Displaced once, twice and now three times. The plight of Palestinian refugees in Syria


More than 60 years after the establishment of Israel, there is no Arab-Israeli issue that remains as utterly divisive as the fate of Palestinian refugees.

In the course of Israel’s creation in 1948 and its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, more than half the Arabs of pre-1948 Palestine are thought to have been displaced.

Today there are millions of Palestinians living in exile from homes and land their families had inhabited for generations.

Many still suffer the legacy of their dispossession: destitution, penury, insecurity.

Palestinian historians, and some Israelis, call 1948 a clear example of ethnic cleansing – perpetrated by the Haganah (later the Israeli Defence Forces) and armed Jewish gangs.

Official Israeli history, by contrast, says most Palestinian refugees left to avoid a war instigated by neighbouring Arab states, though it admits a “handful” of expulsions and unauthorised killings.

What is undisputed is that the refugees’ fate is excluded from most Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts because, given a right of return, their numbers – says Israel – would endanger the future of the world’s only Jewish state

Four million UN-registered Palestinian refugees trace their origins to the 1948 exodus of about 700,000; another 750,000 people belong to families displaced in 1967 – many for the second time.

The Palestinian advocacy group Badil says another 1.5 million hail from pre-1948 Palestine but were not UN-registered, while an additional 274,000 were internally displaced inside Israel after 1948, and 150,000 were displaced in the occupied territories after 1967.

That makes more than six million people, one of the biggest displaced populations in the world.


The Syrian conflict

Palestine refugees remain particularly vulnerable and have been disproportionately affected by the Syrian conflict, due to their refugee camps in Syria being close to conflict areas, high rates of poverty and the tenuous legal status of those forced to flee from Syria to Lebanon and Jordan. While many have been forced by the conflict to flee again, tens of thousands of Palestinians are still trapped in areas of active conflict, such as Yarmouk or Khan Eshieh in Damascus or Muzeirib and Jillin in Dera’a, and have very little access to humanitarian assistance. 

Of those who have been forced again into exile, around 42,000 have fled to Lebanon and more than 17,000 to Jordan. The vast majority are living a precarious, marginalized existence, unable to regularize their legal status or access civil registration procedures and basic social services. They are largely dependent on UNRWA for basic subsistence needs, including food and shelter, as well as basic education and health care.

Medical Aid for Palestinians have just released a new report, ‘If I die, bury me in Palestine’ – how the world is failing Palestinian refugees from Syria. 

The report demonstrates the horrific conditions faced by Palestinian refugees from Syria both in Syria and in camps in surrounding countries. Through demonstrating the lack of access to services and protection the most vulnerable of these refugees face, MAP’s report calls on the UK and the international community to make existing programmes for support and temporary resettlement available to Palestinians.

To support this, you can sign MAP’s petition calling for their protection.


This article was researched and written by Richard Llewellin, with thanks.

Sabeel-Kairos is the operating name of Friends of Sabeel UK (FOSUK) Ltd, Charity number 1116817, Company Number 5595112

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