Anne Irfan
Last updated: 30 November, 2016

The Palestinian precedent and the Syrian refugee crisis

As the number of Syrian refugees in the Middle East comes ever closer to 5 million, governments across the Levant are finding that their responses to this humanitarian crisis are increasingly challenged. In particular, the Lebanese and Jordanian governments have been criticised for providing insufficient services, and for enacting discriminatory legislation against Syrians. Yet these critiques often assess the current emergency in a historical vacuum. In fact, the Syrian refugee crisis is far from the first of its kind in the Middle East – and understanding its historical antecedents is key for understanding the situation today.

One such antecedent in particular stands out. In 1948, close to a million Palestinian refugees sought shelter in countries including Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, and Syria. Around 300,000 followed in 1967. Today, large communities of Palestinian refugees can be found in the Levant – significantly, in the same countries where many Syrians are now seeking refuge. The demographic impact has been significant, with more than 400,000 registered Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, and more than 200,000 in Jordan. The arrival of large numbers of Syrians over the last 5 years means that according to a recent Amnesty report, Jordan now hosts more refugees than any other country in the world. Lebanon is 4th on the list, but first if numbers are measured against population– around 1 in 4 people living in the country now is a refugee.

Both countries’ experiences as long-term hosts of large refugee populations have been important in shaping their approach to the Syrian crisis. The Palestinian refugee communities have had a significant impact on national politics, demographics, and social history in both Jordan and Lebanon. The two countries have responded in different ways, as typified by the Jordanian decision to grant citizenship to large numbers of Palestinians. Yet in both cases, the history of the Palestinians has been a crucial formative experience behind contemporary refugee policies.

Palestinian refugee history in the Levant

While the Palestinians have been historically dispersed across numerous countries, their experiences in the Levant were characterised by certain similarities. During the Nakba of 1948, many Palestinians sought shelter in camps where basic relief was provided. In Lebanon and Jordan, as well as the West Bank, Gaza, and Syria itself, these camps developed over the years into semi-permanent structures typified by overcrowding and poor infrastructure. The camps became central to the Palestinian nationalist movement in exile, connected across national borders by political organisation and acts of solidarity. Their sometimes militant activism fuelled the perception that they were troublesome, and clashes between the host governments and camp fighters had lasting effects.  

The set-up of the camps meant that even though they lived across different states, the Palestinian refugees also experienced similarities in governance. Across the Levant, registered Palestinian refugees received services from the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), which remains active today. It was UNRWA, and not the host governments, that issued ID papers and documentation to the Palestinian refugees. It was also often UNRWA that provided them with quasi-state services in the form of large-scale education and healthcare systems. This set-up meant that registered Palestinian refugees who moved from Lebanon to Jordan, or vice versa, could continue to receive many of the same services in their new homes.  

The commonalities of the Palestinian experience make it particularly significant as a precedent for understanding contemporary regional policies towards Syrian refugees. Despite the variations, it is still possible to speak in terms of regional themes in refugee policy. Most importantly, both the Jordanian and the Lebanese governments have long regarded the Palestinian experience as a case study of what can happen when refugee populations become part of the status quo. 

The Palestinian refugees as a legacy

Placed in the historical context of the Palestinian refugee crisis, the Levantine governments’ policies towards Syrian refugees can be better explained. Beyond the simple fact of forced migration, there are some key similarities between the Palestinian and Syrian cases. Both are large-scale crises stemming from complete upheaval and disruption in their respective home countries; both disproved early suggestions that they would be resolved quickly; and both have engulfed the politics and demographics of the Levantine region. 

The similarities extend to the regional responses, which have consistently been heavily politicised as well as driven by humanitarian concerns. In their dealings with both the Palestinian and the Syrian refugees, the host governments have largely objected to any suggestion of their permanent resettlement, and have opposed policy proposals that might facilitate this. Such objections have been most overt in Lebanon, where concerns are acute over the state’s fragility and delicate confessional balancing act.

Yet beyond the simple question of similarities, there are also direct connections in how the Palestinian precedent has influenced Syrian refugee policies. Most notably, the Lebanese government has opposed the construction of Syrian refugee camps. UNHCR has strongly supported this policy, citing its positive effects in promoting integration and preventing the refugees’ ghettoisation. Yet the rationale behind the decision is also shaped by Lebanon’s experience of the Palestinian refugee camps, which have become permanent features of the national landscape over the decades. From the perspective of the Lebanese government, the historical conflict associated with the Palestinian refugee camps makes the prospect of constructing more camps an unappealing one. Most relevantly for the Syrian case today, it is also held that the camps facilitated the Palestinians’ long-term, if unofficial settlement in the country.

Somewhat ironically, the decision not to construct Syrian camps has meant that many have sought shelter instead inside the Palestinian camps, thus bolstering their populations. Many of the Palestinian camps, which were already severely overcrowded prior to 2011, are now almost at breaking point. Shatila, a camp of around one square kilometre, is now home to an estimated 20,000 people – although some put the figure much higher.  

The legacy of having hosted the Palestinian refugees has also fuelled the governments’ frustration with current international levels of support for the Syrian situation. Limited humanitarian intervention and assistance from wealthier states have characterised this refugee crisis, just as they characterised the last one. In 2014, the Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati warned that the country desperately needed more help from the international community to continue providing humanitarian aid to the refugees. Similarly, King Abdullah of Jordan said more recently that his country cannot continue to absorb Syrian refugees without more international support.  

The fact that this is a repeated experience has fuelled the frustration. Historically, both Lebanon and Jordan frequently appealed for more support for the Palestinian refugees from the international community, which tended to channel its financial assistance via UNRWA. The host states complained that the services of the Agency, which has run a deficit since the 1960s, were insufficient and that more support was needed. With UNHCR today desperately appealing for funds for the Syrian refugee crisis, history seems to be repeating itself.  

Palestinian refugees from Syria 

These issues intersect when it comes to the plight of the Palestinian refugees fleeing Syria today. Already host to large numbers of Palestinians, both Jordan and Lebanon have been reluctant to absorb more. Indeed, amidst the many similarities between the Syrian and Palestinian refugees, a crucial difference is the Palestinians’ statelessness. This has made them particularly undesirable to potential host states, who fear that without a national homeland they are more likely to settle permanently. The long-term presence of Palestinian refugee populations in Jordan and Lebanon has only reinforced this apprehension.


The repercussions of such concerns are currently playing out with devastating effect for Palestinian refugees from Syria. Since the outbreak of the conflict, more than 100,000 of the 560,000 Palestinians registered in Syria have fled the country, becoming twice or three-times displaced as a population. Like their Syrian counterparts, they have sought immediate refuge in the border countries, particularly Lebanon, where many have extended family.  

Unfortunately, they have also suffered the consequences of Palestinian refugee history in both Lebanon and Jordan. The institutional and legal complexities surrounding Palestinian refugees have deterred both states from absorbing new numbers. In January 2013 the Jordanian government banned the entry of Palestinian refugees from Syria. The prohibition drove many to Lebanon instead, putting huge pressure on already-overstretched Lebanese resources. The Lebanese government subsequently followed suit, and closed its doors to Palestinian refugees from Syria in May 2014. Today, the majority of Syria’s Palestinian population remains inside the country – the ultimate victims of the region’s two worst refugee crises in modern history.  

History repeated

The importance of the ‘Palestinian question’ for the modern Middle East has been analysed in depth, but its significance in shaping regional refugee policy is strangely overlooked. This needs to be rectified if the international community is to engage more meaningfully with the Levantine countries today hosting huge numbers of Syrian refugees. One final similarity further highlights the significance of the Palestinian issue – both crises have been marked by the firm refusal of the Israeli government to take in a single refugee. For many Arab states, the resulting added pressure on their resources only underlines the recurrence of themes from 1948.