UN agencies are actively hurting Palestinians
Palestinians across the Middle East have never had an easy ride but their circumstances are getting much worse. According to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), 80% of the 500,000 Palestinians in Syria need help.
What’s more, the war in Syria created a problem for Palestinians not experienced before: thousands are trapped in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan because of inadequate travel documents. Some have fled from Syria to Lebanon, where a quarter of the population are refugees, but life there is little better.
Many Syrian nationals envision their futures in Europe and have embarked on the dangerous journey through Turkey, Greece and Italy to reach Germany and Sweden, where they have been seeking asylum and refugee status. But because many Palestinians in Syria and Lebanon belong to no recognised state and thus have inadequate international travel identification, the Turkey route and thus asylum in Europe are shut to them.
Palestinians can, in some cases and with great difficulty, move between Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories but each of these areas is experiencing serious economic strife and conflict and are ill-equipped to help.
Not only are travel restrictions forcing Palestinians to remain in the midst of war and violence, an institutional ruling is blocking a route to a better life.
UNRWA, which began operations in 1950 on a temporary basis to assist Palestinians forced off their land, helps 5.5 million Palestinians in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and Palestinian territories.
It employs more than 29,000 people; crucially, almost all of whom are Palestinian and are otherwise unable to work in countries that bar refugees from taking up employment. In Syria and Lebanon, scenes of the worst fallout of the war, almost every family is dependent on UNRWA as its primary source of aid.
However, because UNRWA — and UNRWA alone — can assist Palestinians, no other UN agency can step in to help, including the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Similarly, the Refugee Convention reads: “[It] shall not apply to persons who are at present receiving protection or assistance from organs or agencies of the United Nations other than the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.”
As a result, Palestinians in Syria and Lebanon are excluded from even attempting to seek asylum assistance overseas because they are registered with UNRWA, which is itself on the brink of financial collapse.
If Palestinians were able to travel to territories outside of UNRWA’s areas of operations, Turkey, for example, they could possibly seek assistance from UNHCR but they can’t travel, and as such, are doomed to falling between two of the United Nations’ institutional stools.
There’s more to the story. If Palestinians could claim asylum in Europe, for example, the dream of establishing and returning to a future Palestinian state would collapse. Though older generations, politicians and ideologues see asylum for Palestinians as endangering the very idea of a state of Palestine, younger Palestinians are more concerned with securing their and their families’ futures by moving abroad to Europe, the United States and elsewhere, if they could.
The right of return has held a foremost role in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks for decades. It has been a defining symbol in the hearts and consciousness of Palestinians — and Arabs — for generations. But today millions of Palestinians in Syria and Lebanon are suffering, and statehood is not something they have the luxury of thinking about.
Providing Palestinians with passports is perhaps a goal too ambitious in light of the fact that statehood has been debated for more than half a century but the United Nations can and must do more to align its institutions and agencies to better help Palestinians. The United Nations and its member states must call for and effect radical change to the United Nations’ asylum set-up in light of current circumstances in Iraq and Syria. The least Palestinians should be able to expect is institutional support that works for, not against them.