Start A Petition

Fleeing Syria, Palestinians Find Haven and Hardships in Egypt

World  (tags: Palestinians, Syria, refugees, camps, war, Egypt, Visas, UN Works and Relief Agency (UNWRA), UNHCR, Right To Return )

- 2255 days ago -
Palestinian-Syrian families, all males under 18 and females of all ages can enter the country without a visa, but generally receive only a two-week to one-month visa, rather than the three months granted to other Syrians


We hate spam. We do not sell or share the email addresses you provide.


Angelika R (143)
Wednesday March 20, 2013, 1:05 pm

Rula Deeb, 26, was born in Damascus and calls Syria her home. But after months of government bombings, indiscriminate violence and rising scarcity of basic goods, Deeb, whose grandparents fled Gaza for Syria in 1948, felt she could no longer safely stay.

As a Syrian with Palestinian refugee documents, however, Deeb faced a particular predicament: Where could she go?

“I came to Egypt because, as a Palestinian, it is the only country that welcomes us,” Deeb says, explaining her relocation to Cairo in October.

For Deeb, Jordan and Lebanon — where many Palestinian-Syrians flee — were not options because of the countries’ travel restrictions, poor living conditions and other restrictive policies against Palestinian Syrians.

In comparison, Egypt had fewer initial barriers to entry. Unlike others in her situation, she could afford the airplane ticket from Damascus to Cairo, and, as a woman, she did not have to first apply for a visa.

Once in this country, however, Deeb and the estimated thousands of Palestinian-Syrian refugees here face a new kind of hardship: lack of access to humanitarian services.

Left in a legal limbo in Egypt, Palestinians are ineligible for assistance such as financial, social and health services that are available to other refugees, including Syrians, registered with the United Nations.

Whose mandate?

Decades after the Arab-Israeli wars displaced her family, Deeb had to grapple with the notion of being a Palestinian refugee.

Under international law, Palestinian refugees are descendants of Palestinians born in Mandate Palestine and displaced by the 1948 and 1967 Arab-Israeli wars. In 1949, a specific United Nations agency, the UN Works and Relief Agency (UNWRA), was established to register and protect Palestinian refugees living in five places: Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Gaza and the West Bank.

Before the war in Syria, the 500,000 Palestinian-Syrians living there had nearly equal rights to other nationals. But as they were registered with UNRWA, they were never allowed a Syrian passport.

Instead, they had a temporary Syrian residency card designed specifically for Palestinian refugees — and which many governments do not accept at borders.

Egypt, according to UNRWA’s mandate, is not one of the five Middle Eastern countries in which the agency is authorized to operate. Technically, that would make the UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, responsible for assisting Palestinian-Syrians refugees in Egypt.

Karmen Sakhr, senior protection officer at UNHCR, says the government pledged to treat Syrians with Palestinian travel documents the same as other Syrian refugees. However, this has not been the case in practice.

Sakhr says the Foreign Ministry has asked UNHCR not to register Palestinian-Syrians. According to Sakhs, the ministry maintains that UNHCR should not register Palestinians because UNRWA is the responsible agency — even though UNRWA’s mandate officially does not extend to Egypt.

The difficulty of granting Palestinians’ citizenship rights locally and other Arab countries relates to the preservation of their right of return.

But this has also led to discriminatory domestic policies toward Palestinians by Arab countries, including Egypt. Critics say these countries fear that if the country makes life too comfortable for refugees, Palestinians will have more of an incentive to settle.

The issue is further complicated by the government’s treatment of Palestinian refugees who came to Egypt after the 1948 and 1967 Arab-Israeli wars.

Perla Issa, a researcher on Palestinians in Egypt, says Palestinians born here face many barriers, including no permanent residency, restrictions on travel abroad and limited work opportunities. They are also not under the jurisdiction of either UNRWA or UNHCR, falling into a similar legal loophole removed from the limelight.

Following the first Gulf war and expulsion of Palestinian refugees from Kuwait, Egypt barred Palestinians from entering the country. In the mid-2000s, as a result of escalating violence toward Palestinians in Iraq, many Palestinians from there also came to this country.

Issa says they were able to register with UNHCR because UNHCR worked with Palestinians in Iraq, unlike the case with Palestinian-Syrians.

Coming to Egypt

Since the start of the Syrian conflict two years ago, an estimated 150,000 refugees have fled to Egypt, and about 500,000 more to neighboring countries — mainly Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. In Egypt, they live largely in Cairo and other major cities, considered preferable to the refugee camps of Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon.

Palestinians, intentionally and not, are often caught up in regional politics. Initially, Palestinian Syrian communities primarily stayed out of the conflict, in part because of complicated political alliances and the image that the regime had been good for Palestinians.

But in December, the conflict came to the doorsteps of the 150,000 residents of Yarmouk, the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus. Intense fighting broke out between regime supporters, mainly the Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and opposition Syrian and Palestinian factions.

Coupled with a barrage of government bombings, the fighting led to more than 700 deaths and a mass exodus from the camps.

There is no clear documentation regarding the number of Palestinian-Syrians in the country. Estimates place it somewhere in the low thousands, but predict it will rise as conditions in the nine official and three unofficial Palestinian refugee camps in Syria worsen.

Ahmed Abughazalah, public information associate at UNHCR, says that, as of February, 192 families and 458 individuals have asked to register at UNHCR. The agency, complying with the government’s request, refused.

While some Syrian families spent months debating their departures, for Alaa Hamzah, a Syrian-Palestinian whose grandparents came from Haifa, her family acted on impulse. In early October, she says, Syrian soldiers kidnapped her 25-year-old brother at a checkpoint and held him for ransom.

He managed to escape, and two days later, the family fled to Cairo. They now live in 6th of October City, relying on her father’s savings.

“My brother survived so many of the bad bombings in the camps, only to be kidnapped,” she recalls.

She considers herself and her family among the lucky ones.

Syrians are generally able to enter the country via plane or a neighboring border, where they can receive a three-month tourist visa and then apply for temporary residency and register with UNHCR.

Palestinian-Syrians, however, must come straight from Syria and, because of the specifics of their travel documents, cannot enter Egypt through a second country.

Sakhr of UNHCR says all males between the ages of 18 and 40 must attain a visa prior to their flight and fly directly from Damascus to Cairo. However, the Egyptian Embassy in Damascus is currently closed, making it nearly impossible to attain a visa prior to travel.

Palestinian-Syrian families, all males under 18 and females of all ages can enter the country without a visa, but generally receive only a two-week to one-month visa, rather than the three months granted to other Syrians.

Once the visa expires, Palestinian-Syrians can apply for residency or try to extend the visa. But as they cannot register with UNHCR or UNRWA, they are left without a means to access basic legal, social and financial services.

In January, the \government threatened to deport a Palestinian-Syrian man and his son after they tried to travel to Turkey from Egypt on forged documents. Human Rights Watch and other groups raised objections, arguing that this violated international agreements, given the dangers of returning to Syria. The boy and his father have reportedly since returned to Syria.

Meanwhile, according to refugee advocates, the Muslim Brotherhood-controlled government — caught up in its own internal transitions and unprepared for the spillover from Syria — has for now largely ignored addressing the legal status of the Palestinian-Syrian refugees and its regional ramifications.

In conversations with refugees, many say that, on the one hand, the Egyptian government’s negligence has been to their benefit — those here illegally do not face the threat of immediate deportation. But at the same time, the absence of social, legal and financial services is taking an increasingly harsh toll on their financial and psychological health.

Basela Abu Hamed, for example, came from Damascus to Cairo in October. A mother of two and a teacher back in Syria, she has been struggling to find consistent work in 6th of October.

As the violence in Syria continues to worsen, Abu Hamed says she worries about how she will provide for her family’s financial and physical well-being without help from humanitarian services. She does not think too much farther into the future.

Because they are not registered, her daughter, 16, cannot enroll in school. She also worries about her daughter because of the harassment on the streets.

After the fighting intensified in December, Abu Hamed’s father decided, after much persuasion, that he would leave his bombed-out house. She is awaiting his arrival in Egypt.

In early February, about 35 Palestinian-Syrian refugees gathered in 6th of October to establish a humanitarian network of Palestinians in the diaspora to support those still living in Syria’s refugee camps.

Fayed Shihabi, one of the network’s organizers, says part of the problem is that Palestinian-Syrians have not tried to unify and advocate for themselves in the absence of another body to do so.

“It is like another Nakba,” Shihabi says, comparing the loss of Palestinian land now to the displacement following the 1948 Arab-Israel war, deemed the Nakba, or catastrophe in Arabic.

Milad, 21, heard about the event through the Internet and came that day from Mansoura, where he lives with his family because of the lower cost of living.

“I came [to the event] because working together as Palestinians is better than alone,” he says, despite his hesitation about what the network can accomplish.

Back in Damascus, Milad had studied sculpture and participated in a few protests against the regime organized through Facebook.

He had never thought of leaving Syria until the bloodshed started and several friends died. Now in Egypt, he waits, unemployed, to return to Syria.

Munro Tapper (80)
Wednesday March 20, 2013, 6:03 pm
Thank you for this story. Few issues concern me more deeply than this one.

JL A (281)
Wednesday March 20, 2013, 8:13 pm
such complications based on lines drawn by men to create artificial boundaries...sad

Angelika R (143)
Wednesday March 20, 2013, 9:30 pm
Yes, and on top of that a huge apparatus of bureaucracy to do the rest, creating misery in many cases.
These questions of "who's in charge" are so obstructive and mostly so unnecessary!

Süheyla C (234)
Thursday March 21, 2013, 2:55 am
, thanks Angelika

Gloria picchetti (304)
Thursday March 21, 2013, 7:17 am
When a refugee has to flee to Egypt it's horrible.

. (0)
Thursday March 21, 2013, 7:41 am
Great article.

Abdessalam Diab (145)
Thursday March 21, 2013, 7:58 am
Thank you Angelika for this story. It is a very complicated issue. Palestinian refugees coming to seek a safe place in Egypt instead of being in their own country Palestine from which they have kicked out 65 years ago. They face all these administrative bureaucratic obstacle together with their children who need schools to join,houses to live in and food to keep them alive. Damn these bureaucratic difficulties they are facing in a time their Egyptian fellows have economic hardships too.
Although aid is provided in a way or another from Palestinians residing in Egypt ,Egyptian Charity association or individuals ,sometimes enough some times not. The main problem is UN aid regulations and the Egyptian authorities that looks contradicting itself. While they are allowed to enter the country without an entry visa,it instructs UN refugees agency to to register them and thus adding to their problems. This situation actually is not justified at all and must change immediately . Yes I understand the worries of these authorities after what happened few years ago when tens of hundreds of South Sudan refugees refused to return back home after the peace settlement in Sudan, but this is a humanitarian situation and ALL must give a hand despite economic difficulties in Egypt.

ilja c (48)
Thursday March 21, 2013, 8:47 am
Egyptian economy was devasted in last 2 years and lot of youth search jobs and food.Rice export was frozenfor a long period to obtain reserve for domestic market. No matter Egypt wants to help, refuges problem needs International support.


Angelika R (143)
Thursday March 21, 2013, 1:22 pm
All very true, thanks for your contributions here. I posted this for exactly this reason, to raise awareness for the dire situation- likely to even get worse by the days and weeks!- and to spotlight this bureaucracy of UN , perhaps also the somewhat chaotic situation within Egypt's own apparatus now, which is a major cause of this misery. As already commented above earlier.

Angelika R (143)
Thursday March 21, 2013, 1:25 pm
Palestinian refugees are definitely now caught betweeen a rock and a hard place. If Nato, the US, Israel or all together decide to strike Syria now, no telling how much this situation might escalate, with thousands of people, Syrians, Palestinian camp refugees and many others left in harm's way and nowhere to go.

Winn Adams (179)
Thursday March 21, 2013, 1:55 pm

Birgit W (160)
Thursday March 21, 2013, 4:10 pm

Alexander Werner (53)
Thursday March 21, 2013, 6:51 pm
Arab countries must accept Arab refugees from Palestine, that's simple. Every other nation did just that. Inter-clan racism, permeating Arab states, must stop, and all Arab people must be treated equally.

Arab countries can learn from Japan, Russia, Israel, Greece, Germany and many others countries how to help their kin and brothers. They must turn to oil-rich Arab nations first, without getting more and more money from Western countries, which accumulated enough debt and problems of their own.

tiffany t (142)
Thursday March 21, 2013, 8:57 pm
Egypt's unrest doesn't help

Jay S (116)
Friday March 22, 2013, 12:34 am
This puts paid to the lie of the great concern by the Arab/Muslims for their Palestinian 'brothers' (sisters don't rate):

“The Palestinian people does not exist. The creation of a Palestinian state is only a means for continuing our struggle against the state of Israel for our Arab unity. In reality today there is no difference between Jordanians, Palestinians, Syrians and Lebanese. Only for political and tactical reasons do we speak today about the existence of a Palestinian people, since Arab national interests demand that we posit the existence of a distinct 'Palestinian people' to oppose Zionism."
-- Zahir Muhsein, PLO executive committee member said in an interview to the Dutch newspaper Trouw in 1977

Abdessalem tries to sidestep the contempt for Palestinians his Egyptian/Arab/Muslim friends feel and show and, as usual, refuses to take any responsibility for or apologize for the invasions, conquests, colonization, destruction of cultures, oppression, arrogance, genocide, and occupations of Jerusalem and all Muslim conquered lands. Muslims never condemn their own mass murders, enslavements of conquered peoples, oppression and occupations of other peoples' lands - like Egypt. Hypocrites.

Joy Wong (100)
Friday March 22, 2013, 3:48 am
Noted, thanks.

Abdessalam Diab (145)
Friday March 22, 2013, 7:20 am
I wonder when is Bob Algeron going to stop such silly comments he posts every time there is something related to Palestinian refugees.Why shouldn't these refugees be allowed to return to their land,villages and cities plus their properties which they have been forced to leave behind when they were attacked by the Zionist terrorists gangs even before the creation of the Zionist entity.

Israel imported Zionists from around the glob and allowed them what Israel called " right to return" while native Palestinians are deprived this right despite UN decisions since 1948 that gives them the right to return to their home country or be compensated if they disagree. The racist , fascist Zionist entity is just like Bob denying these rights which the Palestinians will get one day sooner or later.Don't forget that crusaders came to this land before ,killed thousand Jews,Christian and Muslim and After around 100 years they were forced to leave this land.History repeats itself .

Angelika R (143)
Friday March 22, 2013, 2:12 pm
Aside from Bob, I find it even more rediculous to bring in here a dead , assassinated probably by Mossad, Assad crony and secretary whose agenda was even against Palestinians interests and not even speaking for the PLO at that time.

Henriette Matthijssen (154)
Monday March 25, 2013, 12:51 pm
Every human has the same rights to live in their own country! Insanity has taken over in the world by greed! Thanks Angie.
Or, log in with your
Facebook account:
Please add your comment: (plain text only please. Allowable HTML: <a>)

Track Comments: Notify me with a personal message when other people comment on this story

Loading Noted By...Please Wait


butterfly credits on the news network

  • credits for vetting a newly submitted story
  • credits for vetting any other story
  • credits for leaving a comment
learn more

Most Active Today in World

Content and comments expressed here are the opinions of Care2 users and not necessarily that of or its affiliates.

New to Care2? Start Here.