Palestinian Refugees and the Arab Spring: Legal Regimes, Durable Solutions, and Outstanding Questions

By Noura Erakat
Submitted to Session P3059 (Palestine and the Arab Revolutions, 2012 Annual Meeting
All Middle East;
Human Rights;
Uprisings sweeping throughout the Arab world since the Winter 2010 have dramatically altered a decades-long status quo characterized by militarism and authoritarianism. The shifts have given new meanings to citizenship, civic participation, and self-determination. Among the most affected populations are Palestinian refugees living throughout the Middle East and North Africa.
Should those populations be forced to flee in new flows of forced migration, it is unclear which legal regimes will facilitate their movement. The recent case study of Palestinian refugee resettlement from Iraq offers significant lessons.
The US war on Iraq has meted widespread devastation upon its civilian population, including immense forced migration in the region. Approximately one million Iraqis have become refugees. Moreover, at 2.8 million, the number of internally displaced Iraqis constitutes the largest internally displaced population in the Middle East. These figures do not account for the forced migration of Palestinian refugees who took refuge in Iraq in 1948 and later in, 1967. Since 2003, only 13,000 of the 34,000 Palestinian refugees remain in Iraq. The resettlement of those refugees uncovers some of the challenges to protecting Palestinian refugees under existing legal regimes.
What can these lessons tell us about Palestinian refugees in Syria? To reflect on various possible scenarios in Syria for Palestinian refugees, this paper traces the resettlement of Palestinian refugees in Iraq. What was the role of the US administration and the Office of the United National High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)? In what ways did these various parties lobby or use legal tools in their efforts? How can we imagine a similar situation unfolding in Syria, where the United Nations Relief Works Agency (UNRWA) and not UNHCR governs, if Palestinian refugees are forced to flee the country. While UNHCR has a global protection mandate, UNRWA’s protection mandate only exists in specific countries in the Middle East? What type of legal challenges and humanitarian frameworks will these refugees face? What roles will UNHCR and UNRWA play and how will they collaborate? This case study offers many lessons to international agencies about the protection gaps for Palestinian refugees who continue to be set apart from the world’s refugee populations. It also sheds light on the challenges facing protracted refugee populations and the obstacles they face in political conflict and crisis.