Writing by Patrick Keddie
[This article was first published in the Huffington Post here]
“I didn’t feel like a refugee in Syria but now I just want to be recognised as one” Mohammed told me, as we sat in a café in Cairo’s outlying 6 October City. “What I am now is worse. Here, we feel like inferiors, homeless people, beggars. And we don’t find any help.”
Mohammed is a thin man in his sixties, with pale blue eyes. His family fled Haifa during the nakba in 1948 – the forcible displacement of Palestinians to make way for the nascent Israeli state -and settled in a refugee camp in Syria, where Mohammed was born.
When the uprising broke out in Syria 2011, and the violence intensified, life became perilous for Palestinian-Syrians. The regime often equates Palestinian identity cards with support for the rebels and many Palestinian-Syrians have been detained and tortured. One of Mohammed’s relatives was kidnapped and killed. Palestinian refugee camps have been bombed and raided by the Syrian regime. Mohammed feared his sons would be conscripted into the Syrian army.
Mohammed hastily sold his car for half its worth, along with most of his other belongings, and then his family fled to Egypt. That was six months ago and they are now living in poverty; receiving no help from the Egyptians, the UN or the Palestinian authorities.
The Palestinian Authority’s embassy in Egypt has registered over 6,000 Palestinian-Syrian refugees in the country, but there are thought to be several thousand more unaccounted for. They, or their families, are twice exiled and their special status as Palestinian refugees under international law has left them uniquely vulnerable and without support.
Syrian refugees in Egypt receive support through the UNHCR – the UN’s Refugee Agency – including food vouchers, limited cash assistance and help gaining residency permits.
A separate UN body – UNRWA – supports Palestinian refugees in the occupied Palestinian territories, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria but was never given a mandate to work in Egypt. Their role in the country is to act as a liaison office.
Manal Arnous, head of the UNRWA office in Cairo, informed me that they submitted a proposal to the Egyptian government in March 2013 for the UNHCR to support the Palestinian-Syrian refugees.
After several weeks the Egyptian authorities rejected the proposal, claiming that the right to resettlement provided by UNHCR help would undermine the Palestinians’ right to return to their homeland.
In early June, UNRWA made another proposal to the Egyptian government; that four international NGOs, under the supervision of UNRWA, would provide the Palestinian-Syrians with the same level of support received by Syrian refugees. They have yet to receive a response.
Arnous is frustrated with the amount of time it is taking to make a decision but says that bureaucracy is a factor as many departments are involved in the decision and recent political problems in Egypt may hinder their ability to make decisions quickly.
But she warns that, if they reject this latest proposal, “We will have no other chances or ways to assist the Palestinians.”
The Palestinian Authority’s embassy in Cairo has been able to provide limited support; one-off payments of 500EGP (£46) to each person, and an additional 100EGP to each child in a family. They have helped families with children secure a residency permit; although others must renew their tourist visas regularly. The Palestinian authorities have been criticized by refugees for not doing enough but their embassy insists they are constrained by a lack of resources.
Ahmad Moussa, a spokesman at the Palestinian Authority’s embassy in Cairo, denies they are frustrated with the help provided by the Egyptians. “Other countries have problems with refugees but Egypt welcomed the Palestinians and received them here” he told me.
However, they have been welcomed as tourists, rather than supported as refugees. Despite several invitations to respond to this article, no one from the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs was available for comment.
Mohammed had left Syria because he felt that life had become unbearable. Now he has almost reached the point where returning to Syria may be preferable to living in squalor in Egypt. “Here I may be killed through lack of support” he told me, “so I may have to go back to Syria and leave it to God.”
UNRWA confirmed that the Palestinian Authority’s embassy recently paid for 15 Palestinian-Syrian refugees to return to Syria. “They prefer to die with their families instead of sitting here begging” Arnous told me.
But the vast majority are too terrified of the consequences to return. They have to wait in Egypt, without support, caught between the current war and the on-going resonance of the nakba.
They feel the Palestinian embassy could do more and they don’t understand why UN bodies, set up to help refugees, are failing to support them. But most of their ire is targeted at the Egyptians.
Safaa Abu Hamed, 35, a Palestinian refugee from Yarmouk camp, Syria, told me that the Egyptian authorities “don’t care about Palestinians. They use Palestinians when they want to hate people or hurt people. Their enemy is Israel, just this.”