The Noose Tightening Around Syria's Palestinians
by Franklin LambYarmouk camp, Damascus - Several credible reports this week from Palestinian refugees in Syria and Europe, the latter among those who by various means managed to escape the Syrian conflict with their lives, illustrate the increasing pressure and dangers Palestinians are facing here just trying to survive. And the chances of survival are not likely to improve anything soon.
Three serious cases over the past few days were reported to the Beirut-Washington DC based Sabra-Shatila Scholarship Program (sssp-lb.org) which since the beginning of this year has been able to modestly assist a number of Palestinians from Syria obtain visas and refuge in Europe. Providing some cash, sometimes intervention with the Kafkaesque problems they face at the Syria-Lebanon Masnaa border crossing and often contacting Lebanese General Security regarding those agencies seemingly ever changing requirements and unannounced restrictions. Problems for arrivals from Syria trying to reach European embassies in Lebanon have recently been compounded as the government imposes yet more strict measures for their 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- and then provides transportation to Beirut airport as the Palestinians seek 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 and their supporters. The reason is that once a Palestinian refugee arrives in Europe, the person can apply for refugee status; also for a child, parent or spouse, who, for various reasons were 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 reunited. So far so good, but perhaps no longer.
A related case involves minors who sometime arrive to Europe by themselves without a parent. Such as a precious and precocious 15 year old school-girl from Yarmouk camp, 'Farah' who last week traveled, on her own, ignoring this observers fatherly advice, and without a visa, made it to Turkey where she boarded an inflatable boat at Ayvalik with 30 other passengers, and since the motor conked out took turns rowing to the Greek island of Lesbos paying $1000 to a 'holding bank' in Turkey 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 the Greek island 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 local authorities who identify, screen and register arrivals and send them on to the Greek mainland, usually Athens. On 7/5/2015, a record 1,600 Syrians and Palestinians, and some others, arrived at Lesbos in a 24 hour period, whereas the previous daily record was around 500 and where 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, part of the 110,000 Palestinian refugees from Syria who have fled to Europe.
Trips such as these are dangerous. Palestinian refugees from Syria are increasingly trying, in the following order of preference, to travel to Sweden, Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, Austria, Belgium, Britain, and France to find safety and dignity. About 40,000 have succeeded to date (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 and 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 at 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 figure out what to do next, because 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, as allowed in the case of minors by all European countries, but not Lebanon. But this young lady's dream may not come true.
As noted above, new procedures at Syrian checkpoints have potentially shattered "Farahs" and other Palestinians dreams of 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 blocked at Syrian checkpoints and are being 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 fly to the Netherlands, were stopped at a checkpoint in Syria north of Homs, arrested and jailed. After a few days friends arranged a bribe and they were 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 feeble excuse is patent nonsense. Every Palestinian refugee on earth from the Nakba or Naksa, and 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 Palestinians Full Right of Return is individual and vested in perpetuity--at birth.
But what the new "policy" here 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 and most of the rest 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 they will investigate. So should Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and like-minded humanitarian organizations.
Despite the fact that the Palestinian community in Syria, from the beginning of this conflict, vowed to avoid any involvement and to preserve the symbolism of their cause among the whole population, as well as maintain Palestinian relations with the Syrian government that has given them more civil rights than any other Middle East country, it does not appear likely that in near term scenarios for ending this conflict carry positive prospects for the Palestinians in Syria.
Myriad efforts to enlist the Palestinians in the Syrian conflict has not done much to alter the balance of power among the main belligerents here, but it has benefited the occupiers of Palestine and resulted in more suffering, which today includes the lack of basic family needs, such as food and water, fuel, electricity, healthcare and even ability to communicate with loved ones. In addition to Yamouk, the camps of Khan al-Sheikh, al-Narab and Handarat in the governorates of Damascus and Aleppo, which this observer has visited, are under siege and are 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 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 that preserves the Syrian state and its unity, as well as the central cause of people of good will in this region. The cause of Palestine.
Franklin Lamb’s most recent book, Syria’s Endangered Heritage, An international Responsibility to Protect and Preserve, is in production by Orontes River Publishing, Hama, Syrian Arab Republic. Inquires c/o firstname.lastname@example.org. The author is reachable c/o email@example.com