Crossroads of Crisis: Yarmouk, Syria and the Palestine Refugee Predicament

25 February 2014
Crossroads of Crisis: Yarmouk, Syria and the Palestine Refugee Predicament
Lecture by Filippo Grandi, Commissioner-General of UNRWA at American University of Beirut, 25 February 2014

Good evening, Ladies and Gentlemen. 

And first, a small story:

Yesterday, in Syria, I visited Yarmouk and at a food distribution I met Um Ahmed.   She and others were receiving UNRWA food parcels after months of extreme deprivation. Um Ahmed was asking questions:   “I am a Palestinian refugee,” she said. “What is our fate?”, she demanded, and then added: “What are we supposed to do, where are we supposed to go?  What is the solution for us Palestinians?”  

These are simple, straightforward questions that may be asked by anyone who has been living in a devastating conflict for three years, and has seen her home and community destroyed.  You can dismiss them as generic, trivial, irrelevant - the kind of questions that disappear once urgent needs are met. However, we must look at what she is really saying, really asking. Hers are indeed questions of a woman, of a mother, of a wife in distress.  But they are also questions about the safety, rights, livelihood and future prospects of a dispersed population who is increasingly losing its political and existential bearings; about the destiny of a people whose predicament has been central to the recent history of this region; and, without wishing to overstate her case, about the manner in which the current plight of Palestinians in Syria, at the crossroads between the prolonged predicament of their exile and the recent, unfolding tragedy of the Syrian war, risks affecting the region as a whole. The drama of Yarmouk and Um Ahmed’s words resonate in my head as holding some very critical questions that must be asked of us as the international community, of us as the United Nations, of us as policy makers, journalists, activists and of us as human beings.  And for which we must be held to account.


Thank you, Karim, for your kind introduction.  This is one of the last public talks in my tenure as Commissioner-General of UNRWA, a post which I will leave next month, and I am very honoured to be part of the Bill and Sally Hambrecht Distinguished Peacemakers Lecture Series. I am a humanitarian worker: one, it is true, who (with the passage of time) has been exposed to many different challenges, in war and in peace, but basically a practitioner in the field of helping those in most distress. But I value being part of a series of “peacemaker” lecturers, as I strongly believe that helping people in distress does contribute to the efforts of those who pursue peace in more established ways, through politics and in the institutions. 

I am also very happy to be able to speak here, once again, at this great university, and especially as a guest of the Issam Fares Institute, because your cooperation with UNRWA, particularly in recent years, has been of huge value to us. I am glad to be able to recognize this publicly tonight.

I hope you will not mind if I speak a bit formally - more than I usually do - and read out my lecture this evening. My thoughts are the result of much reflection by my UNRWA colleagues and me, and I would like them to be spelled out with precision, and in a manner that will last. 

And I wish to dedicate this speech to the memory of the twelve UNRWA staff members who have lost their lives in Syria because of the war, as well as to the many UNRWA school children who have been killed in Syria since 2011, including five near Dera’a last week. 

Ladies and Gentlemen, 

The international community has been unable to help the people of Syria: and I do not mean simply through humanitarian action, essential as this has become in the descent into chaos which we are witnessing throughout the country.  Unfortunately, it may not be until the guns fall silent, and we fully realize the price paid by the ordinary people, that we will also realize the extent of our shared loss and the magnitude of our shared shame.

Lakhdar Brahimi’s recent warning about the “Somalization” of Syria is not simply a shocking political observation, it is also a daily reality. That violence is all-pervading in Syria - brutal, physical, destructive violence - is a fact which has become so visible that it passes almost unobserved in the news. But there is more. The economy is imploding, the infrastructure is collapsing.  The speed of the decline has been phenomenal - this is a country that has been living in conflict not 25 years like Somalia, but three. The Syrian Center for Policy Research, commissioned by UNRWA and UNDP to do periodic economic analysis, found that by the first half of 2013, Syria’s economy had lost an equivalent of 174% of its 2010 GDP.  Already over half the population now lives in poverty.  The result is the emergence of an economy essentially based on violence that exploits an already vulnerable citizenry.  

It was inevitable that the combined factors of violence and economic collapse would not be contained to Syria, but would have profound consequences for the countries in the region.  The effects are most acutely felt here in Lebanon, and because of this country’s political fragility, they pose a great source of stress and concern.    

Within this catastrophe of extraordinary magnitude, another crisis, growing from the larger ones, but with features and consequences of its own, has been unfolding. It is on this crisis that I will focus tonight. 

The situation of the 570,000 Palestinians who have been resident in Syria is a humanitarian disaster but also a political challenge that will have reverberations after the conflict has stopped.   

In Syria, Palestinians found secure, sympathetic refuge in 1948. For over six decades they nurtured families and communities, integrated economically, and formed a subset of the cultural and intellectual fabric of a vibrant and proud Syrian society. The Palestinian camps, and UNRWA services in them, formed the locus of their community. They were places where UNRWA was at its best in supporting Palestine refugees. Life-time bonds were nurtured in our schools. Women shared problems while waiting in the clinics. Community centres helped families cope with stress and provided space to organize events.  Youth clubs provided teenagers with safe creative space where they developed skills.  
UNRWA could carry out in an optimal way its role of visible commitment of the international community to support Palestine refugees, by providing them with assistance, but also by being part of the glue - a glue holding them together and contributing to the resilience that has allowed them to develop human capital, sustain communities, and build for a positive and peaceful future.  This was made possible by the hospitality extended to Palestine refugees.    

Then came this cruel war. Next month marks the beginning of the fourth year of the conflict.  Even two years into it, we retained hopes that Palestinians and their camps might be spared.  The turning point was in December 2012, when Yarmouk - a Damascus suburb hosting one of the largest Palestinian communities in exile - was overwhelmed by fighting. It suddenly seemed that the deliberate wish of the vast majority of Palestinians to stay out of the conflict was simply not enough to protect them - and this was made worse by the military involvement of some Palestinians - though a small minority - on both sides of the conflict.  Many of the twelve Palestinian camps, because they are mostly located in contested areas, are now overwhelmed by fighting and insecurity. In some cases, Palestinians (and indeed other civilians) have left en masse, either fleeing from fighting or forced away at gunpoint.  The dynamics shift along with the geography of the conflict, each camp experiencing it in different but equally devastating ways. Even Palestinian camps that have been relatively safe and are housing many displaced refugees, like in Homs, or in Jaramaneh near Damascus, sit precariously adjacent to battle zones. In the space of a few months, between the end of 2012 and the first months of 2013, life suddenly became very precarious for thousands of Palestinians in Syria. Just a week ago - in one more example of the blatant disregard for the laws of war that has characterized this conflict - an explosion close to an UNRWA school near Dera’a , left 18 dead, including five UNRWA school children and one staff member. 

But it is Yarmouk which has come to symbolize the suffering of Palestine refugees in Syria in the course of the war. 
Yarmouk was a large, vibrant, urban melting pot of Palestinians and Syrians. It owes its current fate purely to its location: a triangular slice pointing straight into central Damascus, a strategic last piece in the puzzle required to make a strong advance on the capital. Its relative isolation from the conflict was shattered in mid-December 2012.  This is when armed groups came into the camp, the government surrounded the area, and clashes ensued. UNRWA’s 28 schools and three clinics ceased operation. Armed groups also occupied houses, looted hospitals and stores. Those inside Yarmouk and who did not manage or did not want to flee, got caught in a tight stranglehold by the parties to the conflict. And this is a pattern that repeated itself in other Palestinian camps, including Qabr Essit, Ein El-Tal and Sbeineh.  

Throughout part of last year, entry and exit were tightly controlled by the warring parties, but residents continued to receive some assistance. Access became tighter until it was all but sealed in September. For several months, and until a fragile agreement between the parties allowed us to distribute some food starting on 18 January, we were unable to provide any assistance. Residents whom I saw yesterday emerging like ghosts from the depths of Yarmouk, as in a medieval siege, reported that they subsisted on grass, spices mixed in water, and animal feed. They burned furniture on their balconies to keep warm; they suffered severe malnutrition and dehydration.  Many died from readily treatable conditions.

Of course, all civilians suffer in Syria. But Palestinians, unlike many Syrians, do not have support networks beyond where they live. They have been buffeted from camp to camp in search of safety.  Vastly compounding their plight is the fact that options for external flight are extremely limited.  About 53,000 have approached UNRWA in Lebanon, a country hosting also hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees, and where the situation of close to 300,000 Palestinians in existing camps is already dire and inhospitable - with limited or no access to jobs, property and services.    

Jordan has an explicit no-entry policy for Palestinians from Syria. Approximately 11,000 have sought assistance from UNRWA there. Throughout the region, in support of Palestinians fleeing Syria, we promote humanitarian principles of non-refoulement and equal treatment of refugees, but to little avail in the case of Jordan. Palestinians are also no longer granted visas to Egypt.  Some 5,000 fled the Syria conflict there and are in need of assistance. Making it possible has been a complex exercise in a country undergoing its own, difficult transition.    

Palestinians from Syria are reportedly seeking safety further afield, including in Turkey, in Gaza, even in Asia. Last fall, we saw them board boats by the hundreds towards Europe, and sometimes, tragically, lose their lives at sea. This matches the sad and resigned explanations we are now hearing from Palestinians in Syria and those who have fled to neighbouring countries:  “We are not wanted here, we cannot manage any longer, I want my children to have a new life, away from this region, which for us is only trouble.”  

We estimate that at least 70% of the Palestine refugee population in Syria have been displaced, whether inside the country or beyond its borders.  It is in fact the largest displacement of Palestinians since 1967, although - one should say - displacement and insecurity have been main characteristics of the Palestinian condition:  including the expulsions from Kuwait and Libya, the destruction of camps in the Lebanese civil war and more recently of Nahr el-Bared, and the grave violations of human rights against Palestinians that occurred a few years ago in Iraq.     

And look carefully at pictures of Yarmouk - of the distribution of small parcels of food to thousands of desperate women, men, children coming out of the besieged area. The stark greyness of the people and the rubble remind me of the black-and-white archive pictures from the Palestinian diaspora in 1948:  children in tattered clothes and unkempt hair warming themselves on small fires, old people looking into the camera, their lined and leathered faces deep with concern.   

Um Ahmad and many others told me that what is happening to them is as bad as the Nakba of 1948, and in some ways even worse. I first heard this in December 2012, and it has taken me some time to process.  How can it be as bad as the seminal story of expulsion and flight from cities and villages, worse than the original forced exile from the homeland?  
Then, of course, I understood. In 1948, Palestinians fleeing their land were welcomed throughout the region in solidarity.  In 2014, there is simply no more welcome.  Hence Um Ahmed’s question: where do we go?  In 1948, they fled with families and neighbours and then set up camps with UNRWA’s help that maintained familial and community networks and support systems.  Now - in the much more complex patterns of forced displacement that have emerged in the global age - they are often compelled to flee individually, while those networks, built over many years of exile, quickly disintegrate.  Economics and logistics dictate that families are separated; young people go alone using the family assets to pay smugglers. Cohesion is lost, solidarity is weakened, hope is threatened. This is a major crisis affecting the scattered Palestinian nation.

One must understand the special significance that Yarmouk has played in the Palestinian conscience in preserving the precious notions of identity, culture and belonging throughout the exile. Yarmouk was the centre of Palestinian life in Syria, and recognized region-wide as a positive embodiment of diaspora life.  An economic and cultural centre, where Palestinian identity was nurtured.  It was the example of how Palestinians, though refugees, could thrive on the many opportunities provided by stability, peace, official hospitality and UNRWA services. It was a relative oasis of prosperity in a long and difficult journey. It made the absence of a just solution to the question of Palestine refugees less unbearable. It enabled people to be patient, as they waited for that solution to be found.

The unfolding tragedy of Yarmouk is therefore devastating to the psyche of every Palestinian refugee in more ways than the sheer suffering of those directly affected by it.   There is a ripple effect of anxiety and fear emanating from the Yarmouk experience.  Yarmouk has defined Palestinian solidarity and hope, and it now defines the loss and uncertainty not only for its residents, but also for Palestinians all over Syria, and of the wider community.    

Yarmouk has come to represent all places where - for Palestinians and especially refugees - control over one’s life is an illusion, where the safety of decades can disappear overnight, where land is confiscated, homes are demolished, rights are denied, travel is restricted, jobs are lost, resentments and prejudices prevail. Yarmouk is Gaza, the open-air prison.  Yarmouk is Nahr el-Bared, destroyed by bombs.  Yarmouk is Jenin, it is Sabra and Shatila, it is Tel az-Zaatar.   Yarmouk is the expulsion from Kuwait, it is 1967, all the way back to the Nakba. It was a beacon of resilience. Unless we act quickly, it risks becoming a symbol of dispossession, and of a history of repeated dispossessions.  

The international community, recognizing the complexity of the Palestinian refugee question in this volatile region, has of course continued to support refugees through UNRWA.  This, to use the words in our name, takes the form of “relief” during times of crisis, and “works” - a more developmental approach, including education, health, microfinance - when and where stability permits. I always strongly emphasize that UNRWA’s mission is really to maximize the human development, the human capital and potential of the Palestine refugees to ensure a better future after peace is negotiated.  

But Yarmouk and Syria also prove that our ability to do this well is constantly compromised by conflict and instability.  The continued disenfranchisement of Palestinians from rights and livelihoods in Gaza and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, has been the main impediment to serving Palestine refugees to the benefit of their future and that of the region. The Syria conflict, in a dramatic way, compromises the efforts of the international community, through UNRWA, to continue to provide some continuity while awaiting a political solution. This also has repercussions in Lebanon.  The arrival of Palestinians from Syria has compounded the problems affecting existing camps.  And this while we are still grappling with the re-housing of refugees displaced from Nahr el-Bared in 2007 - a huge project assigned to us by the international community, but for which international resources are running out. Much progress is also still necessary to expand the employment rights of Palestinians in Lebanon, but this is proving more challenging (although not less needed) in the current circumstances. Crises chase opportunities away for Palestine refugees.

The Syria conflict is also shifting the Palestinian refugee geography, upsetting a long-term status quo.  Since 1948, countries of the region have maintained their understanding of the original burden-sharing.  The conflict in Syria is disrupting this balance and creating anxiety among other host countries.  

And finally, by destabilizing their current existence and forcing them out of six decades of security, for Palestinians in Syria it brings into stark relief their relationship with Palestine itself.  The fact that they are increasingly looking outside the region, further away from the homeland is significant. They are a transformed constituency, with different expectations, with much more urgent demands of their leadership, and with a different relationship to the overall Palestinian body politic.  For both the leadership and the people, there is simultaneous pain, shared anxiety and worry about their status in the region, at a time when the Israeli-Palestinian peace process generates both hopes of eventual and just resolution, and anxiety of renewed failure; and at a time when strong and clear leadership is more needed than ever. 

By putting into question long-standing shared assumptions and understandings, the crisis of Palestinians in Syria is starting to threaten some elements of the geopolitical framework of the modern Middle East. In this respect, last but not least, a negotiated solution of the question of Palestine refugees might also become more complicated because of the changing refugee geography possibly emerging from the war in Syria. 

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I have tried to explain how Yarmouk represents the overlap of various crises:  the situation of Palestine refugees within the broader Syria war; their plight within the predicament of Palestine refugees at large; the intersection of these crises with the painful transitions in the region. Most strikingly, Yarmouk is a crossroads of crisis in peace-making, both for Syria and for Israelis and Palestinians. 

A crossroads, however, is also a time of critical choice, of need for thoughtful and deliberate action. If there were ever a need for negotiation and peace-making, it is now. 

In Syria, pursuing a political solution to the conflict has proven monumentally difficult, because the international community has not been so deeply divided on making peace since the Cold War, when conflicts were never solved and the world lived on a precarious balance of lethal force. 

But there are some small signs of hope. Even in Yarmouk. An extremely complex negotiation between the parties, involving armed opposition groups, Palestinian factions and the Syrian government, resulted in an initial agreement to allow UNRWA to resume distributions of food and medicines to the desperate Palestine refugees still trapped inside Yarmouk. Since 18 January, we have been able to operate only on 13 days. But we have distributed over 7,000 parcels of food and 10,000 doses of urgently needed polio vaccines as well as vitamins and other supplements. 

This must become much more regular, predictable and secure. But it is an example of how good will can bring about the conditions to at least alleviate the suffering of civilians, while broader negotiations go on. We also understand that in other Palestinian camps, efforts to reach limited ceasefires are yielding some results. This is already having some impact in pursuing another important first step towards peace: rebuilding trust. In Jaramaneh, last Saturday,  many displaced Palestinians told me that they wanted to return to their homes in some of the camps. It is the first time I have heard this in years of conflict in Syria. I am cautious in assessing it: I do not know whether it is yet a trend, nor whether returns will already be possible, but it is a start, which will require the parties to the conflict to create the conditions for returns to be safe and sustainable. 

I began my remarks by suggesting that the work of humanitarians in conflict can help create a break in the dynamic of violence, and give space to the efforts by other actors to explore solutions.  This, within the conflict in Syria, is a very challenging task, with violence raging unabated in many parts of the country; and fraught with risks, as attested by the tragic deaths of humanitarian personnel. It is not, however, an impossible one. Yesterday - I witnessed it myself - Yarmouk was the scene of a collective effort to establish humanitarian space - though certainly determined by a variety of different factors, nevertheless one of the first such efforts in Syria thus far.

There is some positive irony in this. Palestine refugees and the camps in which they live have long been perceived as sources of instability in the Middle East; in Syria, in the bloodiest conflict to grip the Middle East in decades, perceptions may be reversed as Yarmouk, and perhaps other Palestinian enclaves, become places in which an array of warring parties consent to humanitarian access, introducing a new and positive dynamic into the conflict at large. 

We should not, of course, be naive. Small local successes will not be durable unless a comprehensive political solution is found to the conflict, and there is a reversal in the logic of militarization, which dictates that even determining where hungry people receive food depends on military logic. We know the challenges of replacing the current, failed attempts to win the war militarily with the pursuit of mutually acceptable political solutions: they are immense. But do not discount the power of precedence that localized agreements, such in Yarmouk, can provide. If nothing else, they may be the sign that an exhausted country is becoming ready for peace. It is perhaps not by chance that at the broader level, last Saturday, the Security Council finally found unity in calling for access to be given to the United Nations agencies and their partners so that urgent humanitarian assistance can be provided to those suffering in Syria; and in so doing, provided a valuable framework for us, humanitarians, to carry out their work.

I therefore appeal to you, tonight, not to lose hope - not to lose it, yet. Further, I want to reiterate my call that as efforts to pursue peace in Syria continue, the Palestinian dimension of the crisis not be forgotten. Whatever future dispensation will oversee Syria’s future, it is indispensable - for the stability of the region - that Syria resumes its role of good host to Palestine refugees, until their question is resolved in the context of the Middle East peace process. Palestinians must be able to return to Syria when conditions will allow, and the rehabilitation of their homes and camps will have to be part of the broader reconstruction effort, without prejudice to their rights as refugees. All Palestinians, on their side, must heed the call of their own leadership and indeed their own people and refrain from involving themselves in fighting, either alongside the government or the opposition. The militarization of some Palestinian groups is the greatest risk to the present and future of Palestinians in Syria. 

On the other hand, the renewed regional perception that Palestinians are troublemakers, and the ensuing trends to exclude, constrain or limit them, must be replaced by a practical approach to their vulnerability and the instability which this vulnerability can feed. For this, of course, it is essential that the current, US-led efforts to broker peace between Israelis and Palestinians be pursued not only with the admirable determination displayed by Secretary Kerry, and not only in a spirit of greater fairness and impartiality, but also that they be aimed at redressing injustice, be in line with UN principles, and have resolution of the refugee issue as an articulated priority. The clear fact is, that without peace between Israelis and Palestinians, and a just resolution to the question of refugees, Palestinians will continue to find themselves trapped in other people’s crises, and their history will remain one of protracted and multiple exile.

It is not surprising that Um Ahmed’s questions are not only poignant but also piercing in their prescience.  “Where do we go?  What is our future?”

What then is our answer to Um Ahmed and the hundreds of thousands asking the same questions?  How can we secure the future for Palestine refugees that they deserve, that has been promised? 

Yarmouk is also a symbol of Palestinian insistence:  insistence that the right of return be addressed, insistence that their narrative be recognized, that their need for safety be respected, that their rights be upheld, that they live in dignity.    

We must hear this insistence.  It is crucial to building a stable Middle East.  

Listen to the speech below

Background Information: 

UNRWA is confronted with an increased demand for services resulting from a growth in the number of registered Palestine refugees, the extent of their vulnerability and their deepening poverty. UNRWA is funded almost entirely by voluntary contributions and financial support has been outpaced by the growth in needs. As a result, the UNRWA programme budget, which supports the delivery of core essential services, operates with a large shortfall. UNRWA encourages all Member States to work collectively to exert all possible efforts to fully fund the Agency’s programme budget. UNRWA emergency programmes and key projects, also operating with large shortfalls, are funded through separate funding portals. UNRWA is a United Nations agency established by the General Assembly in 1949 and mandated to provide assistance and protection to some 5.4 million Palestine refugees registered with UNRWA across its five fields of operation. Its mission is to help Palestine refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, West Bank, including East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip achieve their full human development potential, pending a just and lasting solution to their plight. UNRWA services encompass education, health care, relief and social services, camp infrastructure and improvement, protection and microfinance.