Echoes of Palestinian partition in Syrian refugee crisis

Without a regional legal framework, Syria's refugees may be poised to wander without a homeland like the Palestinians

December 29, 2013 6:00AM ET
Syrian refugees are processed for departure to Egypt via a Greek cruise ship carrying cargo on May 6, 2013, in Iskenderun, Turkey.
Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

When my mother was a little girl, her family was forced to leave their home in East Jerusalem and live as servants, sewing, cooking and cleaning in the home of a British family in West Jerusalem. This was in 1935, during the British Mandate, when the Council of the League of Nations confirmed the British administrative control for the Palestinian territory. My mother’s grandparents were Jews originally from the south of Georgia, in the hills bordering Azerbaijan, who had lived in Jerusalem during the Ottoman Empire; they were fluent in Turkish, Persian, Arabic and Hebrew. Since my mother loved to write, the British family presented her with their typewriter before they fled back to Britain in 1948 in the lead-up to Israel’s independence. Stamped with “Made in Palestine,” it now sits in a case in my office as an artifact of the devastation of partition. It is history that has yet to be written.

Only recently have I begun to understand how deeply the problems of displacement in the region today are rooted in that crucial moment in the past. An international legal framework imposed then could have given the Palestinians who fled to neighboring countries from their homes in Israel the choice to integrate locally, as well as rights-based protections, including the right to work and freedom of movement.

Although the cause of Syrians fleeing their homeland today differs fundamentally from the flight of Palestinians in 1948, one crucial similarity is the harsh reception they are experiencing in neighboring countries. The tragedy of the Syrian refugee crisis is palpable in news stories and in the images of those risking their lives in rickety boats on Europe’s shores. More than one-third of Syria’s population has been displaced, and its effects are rippling across the Middle East. For months, more than 1,500 Syrians (including 250 children) have been detained in Egypt. Hundreds of adults are protesting grotesque conditions there with a hunger strike. Lebanon absorbed the most refugees but now charges toward economic collapse, while Turkey will house 1 million Syrians by the year’s end.

The surge of Syrians arriving in urban centers has brought sectarian violence, economic pressure and social tensions. As a result, these bordering countries, having already spent billions of dollars, are feeling less hospitable and are starting to close their borders to Syrians.

A Dec. 13 Amnesty International report calls the Syrian refugee crisis an international failure, but this regional crisis necessitates a regional response — one that more systematically offers Syrian refugees legal protections. The Amnesty report rightly points out that it is not just the European Union that is failing the refugees. It is the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council that, in spite of their wealth and support for the military action in Syria, have not offered any resettlement or humanitarian admission places to refugees from Syria. 

A history of stagnation

The Middle East’s failure to implement a legal framework for refugees has historical roots. After World War II, the European refugee crisis blotted out other partition crises across the globe as colonial powers withdrew in South Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Partitions at the time were about questions of borders and the forced un-mixing of populations. Groups of people, including the Palestinians, Pakistanis, Bengals, Kurds and Rohingya, were left stateless. Subsequent wars of independence created Pakistan and Bangladesh, while other groups (such as the Palestinians and Rohingya) remain stateless to this day.

The 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees — the international legal framework for the protection of refugees, which obligated states to not return refugees to their countries of origin (non-refoulement), to respect refugees’ basic human rights and to grant them freedoms equivalent to those enjoyed by foreign nationals living legally in the country — did not include those displaced from partitioned countries in its definition of a refugee. (It was limited to those fleeing persecution in Europe.) The territorial restriction was removed in the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, but aside from Israel, countries in the Middle East have either not signed the 1951 convention (or the 1967 update) or, if they have, they have not enacted legislation that would grant refugees a national legal status through a standardized process that would accord them registration documents and entitle them, at a minimum, to protection from refoulement. Today, this largely leaves Syrian refugees entering those countries without legal recourse. It is also the most dangerous injustice that Syrian refugees face.

Nearly all other nations offer more protections and rights to refugees than the Middle Eastern countries. These rights include freedom of movement, the right to work, education, health care, access to justice, protection against arbitrary detention and, as is the case in many countries like the United States, a path to citizenship. The nations of Africa, Latin America and, most recently, Asia (now under discussion), have broadened the definition of who is a refugee — through regional conventions or declarations. 

What refugees need most is a legal status, which can be achieved only through a regional framework of protection and national asylum policies.

Some countries in the Middle East have signed onto a document parallel to the 1951 convention, called the 1966 Bangkok Principles on the Status and Treatment of Refugees. Formally adopted in 2001, the principles provide for a right of return, a broader definition of a refugee and a mandate that countries take up the responsibility of determining refugee status based on rule of law. Aside from being able to document the passage of the Principles, however, they are never mentioned at the governmental level and, in response to my queries about them in international forums and to refugee legal advocates, I have been told they are ignored.

The origins of the Middle East’s stagnation lie in the partition of Palestine in 1948. When half a million Arab refugees fled Jewish-held territory, seeking refuge in neighboring states, countries like Lebanon and Saudi Arabia moved to stop them. In the final days of the drafting of the United Nation General Assembly’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, with the war in Palestine raging, Saudi Arabia persuaded many countries, including the U.S., to dilute the obligation of a state to grant asylum. The Middle Eastern countries feared that they would be required to absorb Palestinians and that Palestinians might lose a right of return to what is now Israel. Among those affected by the ongoing Syrian crisis are hundreds of thousands of Palestinians. Unlike my mother, who was able to find a permanent home and a secure future for her children, they have been forced to flee once again and are being denied refugee status.

A regional framework

Today there is momentum to push for the establishment of a stronger legal framework for refugees. I am heartened by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ recent call not just for financial and humanitarian assistance and emergency development in the Middle East to aid Syria but also for legal protection for refugees. The commissioner is asking for states in the region to provide for legal status and assistance, including “temporary humanitarian admission, resettlement, simplified and expedited family reunion, facilitated visa procedures and the extension of student or employment-related visas.”

Turkey is heeding the call. In April it enacted a law establishing the country’s first national asylum system providing refugees with access to Turkish legal aid. With the Syrian crisis, Turkey has been overwhelmed by the flow of refugees and has put the implementation of this system on hold, but it is a model that can be replicated in other Middle Eastern countries to extend protection to Syrian refugees.

The Middle East must spearhead such a framework, and the United States should ramp up its assistance of Syrian refugees as well. To be sure, it remains the single largest contributor of humanitarian aid for the Syrian crisis; it has committed $1.3 billion in aid already. U.S. aid has helped build tents and deliver food rations, and the United States has agreed to admit 9,000 Syrians for temporary protection. But it must also champion the securing of legal status for refugees.

Some Middle Eastern countries argue that even if they could agree on a regional framework, they would rather absorb refugees through migrant-worker programs. Saudi Arabia, for one, has extended protections to Syrian migrant workers. But such programs offer only a temporary stay, requiring workers to return to their countries after just a few years, and are subject to changes in the economy. Indeed, Saudi Arabia has just repatriated 100,000 Ethiopians as part of a crackdown on illegal migrant workers, and hundreds of thousands of Asian migrants are also being deported. Given the destabilizing effect of the Syrian crisis on the region, neighboring countries should think twice about such unilateral responses.

With more than 2 million Syrians already living outside their war-torn country and 1 million more expected to flee in the coming months, there is a growing protection gap. Indeed, a report (PDF) released in November by Harvard University shows that even Canada, which prides itself on being hospitable to refugees, has been systematically closing its borders to asylum seekers. Without a doubt, development-related aid is an important incentive to host countries, and providing sanctuary for vulnerable populations is just as vital, but what refugees need most is a legal status, which can be achieved only through a regional framework of protection and national asylum policies.

The Bangkok Principles are a good start because they highlight the commitment among these states to develop a regional framework and national solutions to protect refugees, with the support of the international community. The U.S. must do its part and encourage the Middle East to build on these principles. Syrians deserve an organized and effective framework, and the risk of turning our backs is that Syrians, along with the Palestinians, will be wandering without a homeland.

Galya Benarieh Ruffer is the founding director of the Center for Forced Migration Studies at the Buffett Center for International and Area Studies at Northwestern University and a public voices faculty fellow with the OpEd Project. 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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