(NAMIBIA) MintPress – The head of the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees visited the Shatila camp in Beirut, Lebanon this week, where thousands of Palestinians have taken cover from the violence in neighboring Syria. Commissioner-General Filippo Grandi, of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), told Reuters on […]
(NAMIBIA) MintPress – The head of the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees visited the Shatila camp in Beirut, Lebanon this week, where thousands of Palestinians have taken cover from the violence in neighboring Syria.
Commissioner-General Filippo Grandi, of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), told Reuters on Tuesday that Palestinian refugees who fled to Lebanon from Syria are living up to 20 in a room with no water, fresh air or electricity.
UNRWA has reported at least 20,000 Palestinians entering Lebanon from Syria since the bloody conflict between rebels and Assad forces began nearly two years ago. Another 200 Palestinians are added to that number every day.
According to UNRWA chief Filippo Grandi, donors must do more to assist the influx of Palestinians entering Lebanon. “The main problem they have is accommodation. They rent small, cramped, very unsanitary premises without running water, without ventilation, without electricity,” he said in an interview with Reuters. “And sometimes you see rooms in which 12, 15, 20 people live in really substandard conditions.”
Syria hosted half a million Palestinian refugees prior to the outbreak of violence in 2011. Thousands of refugees continue to flee Syria each day to Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and other surrounding countries where Palestinians face not only harsh conditions but also the threat of refoulement.
Fears of forced refoulement in Egypt
Human Rights Watch (HRW) is particularly concerned for Palestinians fleeing Syria to Egypt because of several recent cases of attempted refoulement on behalf of the Egyptian government.
As of last week, two Palestinians were being held at Cairo airport, at risk of being deported back to Syria where a man and his son would face indiscriminate violence and possible persecution, reported the watchdog organization. The two men were denied entry into Egypt after allegedly traveling to Turkey where they attempted to cross into Europe using false documents.
Turkish officials deported the men back to Egypt, where they had previously entered using their official travel documents and where the rest of their family is staying.
Less than a week before the incident occurred, Egyptian airport officials deported two Syrian men back to Syria on Jan. 13, 2013. Immigration officials threatened to deport 13 Syrians in mid-December, but the decision was halted at the last minute after the office of the U.N. High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) intervened.
“Egypt may have a right to detain people temporarily or investigate them on grounds of false documentation, but it may not under any circumstance return them to Syria,” said Bill Frelick, Refugee Program Director at HRW. “Egypt is obligated under international law not to return anyone, regardless of status, to a place where they would be persecuted,” he said.
As a signatory of the Convention against Torture and the African Refugee Convention, Egypt is prohibited from deporting people to countries where they may face serious risk of torture or maltreatment. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), of which Egypt is also a member, forbids arbitrary expulsion and entitles foreigners to fair representation pertaining to their case of removal/expulsion.
Article 7 of the ICCPR states that “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” According to HRW, the U.N. Human Rights Committee has interpreted this article to encompass the forced return of people within Egypt’s territory to any place where they would be at risk of such foul treatment.
Ashley Barnes, former employee of the U.N. Refugee Agency in Egypt, does not recall any instances where Palestinians were forced back to Syria during the her time with the agency, “but that is probably because Palestinians rarely approach the office because they know/have been told that the UNHCR won’t help them,” she said.
Barnes, who spent four months in 2012 working in UNHCR’s registration and records department, does believe refoulement is a realistic scenario for Palestinians fleeing to Egypt from Syria.
“If a person doesn’t have an asylum seeker card, they have nowhere to put their residency, even if they could get one — and that means that tens of thousands of Palestinians are illegals in Egypt and can be deported somewhere at any time,” Barnes explained.
While most of the 13,000 refugees fleeing Syria for Egypt have entered without major issues, HRW is concerned the two recent cases of refoulement may foreshadow future deportations by airport officials justifying refoulement on the basis of improper documents.
“At a time of great conflict and tragedy in Syria, we call on Egypt and all countries not to return any residents of Syria, including Palestinians, to Syria,” Bill Frelick said on behalf of HRW.
No end in sight for struggles of Palestinians fleeing Syria
Despite harsh pressure from the international community that President Assad put an end to the brutality, the bloody conflict that began as an uprising against the Assad regime in 2011 continues to spiral out of control.
In the past week, nearly 50,000 Syrians fled the violence in Syria and reported their presence as refugees in neighboring countries to the U.N. Refugees from Syria are numbering more than 100,000 a month.
With no end in sight to a conflict that is claiming 100 lives a day, the number of refugees fleeing the country is only likely to increase in coming weeks.
UNHCR announced at a Tuesday press conference in Geneva that it will be expanding registration and assistance for Syrians fleeing to neighboring countries, but the agency warned it will only be able to maintain its programs with the help of increased funding from the international community.
Palestinians fleeing the violence in Syria, many of whom arrived as refugees following the creation of Israel in 1948, are not likely to see any of the UNHCR funding. Many of these Palestinians have found themselves caught in the crossfire of the conflict, being forced into refuge for the second or third time.
Just last week, intense fighting reportedly left as many as 12 Palestine refugees dead and some 20 injured in southern Rif Damascus. In a statement, the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees said, “UNRWA condemns the killing of Palestine refugees and other civilians and again calls on the parties to pull back from civilian areas, including refugee camps and to abide by their obligations under international law.”
While some Palestinians have managed to make it to Lebanon or Egypt, albeit with the threat of refoulement, others have been denied entry altogether in Jordan and the West Bank.
Palestinians fleeing the Yarmouk refugee camp south of Damascus were denied entrance to the West Bank earlier this month after Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas rejected an Israeli ultimatum agreeing to allow the refugees into the West Bank only if they gave up their “right to return” to areas within present-day Israel.
Jordan, which already hosts over 2 million Palestinian refugees and their descendents dating back to 1948 and the subsequent Arab-Israeli wars, has also been denying entrance to Palestinian refugees fleeing the Syrian conflict.
Gerry Simpson, senior refugee researcher and advocate at Human Rights Watch said, “To its credit, Jordan has allowed tens of thousands of Syrians to cross its border irregularly and move freely in Jordan, but it treats Palestinians fleeing the same way differently. All those fleeing Syria — Syrians and Palestinians alike — have a right to seek asylum in Jordan, move freely in Jordan and shouldn’t be forced back into a war zone.”
As the number of refugees fleeing Syria nears the one-million mark, expected to be surpassed by June, Palestinians caught up in the mix can only hope the countries that are accepting Palestinians, like Lebanon, can come up with the funds to sustain the influx until the ongoing conflict in Syria is resolved.