A Palestinian refugee from the Syrian refugee camp of Yarmouk holds up his passport in front of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) offices in the Cola district of the Lebanese capital, Beirut, on 19 December 2012. (Photo: Anwar Amro/AFP/Al-Akhbar English)
Following air strikes Sunday by the Syrian military on the country’s largest refugee camp, Palestinians are fleeing from the relative shelter of refugee status in Syria to strapped aid services in Lebanon. Once home to 150,000 refugees, Yarmouk camp in Damascus has emptied with Palestinian leaving en masse for the first time since violence erupted two years ago for the ouster of President Bashar al-Assad.
While the road to Lebanon—often walked by foot—offers a reprieve from the battle that has raged in Yarmouk for now five days, Palestinian refugees are hit with more restrictions in Lebanon than their non-Palestinian Syrian refugee counterparts. Palestinians receive shorter visas to Lebanon and are only granted a 15-day transit stay with an option to extend for up to 30 days. As well their visas are more expensive, around $33 according to United Nations Refugee Works Agency’s (UNRWA) Liaison Officer Chris McGrath who added, the travel permits are often too expensive for many families. McGrath confirmed to Mondoweiss the duration of the transit visa is shorter than that of a visa for a Syrian, however, he was unable to confirm the number of days allocated to Syrian refugees. Mondoweiss contacted the United Nations High Council of Refugees, but was unable to confirm by the time of publication the exact length of stay Syrians refugees receive in Lebanon. Yet McGrath indicated Lebanese authorities are unable to enforce visa limitations, and it is likely many Palestinians will overstay their travel permits.
Palestinians began fleeing on Monday after pro-regime forces instructed residents to leave the camp via text messages, and surrounded Yarmouk following air strikes on December 16 that killed 25. After leaving for the Southern border, Palestinian refugees then experienced long waits and high costs before entering Lebanon. On December 19 Al-Akhbar English also reported during the days of massive flight from Yarmouk camp, one evening Palestinians were not allowed to cross the border into Lebanon, forced to wait overnight in the outdoors:
At Masnaa, Palestinian refugees faced several administrative complications which delayed their entry into Lebanon. Some had to sleep in the courtyard outside the cafeteria used by General Security, until the general director agreed to allow them in.
Over the past four days the number of Palestinian refugees from Syria that entered Lebanon is “skyrocketing,” McGrath told Mondoweiss. While press wires have reported since Sunday around 3,000 Palestinian refugees have fled into Lebanon and Al-Akhbar has reported 95% of Yarmouk’s residents have left the camp, McGrath notes that estimates of refugees that have relocated to Syria are conservative. He said there is no formalized mechanism in place log displaced persons. Since the beginning of the week McGrath said around 100 families have registered in Lebanon for UNRWA services, yet many refugees still remain unaccounted because they have not filed for emergency aid. “A lot went to various established [refugee] camps to stay with family in Lebanon,” said McGrath. Without proper count it is still unclear if the majority of Palestinians who have left Yarmouk are seeking refuge in other Syrian cities, or if they have left the country, marking their third expulsion since 1948. However Al-Akhbar and the Lebanese Daily Star suggests a significant portion of those refugees are now in Lebanon.
Last August Mondoweiss reported on Yarmouk’s first foray into the crisis in Syria when Palestinians aligned with Ahmad Jibril, head of the PFLP-General Command, assisted pro-regime militias in door-to-door searches for anti al-Assad sympathizers. Since the summer factionalization inside of the camp has swelled and in response the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) has officially called to depose Jibril from the PLO, citing regulations against the killing of Palestinians. Yet the PLO’s grievances against Jibril are not new. He has been a controversial figure since the 1960s as he has been willing to engage in national projects outside of the Palestinian cause, a political taboo for the Palestinian leadership. “His military doctrine as well as his organization remained pro-Syrian throughout the years. Even when he used to carry out operations in the name of Libya’s Qaddafi or others, he would be executing orders emanating from Damascus,” reported Al-Arabiya News in a December 20, 2012 profile of the embattled leader. Continuing, his “commitment to Syria has always opposed him to Yasser Arafat, the advocate of an ‘independent national Palestinian decision,’ and this same commitment urged him to defect from the Damascus-based Palestinian faction Palestine which became a Palestinian Sufi group or a political elite.”
Yet despite the Palestinian leadership pinning Jibril as a scapegoat for the turmoil in Yarmouk, at the same time fighters inside of the camp with the anti-regime National Unity Brigade claim Palestinians are in combat alongside Syrians to expel pro-Assad forces. With internet and electricity blackouts in Yarmouk throughout the week, the extent to which Palestinians are engaging in armed struggle–for or against the regime–is still unknown.