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Palestinian Refugees in UNRWA Camps
By: Diala Khalaf
May 28, 2012

The number of Palestinian refugees in Syria in 1948 was 85,000.00 -90,000 (Al-Mawed 1999, p. 4). Most of the Palestine refugees who fled to the Syrian Arab Republic as a result of the conflict were from the northern part of Palestine, mainly from Safad and the cities of Haifa and Jaffa. In 1967, over 100,000 people, including Palestine refugees, fled from the Golan Heights to other parts of Syria when the area was occupied by Israel, a few thousand refugees fleeing war-torn Lebanon in 1982 also became refugees in Syria (UNRWA 2009f). The arrival of these refugees did not threaten the economy or social structure of the country as the refugees in Syria constituted not more than 2 to 3 percent of the population (Khalil 2009, p.26).

There is a great similarity in the characteristics and the circumstances of refugee camps in Syria and other Arab countries in the field of demography, manpower, health and education. The uniqueness of the Palestinian refugee in Syria is mainly related to the legal status of the refugees. The legal status of the Palestinian refugees in Syria has so far been very helpful in boosting the socio-economic development of the refugee community in Syria and paved the ground for the link between Syrian and Palestinian capital which constitutes the most visible characteristic shaping the integration of the refugee community.

In Syria, UNRWA camps are not isolated socially, culturally and politically from the community of the Syrian country. This is because Palestinians are legally equal to Syrians in everything except for the right of candidacy to the Parliament, municipal councils and voting in elections. UNRWA played a great humanitarian role in the survival of refugees in the camps, through providing services, to every camp in Syria, UNRWA is in charge of health, education, sewerage, collection of rubbish, digging water wells, building schools, etc (UNRWA, 2009f). It provides basic environmental health services which include sewage disposal, collection and disposal of solid waste. However, many of the water and sewerage systems are in need of improvement, while some camps still lack networks altogether. Poor sanitation in the camps poses health risks for the refugees. In most of the refugee camps shelters remain very basic, and many require structural rehabilitation.

In Syria, the Palestine refugees have access to government -run schools and universities, the elementary and preparatory education is provided for Palestinian refugees in UNRWA schools while secondary education is provided in national schools. Syrian instructions and universities are open to Palestinians on equal terms to Syrians, in regard of high education for the refugee youth in Syria. UNRWA-run schools provide basic elementary and preparatory education as we mentioned and it runs a vocational training center in Damascus, which prepares young refugees for employment by equipping them with marketable skills (UNRWA, 2009f). There are many post-secondary intermediate institutes in which students study for two years and graduate with diplomas as technicians, there are also state institutes where thousands of Palestinian students study. Unfortunately they are not mentioned in either UNRWA or Palestinian statistics and no surveys have been made in this field.

UNRWA health programmes provide preventive and curative services through a network primary health centers that saved refugees in Syria from epidemics, infectious diseases. The results of these services are tangible in the shape of the decrease of infant mortality, improvement in the health services. UNRWA, the Syrian government health services with cooperation with the International Red Cross collaborated also in providing health services to refugees. The government health services in Syria are as much free for the Syrian citizen as they are for Palestinians without any discrimination whatsoever, however, the refugee population is still dependent on UNRWA health services. The financial problems of UNRWA deprive thousands of chronic patients from getting medicine and the situation is more serious among hypertension and diabetes patients.

Some economic activities take place inside the camp itself in the form of shops, small businesses, and workshops. UNRWA helped expand the level of economic activity inside the camps. The most remarkable characteristic of the Palestinian work force in Syria is that there is a very great similarity in the characteristics of both the Palestinian and Syrian work force and so the Palestinian work force has never been an independent entity, instead it is an integral part of the Syrian work force at large (Al-Mawed 1999, p. 48).

As pointed out by Reeds (2006, 374) "Syria passed laws giving Palestinians a status equal to that of Syrian nationals. It is not necessary for Palestinians to acquire a permit in order to work, and they are permitted to own more than one commercial enterprise. They may travel freely and settle anywhere in the country. Palestinians are eligible to receive free secondary education from government schools and are granted equal access to Syrian universities." the same author (ibid: 374) however outlines some restrictions imposed on Palestinian refugees with "which Syrian nationals are not burdened. For example, Palestinian residing in Syria may not vote, and they are not permitted to own multiple homes. In addition, despite the fact that they have not been offered citizenship, Palestinian refugees are subject to compulsory service in the Syrian army."


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