November 25, 2013; New Republic

The challenge for refugees like those displaced by the civil war in Syria is that their first move is often not their last, partly because of the changing policies and attitudes in the countries receiving and assisting refugees, and partly because of the racial, ethnic, or national identities of the refugees themselves.

Writing for the New Republic, Egypt-based Laura Dean reports on 50 Syrian and Palestinian refugees going on a hunger strike while they are detained at a police station in Alexandria. The refugees are supposed to be released per an order from a public prosecutor, but Egypt’s Interior Ministry has called them a “threat to national security.” The 50 on hunger strike are among over 1,000 Syrian and Palestinian refugees being held by the authorities in police stations in cities along Egypt’s north coast.

About 200 of the refugees are Palestinian Syrians. For example, since their boat to Italy sank, Mohaned Mansour’s sons and nieces—the oldest nine years old, the youngest eight months—have been held at the Karmouz police station in Alexandria, though Mansour is not at the police station himself; he wasn’t on the boat, as he cared for a pregnant daughter. His family moved from Palestine to Syria in 1967. He was actually born in Syria, and thinks of himself as Syrian even though he is considered Palestinian. Since the civil war started in Syria, he and his family have moved seven times within the country. After violence reached the refugee camp he and his family were in in Syria, Mansour and his family went to Egypt.

Mansour might think of himself as Syrian, but Egypt thinks he and his family are Palestinians. Therefore, the Egyptian government prevents Mansour and other refugees who are deemed Palestinian from getting any assistance from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), whose authorization to provide services in Egypt is restricted to Syrian refugees. Assistance for Palestinian refugees is coordinated by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), which Egypt doesn’t even allow to operate in the country. Reportedly, both the UNHCR and the UNRWA are negotiating with Egyptian authorities in order to resolve this impasse, but until an agreement is reached, Mansour and his family are out of luck.

Giving up on Egypt, Mansour and many others are trying to get to European countries, but they hear different rumors about which countries will take how many Palestinian-Syrian refugees. Their discomfort is only deepened when they hear threats from representatives of the Syrian embassy. While in Egypt, they are facing what Dean calls “a backlash against Syrian and Palestinian refugees in Egypt.”

“The Egyptian media repeatedly linked them to the Muslim Brotherhood and Palestinians are often accused of supporting Hamas,” Dean writes. “Once welcomed in this country, many Palestinians have been attacked, their shops vandalized. Those who can leave have already left. But Palestinian Syrians have few options.”

Technically, Syrian refugees have access to a number of neighboring countries, such as Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey, where refugee camps have been established. However, Palestinian refugees from Syria are only legally admitted into Lebanon for either a 48- or 72-hour visa, after which they are supposed to return to war-torn Syria. That’s why Palestinian Syrians like Mansour are hoping to get to Europe, notwithstanding the danger (two of his relatives died when one of the boats to Europe sank) and the cost (Dean reports that he paid $35,000 to smugglers).

Ultimately, the problem is the stateless condition of Palestinians. Since the rule of Gamel Abdul Nasser, Egypt has not been welcoming to Palestinian refugees, and many other countries are little more open to Palestinians, if at all. Presume that at some point the Syrian civil war will come to an end. In theory, Syrian refugees would be able to return to their homes in Damascus, Aleppo, or Homs. For Palestinian Syrian refugees, there may be no place to go.—Rick Cohen