Palestinian refugees stuck between naturalization and right of return
Andrea Glioti 11 March 2013

The dichotomy entrenched between naturalization and right of return is extremely relevant to the aftermaths of the Syrian uprising, which is forcing Palestinians outside one of the few countries where they were treated fairly. The runaways found themselves with limited options: most of them stopped in Lebanon, some are still waiting for Jordan to open its borders to Palestinians, others prefer to remain in Syria rather than being discriminated in these two countries.

In Lebanon, Palestinians are not yet allowed to work in at least 25 different professions. Despite law amendments easing access to certain professions in 2010, Palestinians are paid 20% less than Lebanese for the same job. The Lebanese Government has been  criticized for not implementing the amendments and, by law, Palestinians are still not allowed to register properties.

In Jordan, the disengagement from the West Bank in 1988 was accompanied by revoking the Jordanian citizenship of 1.5 million Palestinians living there. Since then, the Hashemite Kingdom kept on stripping other categories of Palestinians of their Jordanian nationality. “There are some 1.25 million Palestinians in Jordan without citizenship rights, that is they lack the basic protections  enjoyed  by citizens in access to education, health services, voting,  movements, ownership,” confirms prof. Jamil Hilal, a sociologist at Ramallah’s Birzeit University.

In Syria, Palestinians used to enjoy equal rights to nationals, apart from nationality and political rights, according to Law 260 of 1957, although Palestinian do also face restrictions on property rights. According to a study conducted in 1999 by the Palestinian NGO Badil, ‘Syria […] serves as an example, which confirms that secure civil and social rights in the host countries can protect refugees from falling victim, for fear of discrimination, to the dangers of re-settlement and loss of their national identity.’  Syria, Lebanon[1] and Jordan have all signed the League of Arab States’  Casablanca Protocol in 1965, which obliges Arab countries to grant Palestinian refugees rights to employment, residency and freedom of movement, while maintaining their Palestinian identity by not naturalizing them. However, Amman and Beirut didn’t live up to their commitments.

In Lebanon, Palestinian refugees aspire to fair treatment, but they remain wary of resettlement and naturalization, as these options have been often interpreted by the West and Israel as a renouncement to their right of return. This regardless of the official UNRWA definition, which qualifies a Palestinian refugee on the basis of his/her lineage and regardless of his/her nationality. “A refugee nowadays chooses to remain in the worst living conditions to preserve his sacred right of return,” affirms Rami Suleiman, a Palestinian activist from Damascus, “this situation would change, provided that the international community starts considering us Palestinians, regardless of our nationality.”  With regards to this issue, Mahmud ‘Aidun, a Palestinian researcher from the Lebanon-based NGO (‘Aidun),  quotes past examples of UN-sponsored quick resettlement without any consideration of Palestinian peculiarities. “After the fall of Saddam, UNHCR turned immediately to the resettlement of Palestinian refugees leaving Iraq[2] in third countries like Brazil, after it realized the return was not accepted by the Israelis,” recalls al-‘Ali. There is no doubt that these Palestinians found better living conditions in Brazil, but in the eyes of al-‘Ali they practically lost their right of return.

Most Arab Governments stopped naturalizing Palestinians in 1952, despite a $200 million offer from the UN Refugee Rehabilitation Fund to find ‘homes and jobs for the refugees’, since they rejected any project that could be interpreted as promoting resettlement. “If we can achieve a status like the one enjoyed by Palestinians in Syria, without any need of being naturalized, it would be enough,” says Yahya, a young Palestinian refugee in Beirut’s Burj al-Barajneh camp.

But even now, as the craved refuge in Syria is vanishing, Palestinian officials in Lebanon seem keen on belittling the grievances of the newcomers and reassuring Lebanese authorities about the absence of any resettlement purpose. “The figures of Palestinians coming from Syria are not so high yet,” told me the Palestinian Ambassador to Lebanon, Ashraf Dabbur, on November 26, “and we need to take in consideration that, God willing, they will remain for a limited period.” Dabbur stressed also his gratitude for the Lebanese Government for helping Palestinians arriving from Syria, even if they were facing tribulations to extend their residency permits, while living in overcrowded refugee camps. While the ambassador was speaking, the Yarmuk Palestinian neighborhood in Damascus was under heavy shelling: on February 19, UNRWA’s General Commissioner Filippo Grandi denounced that only 20.000 of its 150.000 Palestinian residents are still there. Palestinian and Lebanese authorities cling to the idea of a community bound to return, the focus is not on improving its conditions, but on ensuring ‘that it doesn’t feel at home’.

In Lebanon, the real political and sectarian reasons behind the refusal of the naturalization of Sunni Palestinians have been masked behind an ethic adherence to the right of return. “The denial of political and social rights is justified under the slogan of persevering the right of return to Palestine,” notes prof. Hilal, “such claims hide practice of exploitation- Palestinians provided cheap labor for decades in Lebanon and other places of refuge- political petty mindedness and discrimination.”

In Jordan, Palestinians are denied political and civil rights under the guise of preserving their right of return and support their struggle for self-determination. Among the excuses given by the Jordanian kingdom for stripping Palestinians of their Jordanian citizenship, there is the aim to keep Palestinians in Palestine, to stop the indiscriminate expansion of Israeli settlements. The ‘alternative homeland’ vision of the Israeli right-wing, that is the belief that Palestinians should move to Jordan, is thus used as a pretext to violate their human rights. Naturalizing over one million stateless Palestinians in a country of around 6.500.000 inhabitants, which is home to almost two million Palestinian refugees, has clear political repercussions. Jordan. Needless to say, political calculations should not come at the expense of human rights.

[1]Even if Lebanon added some reservations on the articles related to freedom of movement and employment.

[2]UNRWA has never been allowed to work in Iraq, as the country is not a signatory of the 1951 Geneva Convention on to the protection of refugees. This is the reason why Iraqi Palestinians have been registered under UNHCR after 2003