Palestinian refugees and the Syrian uprising: Filling the protection gap during secondary forced displacement

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Palestinian refugees in the Middle East constitute a protracted refugee situation. In response to political considerations by multiple state actors, they are denied return to their homes of habitual residence and are refused meaningful legal protection in their host countries. Palestinians are therefore suspended between their political objectification in a prolonged conflict on the one hand, and the vulnerability of their humanitarian condition, like all other refugees, on the other. Unlike their refugee counterparts who are persons of concern to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Palestinian refugees endure an uneven legal regime. Since the United Nations Conciliation Commission for Palestine (UNCCP) fell into abeyance, no international agency has searched for durable solutions on behalf of Palestinian refugees, thus exposing them to a protection gap. Instead, the United Nations Relief Works Agency (UNRWA), established to furnish Palestinian refugees with aid and relief, has provided them with incremental protection, which, however significant, has been insufficient to close the gap. The extent of this protection gap has been vividly demonstrated during several episodes of secondary forced displacement in the Middle East. In response to their mass expulsion from Kuwait in 1991, Libya in 1996, and Iraq in 2003, UNRWA and UNHCR have closely collaborated in order to bridge this gap and provide Palestinian refugees with adequate protection. These incidents of inter-agency collaboration constitute de facto policies between the two agencies, which demonstrate the flexibility of otherwise rigid delineations between their existing mandates. In particular, past practice makes clear that UNRWA and UNCHR can have overlapping geographic and operational mandates. During the most recent crisis in Syria, these de facto policies have proven inadequate to protect Palestinian refugees. To overcome this challenge, UNHCR and UNRWA should formalize their inter-agency collaboration on behalf of Palestinian refugees during times of calm as well as crisis, in conformity with the spirit of the UNHCR Statute and the 1951 Refugee Convention as well as with past practice. Beyond crisis, the agencies should consider innovative approaches to definitively close the protection gap.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)581-621
Number of pages41
JournalInternational Journal of Refugee Law
Issue number4
StatePublished - Dec 1 2014
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Demography
  • Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law
  • Law


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