Syria received the first wave of Palestinian refugees after the Palestinian Nakba in 1948. About 40 percent of this group, estimated at 85,000 refugees in all, were from the city and province of Safad; about 22 percent from Haifa; about 16 percent from Tiberias; and the rest, in varying proportions, from the cities of Acre, Nazareth, Jaffa, and Baysan. This first wave of refugees was followed by others at different times: from Lebanon and the demilitarized border areas in the 1950s, from the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the wake of the Israeli aggression of June 1967, from Jordan after clashes between the Jordanian army and factions of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1970 and 1971, and from Lebanon following the Israeli invasion in the summer of 1982.
According to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine (UNRWA), about 528,000 Palestinian refugees lived in Syria when violence broke out in early spring of 2011. However, the actual number may have been as high as 600,000––UNRWA’s registry does not include most Palestinians who came to Syria from Jordan, Lebanon, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip after the initial wave in 1948.
After arriving in Syria, some Palestinian refugees lived in settlements and camps, or in facilities provided by mosques or the government. Others settled in Damascus, in the Alliance quarter (hayy al-amin), which had once been home to thousands of Syrian Jews who had left Syria for Palestine. Between 1953 and 1955, the General Commission for Palestine Arab Refugees distributed land to refugees for temporary residence. This was succeeded by the establishment of what came to be known as Yarmuk camp, the largest Palestinian population cluster in Syria, in the neighborhoods of Basatin, al-Midan, and al-Shaghour south of Damascus.
Around 71 percent of the Palestinian refugees registered with UNRWA live in camps; the rest live in cities. In total, 67 percent of all Palestinian refugees in Syria live in Damascus and the surrounding areas, most of them in one of eight camps. While UNRWA does not consider three of these to be official camps, it does provide education, health, and vocational rehabilitation services to their residents. Yarmuk is the most important of these three unofficial camps; according to UNRWA statistics, over 160,000 people lived there in December 2012, including several thousand Syrians. Palestinian refugees living outside of the Damascus area are distributed among two camps in the Aleppo governorate and in a camp each in the governorates of Homs, Hama, Latakiya, and Dar‘a.
The General Commission for Palestine Arab Refugees oversees the affairs of Palestinian refugees in Syria. The commission was founded by Law Number 450 on 25 January 1949; initially established under the Ministry of the Interior, it came under the auspices of the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor in 1958. Its mission includes organizing the registration of refugees’ names, personal statuses, and occupations; finding appropriate work for them; and handling donations and grants allocated for Palestinian refugees. Within Syria, the commission is responsible for overseeing the activities of UNRWA, which was established by United Nations General Assembly Resolution 302 on 8 December 1949 and began performing its duties in May 1950. UNRWA offers services to Palestinian refugees in the fields of education, health, and social affairs through its administration of a number of schools and institutes, medical facilities, and social work centers.
Palestinian refugees who are registered with the General Commission are subject to Syrian laws on an equal basis with Syrian citizens in all areas except for the right to vote and stand for election for parliament or local administration. Law Number 260, issued on 10 July 1956, maintained Palestinians’ nationality while making Palestinian refugees equal to Syrian citizens in terms of public employment, labor, commercial rights, and military conscription. Palestinians have the right to own multiple businesses, to invest in enterprises, and to own a residential apartment. In addition, in accordance with Law Number 1311, issued on 2 October 1963, the Minister of the Interior grants travel documents to Palestinian refugees residing in the Arab Republic of Syria as long they are registered with the General Commission. Those who carry these travel documents can return to Syria without a visa.
Because of the rights they enjoy, Palestinian refugees in Syria are more integrated into the social and economic life of the country than Palestinian refugees in other Arab countries. Some have been able to attain high-ranking positions in government bodies. The service sector (public and private) employs the highest percentage of the Palestinian workforce, followed by manufacturing, the commercial sector, and agriculture. In the social sphere, Palestinians living in Syria have achieved notable success in the educational sector, making full use of the various levels of government education that are free and available to them as well as UNRWA’s educational services. This has enabled some Palestinians in Syria to attain good jobs, and overall has reduced the group’s illiteracy rates to a great extent. Despite the decline in UNRWA health services in recent years, the health status of Palestinian refugees in Syria remains favorable in comparison to their counterparts in Lebanon, for example. This is because Palestinians in Syria benefit from free medical consultations in state-run Syrian clinics, just like Syrian citizens.
In the political sphere, various Palestinian factions became active among refugees in Syria after the start of the Palestinian Revolution in the 1960s. Unlike Palestinian organizations in Lebanon, however, the activities of Palestinians in Syria were political and civil in nature, not military, because the Syrian state and security forces exerted control over them. Particularly after the split that occurred within the ranks of the Fatah movement in the spring of 1983, and up until the outbreak of the Syrian crisis in 2011, the Syrian authorities have succeeded in controlling organizations opposed to the PLO’s official leadership and enabling their active oppositional roles in the Palestinian national struggle.
The stable situation of Palestinian refugees in Syria came to an end with the beginning of the crisis in Spring 2011. Although most Palestinian forces and factions favored maintaining the neutrality of the camps and refraining from interference in internal Syrian affairs. Some of the camps became sites of confrontation between opposition forces and the Syrian army, and Palestinian refugees experienced dire conditions in their camps. About 130,000 Palestinian refugees were forcibly displaced from Yarmuk camp, while those who remained suffered from a brutal blockade and a famine that resulted in dozens of deaths. Meanwhile, according to the Action Group for Palestinians of Syria, which documents the names of Palestinian casualties in Syria and the circumstances, time, and place of their deaths, 1,036 Palestinian refugees were killed during clashes as of 28 February 2013.
In total, about 15 percent of the Palestinians of Syria have been displaced from the country, while approximately the same number have remained in the camps. The rest have fled to other parts of Syria, mostly in Damascus. Unofficial statistics indicate that 53,715 Palestinians from Syrian camps had entered Lebanon by 31 January 2013. Most of them settled with relatives in Palestinian refugee camps, with Lebanese families who have opened their homes to them, or in temporary shelters. However, the outpouring of displaced Palestinians from Syria came to a stop in May 2014, when Lebanese authorities began to impose strict measures to prevent them from entering Lebanon.
A few thousand Palestinian refugees also managed to flee to Jordan, despite the severe measures taken by Jordanian authorities to prevent them from entering Jordanian territory. It is believed that a number of Palestinians have settled in Za‘atari camp (a camp built for Syrian refugees) without disclosing their Palestinian papers. At the same time, a number of Palestinian refugees benefitted from a decision made by Egyptian authorities at the beginning of the Syrian crisis to temporarily allow the entry of Palestinian refugees from Syria. However, the decision was reversed later on and it became impossible for Palestinians from Syria to fly from Beirut to Egypt (as requested by the Egyptian authorities). It is believed that about 250 Palestinian families from Syria arrived to the Gaza Strip via Egypt. Some Palestinian refugee families have risked their lives in so-called “death boats” and at international crossings. Some of them have succeeded in securing refuge in some of the European countries, particularly the Scandinavian ones; others have lost their lives in the waters of the Mediterranean.
Bitari, Nidal. “Yarmuk Refugee Camp and the Syrian Uprising: A View from Within.” Journal of Palestine Studies 43, no.1 (Autumn 2013): 61-78.
Brand, Laurie A. “Palestinians in Syria: The Politics of Integration.” The Middle East Journal 42, no.4 (Autumn 1988): 621-637.
Hardan, Anaheed. “The Right of Return Movement in Syria: Building a Culture of Return, Mobilizing Memories for the Return.” Journal of Palestine Studies 41, no.2 (Winter 2012): 62-79.
Talhami, Ghada Hashem. Syria and the Palestinians: The Clash of Nationalisms. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2001.