equally dismal because Palestinians in Lebanon are banned from working in the public sector and in many professional fields, says Yasser Daoud, executive director of the child advocacy nonprofit Naba’a, which works in eight Palestinian refugee camps, including Ain al-Halwah.
"The number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon now exceeds 1 million, according to Lebanese officials. Some 65,000 of them are Syrians of Palestinian origin, who are often only welcome or able to find housing in the camps that have housed Palestinians in Lebanon since they arrived following the 1948 Arab-Israeli war."
The Syrian – and Palestinian Syrian - crisis has recently become an issue in Egypt, where refugees have faced heightened xenophobia in the months following the military’s popularly inspired ouster of President Mohamed Morsi.
Palestinian Syrians in Egypt are caught in a particular legal limbo: UNHCR cannot register them because as Palestinians they fall under UNRWA’s jurisdiction. But UNRWA does not have a mandate to work in Egypt, so this population is left with little recourse.
"While Syrians are recognized as refugees by the Egyptian government, and thus entitled to access to subsidized primary health care and other services, the Palestinian refugees who have fled Syria for much the same reason are not …
"Palestinian refugees from Syria fear seeking visa extensions as they may be denied them and be forced to leave Egypt …
"It is estimated that at least dozens of people have been refused entry and returned from Cairo Airport. If they are sent back to Lebanon and do not have residency there, the Lebanese authorities would given them 48 hours to leave the country.
"If they have to fly back to Damascus from Cairo or try to return to Syria from Lebanon – either officially or unofficially – they would risk arrest and worse."
The popular Egyptian blogger Zeinobia has also championed the cause.
"There is on going human tragedy now in Egypt and no one paying attention to or care to speak about it as it should from the mainstream…"