When Yarmouk camp fled to Shatila
Y armouk Palestinian Camp, Damascus
is nothing if not interesting. And that it most definitely is.
Today, Palestinian refugees are being severely punished in Lebanon and
deprived of their most elementary civil right to work or to even own a home.
This massive volition of international humanitarian law is partially being
inflicted out of revenge for some Palestinian refugees' alleged short-term
involvement in Lebanon's civil war back in 1975--nearly four decades ago.
Today however, Palestinian refugees are being severely punished in Syria out
of revenge by jihadst factions and others, for not becoming involved in the
current Syrian civil war as they insist on staying out of this incredibly
Some Palestinian teenagers here in Damascus call it "Yarmouk-Shatila," as
in: "Our neighbors or friends had to escape from Syria and are now in
Yarmouk-Shatila camp" in Lebanon. Shatila was probably the most grotty,
tightly packed sardine-canned camp of the 12 in Lebanon and of the 59 in the
region, even before 600 more families arrived recently, with more arriving
To date, approximately 38,000 Palestinians have fled to Lebanon, another
5,000 to Jordan, 9,000 to Egypt, and thousands more to Iraq and Turkey.
Jordan blocked Palestinian refugees fleeing Syria from entering eight months
ago and those who did are now essentially incarcerated, according to AUB
Professor Rosemary Sayigh and are prevented from moving outside the
camp unless they return to Syria, perhaps facing death.
In Egypt, Palestinians fleeing Syria have found that the host country is
blatantly discriminating against them--a policy left over from the Mubarak
era and upheld by the Morsi government. Today, a Palestinian refugee from
Syria may only enter Egypt if she or he flys directly from Damascus to Cairo's
airport--an impossible condition given that the Damascus airport is
routinely closed. Currently, no passenger airlines are flying out of Damascus airport
except sometimes Syria Airline to a few destinations.
Any Palestinian refugee arriving from Turkey or Lebanon or anywhere else is
detained at the Cairo airport and pressure applied on them until they agree
to return to Syria. When Egyptian authorities have forced these refugees
onto planes back to Lebanon or Turkey, those authorities refuse entry and
force them back to Egypt.
Truth be told, Palestinian refugees from Syria are not welcomed in most
Arab League countries and particularly not in the Gulf countries, although
in past years Palestinian refugees helped build these countries and their
economies. They would do the same for Lebanon if allowed to work.
Palestinians fleeing to Lebanon are mainly from Yarmouk camp in south
Damascus but many also arrive from Syria's Palestinian refugee camps at
Sbeineh, Jaramana and Khan Eshieh, all established in 1948-9 following the
massive, criminal ethnic cleansing of Palestine.
Virtually all the Palestinian camps in Syria, from Deraa in southern Syria,
to Neirab near Aleppo are currently being targeted by occasional random
shelling and frequent sniping. Just last week, on the first of April, Grad
rockets and mortar shells showered some of the main streets in Yarmouk
killing at least 16 Palestinian refugees and wounding more than 30.
A Palestinian woman and her four children were also wounded in the
near-by Al-Husseiniya refugee camp.
As of yesterday, the situation in Yarmouk stands approximately as follows.
The south-west corner of the camp is increasingly under the control of
"rebels." Their control appears to be spreading as reinforcements sneak in
and their ranks swell a bit from defections from camp "popular committees."
Sniping and clashes appear to be spreading also. The Ahmed Jabril-led Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, which was largely expelled two months ago and their weapon stores taken over by Al Nusra fighters, currently has some fighters back in the camp.
only way to enter Yarmouk currently is from the north side of the camp from the
"Melon Square" crossroads. The Syrian army has loosely encircled Yarmouk but in certain places they will allow passage inside with a warning.
This observer senses that these increased assaults on Yarmouk, are an effort
to get the Palestinians involved in the current crisis which virtually all
Palestinians want to avoid.
Some of those fleeing for their lives to Lebanon are also from the other
Palestinian refugee camps in Syria: Latakia, Ein al-Tal, Qabr Essit, Neirba,
Khan Dunoun, Homs, Hama, and Deraa. In addition to seeking refuge in
Shatila, they are entering Lebanon's other camps including Beddawi,
Nahr al Bared, Burj el-Barajneh, Burj el-Shemali, Dbayeh, Ein el-Helweh,
El-Buss, Mar Elias, Mieh Mieh, Rashidieh, and Wavel, the latter also known
as Jilil, near Baalbek in the Bekaa valley close to the Syria-Lebanon border.
In addition, according to UNWRA, as well as personal observations,
tens of thousands of Palestinians have been displaced inside Syria and are
currently living wherever they can, unable to flee to neighboring countries
for various reasons including lack of money. These comprise part of the
approximately 3.6 million displaced refugees inside Syria. According to the
March 8 weekly report of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees
(UNHCR) the number of registered refugees reached 12,000 during the past
week, with 262,000 refugees already registered and 140,000 in the process of
being registered, for a total of more than 400,000 Syrian refugees in
Lebanon. The report said that there are currently 113,000 Syrian refugees in
Northern Lebanon, 99,000 in the Bekaa, 28,000 Beirut and 20,000 in Southern
Lebanon. Among these figures are thousands of Palestinians.
When asked why they have not provided more help for the Syrian and
Palestinians refugees, various UN agencies explain that they do what they
can, but, typically offer explanations such as the one given on April 5th by
Marixie Mercado, spokeswoman for the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF),
during a news conference in Geneva: "The needs of the refugees are rising
exponentially, and we are dead broke"The number of people fleeing Syria,
the world's worst refugee crisis has repeatedly outrun the UN's expectations.
The 1.25 million refugees, three-quarter of them women and children,
is 10 percent higher than had been expected by June with no end in sight."
Concerning UNWRA. It's an easy target for grousing and it is, in fact,
sometimes a bit frustrating to work with due to its cumbersome bureaucracy.
For the past five weeks Palestinian refugees from Syria have been camping
outside UNRWA's Lebanon Branch Headquarters across the highway from
Shatila camp. They are urging more help as some explained to this observer
last week. The tents have signs on them reading "From Palestinians in Syria:
We request: That UNWRA Obtain the Housing and Health, Education and
Nutrition Services." The large banner is signed: "The Palestinians Displaced from
But it's never been easy for UNWRA which has been in the cross hairs of the
Zionist lobby since its creation in 1949. The most recent pledge of groups
like AIPAC is to disband it. Elements of the lobby intend to have the
US Congress declare that the American government does not recognize any
Palestinian refugee but the original ones from the 1947-48 Nakba. At the
same time the lobby has organized a campaign to draft legislation to
end the automatic transmission of refugee status to the descendants of
Palestinians that has been the policy of the international community and the
UN since 1948.
One of the leaders of this anti-UNRWA project is Daniel Pipes, the anti-Muslim
and anti-Arab organizer of CampusWatch which, as Professor Rosemary
Sayigh reminds us, has since 2002 mobilized students in US universities to
report on faculty and even staff who support the Palestinians. Pipes declared recently that
"the current approach by UNRWA creates a narrative of victimhood and leads
to extremism". Some reporters who attended a recent anti-UNWRA conference
in New York, reported that the organizers, led by Israel's envoy to the UN,
Ron Prosor, will be urging Congress to enact a law specifying that "the US will
only consider as a Palestinian refugee someone who was personally displaced
as a result of the 1948 or 1967 Arab-Israeli conflicts, and who is not firmly
resettled in another country."
This language is similar to an amendment presented in the Senate last May
by Illinois Republican Senator Mark Kirk. The amendment was approved by
the Senate Appropriations Committee but did not become law when the larger
bill to which it was attached failed to pass in the Senate. AIPAC pledges to
continue this campaign. The intention of the initiative is that when the
last of these Nakba and Naksa refugees die--the sooner the better--the issue
will be solved. Presto! No more of those troublesome Palestinian refugees.
When a refugee family arrives in Lebanon and registers for help with UNWRA
(the backlog to get an interview in Lebanon at the Lebanon Field Office is
currently close to six months and some refugees interviewed by this observer
at the Shatila Camp Youth Center on April 2nd reported that, given the delay,
they could not wait and have essentially given up on UNWRA--some risking
their lives and returning to Syria. Assuming all their documents are in
order, a family of four will received $150..a larger family will reeive $200. It should be noted that the average taxi fare for Palestinians from Damascus to Beirut is now $110, up from around
$16 pre-conflict. War profiteering again. Then there is the $17 per person
(children aged 7 and under exempted), 90-day Lebanon "visa fee," for which
no social services are provided by the government of Lebanon.
Earlier, UNWRA renewed the cash grants for another month but has recently
announced it cannot continue this aid due to lack of cash, leaving Palestinians
from Syria now essentially on their own. Palestinians from Yarmouk and elsewhere
in Syria are currently relying on their countrymen in Shatila and other camps.
UNRWA's current Response Plan calls for $26.85 million of which only $19.04
million has been received as of April 5th.
Even UNWRA schools in Lebanon are now maxed out for those Palestinians
from Syria who could adjust to the UNWRA curriculum in Lebanon given that
language and methodology are different in Lebanon than the system used in
Syria. Most Palestinian refugees from Syria are not enrolled in school.
Another UN aid agency, the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHRC)
is also stretched beyond its limits and giving no aid to Palestinian refugees
because it claims its mandate excludes Palestinians since UNWRA was set up
specifically to help Palestinian refugees until their return to Palestine. But
UNWRA, under an increasing barrage of assaults from the Zionist lobby, as
has been the case since its founding in 1949, is also out of cash and cannot
do much for Palestinians being forced into Lebanon.
In fairness to UNHCR, some local administrators do bend the rules and
discretely do what they can, as they are, after all, humanitarians and no
human being this observer has happened across can witness the carnage being
inflicted on innocent civilian victims without wanting to help them,
irrespective of their political views or who they hold responsible for the
Yet, UNHCR's official policy of not including Palestinian refugees in its
mandate should be immediately changed. UNHCR's current hands-off policy
flagrantly violates the international legal principle of "non-refoulement*
(the act of refusing entry or aid to refugees whose lives are endangered).
The refoulement requirement is enshrined in the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status
of Refugees, is required by the 1967 Protocol and Art 3 of the 1984 Torture
Convention and is required by international principles, standards and rules
of accepted customary law as well as trucial Law of Nations (forbids the
rendering of victims to their persecutors)* agreed to by certain tribal states
in the Middle East as far back as the 19th century.
Professor Rosemary Sayigh, at the beginning of her recent brilliant lecture
in Berlin, quoted Thomas W. Hill's observation:
never seem to have the luxury of digesting one tragedy
before the next one is upon them."
All too true. But at the Shatila refugee camp in Lebanon as well as the
other 11, Palestinians are receiving and helping their countrymen to the
best of their capacity until they can return to their still-occupied country.
That, history teaches us, they will eventually do.