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Yarmouk camp, Damascus
Several credible reports this week from Palestinian refugees who have by various means managed to escape the Syrian, illustrate the increasing pressure and dangers Palestinians are facing here, simply trying to survive. Chances of survival are not likely to improve anytime soon.
The Beirut-Washington DC-based Sabra-Shatila Scholarship Program (sssp-lb.org) has , since the beginning of this year, been able to offer modest assistance to a number of Palestinians from Syria by obtaining visas and refuge in Europe for them. The Program is able to provide some cash, and is able to intervene (in some cases) in the Kafkaesque problems these refugees face at the Syria-Lebanon Masnaa border crossing. This also involves contact with the Lebanese General Security regarding the security agencies’ seemingly ever -hanging requirements and unannounced restrictions. Problems for arrivals from Syria who try to reach European embassies in Lebanon have recently been compounded, as the government imposes ever more strict measures for entry and forward movement to Europe. SSSP has been able to provide some housing in South Beirut while Palestinians from Syria wait to receive their visas (usually a six day process). It then provides transportation to Beirut airport and finally to a new life in Europe, pending return to their own country, Palestine.
What is happening this week to Palestinians at Syrian checkpoints between Damascus and the Turkish border has alarmed the Palestinian community here, as well as their supporters. The reason is that once a Palestinian refugee arrives in Europe, he/she can also apply for refugee status for a child, parent or spouse, who, for various reasons was forced to stay behind in Syria. After some months, the European country normally issues visas in favor of the family members so they can travel and the family is then reunited. So far so good…but perhaps no longer.
A related case involves minors who sometime arrive in Europe by themselves, without a parent: a precious and precocious 15 year old school-girl from Yarmouk camp, “Farah”, traveled last week on her own (ignoring this observer’s fatherly advice), without a visa, and made it to Turkey. Once there, she boarded an inflatable boat at Ayvalik with 30 other passengers. The motor soon conked out and the passengers took turns rowing to the Greek island of Lesbos. While in Turkey, she had deposited $1000 to a ‘holding bank’, to be paid to the trafficker once she arrived in Lesbos and submitted a code from the bank. The normal fare from Ayvalik, Turkey to Lesbos, on a regular secure and insured tourist boat, is 30 euros.
An addition to “Farah”, record-breaking numbers of migrants are arriving on Lesbos these days, overwhelming the local authorities who must identify, screen and register all arrivals and send them on to the Greek mainland, usually Athens. On 7/5/2015, a record 1,600 Syrians and Palestinians, as well as others, arrived at Lesbos in a 24 hour period; the previous daily record was around 500. Monthly arrivals have grown from 737 in January and 1,002 in February, to 3,348 in March. Almost 5,000 arrived in April and over 7,200 in May. As of this week, more than 6000 refugees have arrived at Lesbos and the numbers keep swelling, all part of the 110,000 Palestinian refugees from Syria who have fled to Europe.
As we all know, trips such as these are dangerous. Palestinian refugees from Syria are increasingly trying to travel to Sweden, Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, Austria, Belgium, Britain, and France (in that order of preference) to find safety and dignity. About 40,000 have succeeded, to date. A grand total of 270,000 Syrians have applied for asylum in Europe so far.
Thousands of other Palestinians forced to use ‘death boats’ have died trying. For example, on 11/10/2013, around 200 Palestinian refugees from Syria drowned. On 6/9/2014, a boat carrying 400 refugees, including a large number of Palestinian Syrians, capsized: only 11 survived. In addition, since late 2011 until today, approximately 3000 Palestinians have been killed inside Syria, without a ceasefire likely anytime soon.
But “Farah” arrived to Lesbos safely last week and was ecstatic when she called me and reported that the six hour boat ride was “fun on the calm sea.” Her good luck continued as she got off the boat and started to try and figure out what to do next, as some Danish tourists saw her and helped her. Three days later “Farah” arrived in Sweden to a new life and plans to apply in the next few days for her parents in Yarmouk to come as soon as possible and unite the family (this is allowed in the case of minors by all European countries but not Lebanon). Unfortunately, her dream may not come true.
As noted above, new procedures at Syrian checkpoints have potentially shattered “Farahs” and other Palestinians’ dreams of their families being reunited in Europe. The reason is that this week, credible reports that Palestinian family members who have received visas to join loved ones in Europe (including parents of minors in Europe), are being stopped at Syrian checkpoints and subsequently jailed or returned to Damascus. There has been no government regulation promulgated on this subject to date and details are still murky.
On 7/8/2015 this observer received a Skype call from an eight member Yarmouk family that the SSSP had helped to resettle in the Netherlands. They reported that their parents, while en route to Turkey to then fly to the Netherlands, were stopped at a checkpoint in Syria, north of Homs, arrested and then jailed. After a few days, friends arranged a bribe and the family was freed, but they were warned by their jailers that “Palestinians can no longer leave Syria for Europe via Turkey or any other route.” As with two other reported cases this week, the only explanation they were given was “if Palestinians left Syria they would lose the Right to Return to Palestine.”
Of course this outrageous and feeble excuse is patent nonsense. Every Palestinian refugee on earth and her offspring is invested at birth with the Full Right of Return and this right is inalienable and cannot to ceded, relinquished, bargained away or abolished by political leaders; neither by PA officials negotiating with the Zionist apartheid regime or by anyone else. A Palestinian’s Full Right of Return is individual and vested in perpetuity–at birth.
But what the new “policy” does mean is that “Farah”, and other families from among the more than 110,000 Palestinians who have fled Syria (270,000 Palestinians are internally displaced inside Syria; most of the others are under siege), may not be able to be reunited until the conflict ends or this new checkpoint practice is repealed. UNWRA and UNHCR have been informed of this recent devastating development and have pledged to investigate. So should Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and other like-minded humanitarian organizations. On 7/13/2015, UNWRA officials in Damascus reported that an appeal to end this practice has been made to the Syrian government.
The Palestinian community in Syria has from the beginning vowed to avoid any involvement in the conflict. It has instead chosen to preserve the symbolism of its own cause and to maintain positive relations with the Syrian government, which has given them more civil rights than any other Middle East country. Despite these facts, it does not appear likely that any of the short-term scenarios for ending this conflict will carry positive prospects for Palestinians in Syria. Myriad efforts to enlist the Palestinians in the Syrian conflict has done little to alter the balance of power among the main belligerents here, but it has benefited the occupiers of Palestine and resulted in more suffering here, including the lack of basic family needs such as food, water, fuel, electricity, healthcare and even the ability to communicate with loved ones. In addition to Yamouk, the camps of Khan al-Sheikh, al-Narab and Handarat (which this observer has visited), in the governorates of Damascus and Aleppo are also under siege, facing death.
As a recent (7/8/2015) analysis by Al-Zaytouna Centre’s Maher Shawish suggests, whether the conflict continues or the Syrian state disintegrates into sectarian and ethnic entities, Palestinian suffering will continue here, and their numbers will decline in Syria.
The deterioration of the conditions of Palestinians in Syria could stop if the rival parties, with support from their regional and international sponsors, could arrive at a political settlement which preserves the Syrian state and its unity, as well as the central cause of all people of good will in this region: the cause of Palestine.