(Dis)integration: Palestinian Refugees in the Syrian Civil War
by Matthew Coogan
Up until 2011, the Palestinian refugees of Syria (PRS) enjoyed the highest level of socio-economic integration of any Palestinian refugee community outside of Jordan. They had achieved a high level of performance on a range of socio-economic indicators, including favorable living conditions and expansive opportunities in the domestic job market. Moreover, the early legal integration of the PRS, in combination with the regime’s attempted cooptation of the Palestinian nationalist movement, afforded the PRS a distinct social and political role in Syria, in addition to their relative economic success.
However the violence that has engulfed Syria since the advent of the Arab Uprisings has dramatically altered the position of the country’s Palestinians and demonstrates their acute vulnerability. Like most Syrians, the PRS have found much of their social and economic gains reversed as a result of the conflict. However, their status as refugees will present unique challenges for the Palestinian refugees in Syria that will undermine their position and re-integration in a post-conflict Syria. The broad national conditions that once facilitated their robust socio-economic integration into Syrian society have all but evaporated. The deterioration of the Syria economy and the increasingly polarized social and political climate will likely preclude the possibility that the PRS will be reintegrated into Syrian society at pre-conflict levels.
The Legal and Socio-Economic Status of Palestinian Refugees
Following the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, approximately eight-hundred thousand Palestinians were forced to flee historic Palestine and seek refuge in neighboring Arab countries. These host states each adopted a distinctive set of policies relating to their refugee communities, resulting in disparate legal statuses and levels of socio-economic integration for Palestinian refugees in their various countries of residence. The starkest contrast was between Jordan and Lebanon. Beginning in 1949, the Jordanian government began issuing full citizenship to all Palestinians resident in its territories, resulting in a high level of refugee integration into the domestic and regional job market and Palestinians' active participation in the Jordanian political arena. In contrast, in Lebanon, Palestinians were regarded as foreigners and barred from participation in numerous sectors of the economy, denied social services available to Lebanese citizens, and excluded from the political process. Scholars have observed that these legal barriers were deliberately instituted to "[prevent] the socioeconomic absorption of the Palestinian refugees, lest any major improvements in their living conditions 'lead to resettling the Palestinian refugees and their eventual assimilation.'"
The case of Syria represents a middle ground between the full legal protections afforded by Jordan and the near-total marginalization in Lebanon. While the PRS were never issued full citizenship, the Syrian government undertook numerous measures shortly after the arrival of the refugee population to facilitate its legal and socio-economic integration. These measures, in combination with favorable economic and demographic conditions in Syria at the time, laid the foundation for a high degree of refugee socio-economic integration into Syrian society over the long term.
Palestinian Legal and Socio-Economic Integration in Syria
Following the events of 1948, an estimated ninety to one-hundred thousand Palestinian refugees arrived in Syria. There they received significantly better treatment than their compatriots who fled to other Middle Eastern countries. In January of 1949, the Syrian Government established the Palestine Arab Refugee Institution (PARI), a state organ responsible for administering refugee affairs, including emergency relief, employment assistance, and processing external contributions for refugees.  Following the establishment of this relief apparatus, the government began to expand numerous civil rights to its newly arrived constituency, culminating in the issuance of Law no. 260 in 1956, which stated:
"Palestinians residing in Syria…are to be considered as originally Syrian in all things covered by the law and legally valid regulations connected with the right to employment, commerce, and national service, while preserving their original nationality."
This unusually hospitable reception of Palestinian refugees may be attributable to the favorable economic conditions prevalent in Syria at the time. The total number of Palestinians arriving in Syria in 1948 constituted only a minute percentage of the country’s total population and thus did not represent a substantial threat to its socio-economic balance. To the contrary, the Syrian economy was able to easily accommodate the vast majority of refugees. Most were peasant farmers who were able to find work in Syrian agriculture, while an educated minority found work in specialized fields such as teaching and nursing. 
A number of social factors also converged to further incorporate Palestinian refugees into Syrian society, which in turn "discourage[d] the emergence of strong indigenous institutional expressions of a separate Palestinian national identity." To begin, some of the strongest transnational mechanisms for organizing the Palestinian diaspora, namely Palestinian trade unions, were significantly marginalized in Syria due to the high degree of economic integration and legal parity of Palestinian refugees. Palestinians were not only employed across all sectors of the economy, but were permitted full membership in Syrian trade unions, where they participated not only as general members but as high ranking officials, including presidents and vice presidents of high profile union branches. While Palestinian trade unions did come to Syria in the 1960’s, the prominence of Syrian unions connected to the ruling Ba’ath party, and Palestinian workers’ successful integration into them, rendered their activities marginal and their influence minimal.
Palestinian refugees also benefited from expansive social services provided to them by the government, on par with services provided to Syrian citizens. The Syrian regime established nurseries and kindergartens to ease the burden on Palestinian women who often worked outside the home. Most Palestinian children were educated in government secondary schools. Although such services were not administered directly at refugee camps, they were readily accessible to most Palestinians, the majority of whom were able to move outside of the camps as their economic and social fortunes climbed. This early legal and economic integration of Syria’s Palestinian refugees formed the basis for further socio-economic advances in the proceeding decades, and established the refugee community as a legitimate, productive component of Syrian society.
Continued Integration and Socio-Economic Success
The advances made by Palestinian refugees in these early decades continued and compounded into the twenty-first century. In 2001, the Fafo Institute for Applied International Studies undertook a comprehensive analysis of the living conditions of Palestinian refugees in Syria. Fafo’s project examined a range of socio-economic indicators and found that Palestinian refugees in Syria shared virtually identical living conditions with their Syrian counterparts and substantially better living conditions than refugees in other Middle Eastern countries. Indeed, it determined that the socio-economic status of Palestinian refugees was determined in greater part by domestic factors that also affected Syrian citizens, rather than their status as refugees:
"Since the majority of refugees reside in urban centers, their socio-economic and other characteristics are extensively shared with other urban populations. The poorest and most underprivileged Palestinian refugees are predominately found in rural settings, where they tend to share the living conditions of Syrian nationals living in similar surroundings."
The study found that although the average annual income of Palestinian refugees was significantly lower than the average Syrian annual income, refugees in Syria had the greatest average annual income of all Palestinian refugee populations when adjusted for purchasing power parity. Moreover, the study found that Palestinian refugee participation in the labor force to be on par with general labor force participation, and that such participation was higher than that of any other refugee population in other Middle Eastern countries. Other indicators of refugee integration include the fact that the vast majority of Palestinian refugees requiring medical care consult private or government facilities as opposed to UNRWA clinics. Also, the pass rate of refugee children on state educational exams is actually higher than the national average.
Palestinians in the Syrian Uprising
Such was the status of Palestinian refugees in Syria at the advent of the popular uprising against Bashar al-Assad’s regime in early 2011. From the beginning, Syria’s Palestinian community was a principal, if involuntary, actor in the unfolding drama of the uprising. In the early stages of the conflict, the Palestinian community at large attempted to maintain neutrality, in line with a longstanding tradition of avoiding entanglement in domestic political disputes. So potent was their initial desire to remain uninvolved in the conflict that Palestinian protestors torched the headquarters of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine- General Command, the Regime's closest allied Palestinian faction, when it sided with the government and undermined the call for neutrality.
However, as time went on, ordinary Palestinians found themselves increasingly involved as the regime attempted to scapegoat their community as a foreign interlocutor. The proximity of Palestinian refugee camps to the sites of initial protest in Dara’a and Latakia led regime officials to accuse Palestinians of instigating the violence in an attempt to downplay "indigenous" Syrian support for, and participation in, the protests. Moreover, as the Regime assault on Syrian dissidents intensified, many Palestinians felt compelled to aid them. This was the case among refugees in the Dara’a refugee camp who elected to host a field hospital in the camp for Syrians requiring medical attention.
This level of involvement marks a break with past traditions of Palestinian political activity in Syria. Before the uprising, such activity was largely restricted to matters directly connected to Palestinian liberation and the right of return. Historically, Palestinians did not engage in Syria’s domestic politics. A report from Al Jazeera's research arm reveals a surprising motivations for this shift among at least some Palestinian refugees: feelings of Syrian political identity and obligation.
According to one activist, the uprising marks "the first time we feel Syrian…this intifada is about the whole of Syria, as this country is holding both Syrians and Palestinians." Of course, isolated interviews with politically active refugees are not sufficient to capture the prevailing sentiment of the Syrian refugee population as a whole. Still, interviews such as these, along with Palestinians’ extensively documented involvement in the uprising on the side of the opposition, provide a compelling ethnographic account of the affective dimension of their integration into pre-conflict Syrian society. The early legal integration of the PRS and the concomitant rise in their socio-economic fortunes in the proceeding years allowed certain elements of the refugee population to identify with the domestic aspirations of their Syrian neighbors, despite their official status as refugees and the pull of a competing Palestinian national identity.
However, the Syrian civil war has resulted in a rapid and expansive deterioration in the material conditions of Palestinian refugees in Syria, as it has for broad swaths of the country’s population. Significantly however, the refugee community faces an additional threat in a post-conflict environment that Syrian nationals do not: the possibility of being unable to reintegrate into society at pre-conflict levels. As Laurie Brand theorized in her study of Palestinians in Syria, it was the Syrian economy’s capacity to absorb Palestinian refugees without causing undue dislocations for the country’s citizens that facilitated much of their early integration. Relatedly, she notes that in times of poor economic performance, Syrian nationals would accuse Palestinians of having taken Syrian jobs, and predicts that further economic distress could accelerate this trend.
According to the Syrian Center for Policy Research, by the end of 2012, Syrian economic losses are presumed to have eclipsed forty-eight billion USD. This represents an economic loss equal to 81.7 percent of the country's 2010 GDP. For the same period, the economy is estimated to have shed 1.5 million jobs, and the unemployment rate has surged from 10.6 percent to 34.9 percent. Such a development is ominous for the Palestinian refugee population, which will not only find it more difficult to obtain work in a post-conflict environment, but also faces the possibility of discrimination and ostracism as a result of the economic collapse. The Assad regime's initial attempts to portray the refugee community as a foreign instigator already indicate the possibilities of further marginalization in a post-conflict society.
Compounding the refugees’ economic difficulties, Syria has experienced massive inflation since the war’s inception, with a bevy of basic food and clothing items having increased in price from 50-70 percent, while gas and electricity prices have nearly doubled. Fafo’s report attributed much of Syria’s refugee’s economic advantage to the relatively low price of consumer goods in Syria, in contrast to other refugee host countries, a condition that has now all but vanished.
Moreover, as conditions in Syria continue to deteriorate, the PRS are increasingly dependent on international aid, particularly from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). The total proportion of Palestinian refugees in Syria in need of humanitarian aid has skyrocketed. While only six percent of refugees received aid in the form of direct goods before the uprising, UNRWA estimated that in April of 2013 more than four-hundred thousand refugees, more than eighty percent of the total population, require such assistance.  To date, the Agency has distributed food and non-food items to over 143,000 refugees in Syria, and is about to conclude a cash distribution plan to provide six-thousand Syrian pounds to 420,000 refugees by the end of August. UNRWA also notes that 235,000 PRS have become displaced, although it has been able to accommodate only about 7,300 in UNRWA shelters within Syria. Thus the Palsetinian refugees of Syria have become reliant on the largesse of international donors to maintain a substantially reduced standard of living, a striking contrast to their previous economic independence and success.
The Syrian civil war has been a political and humanitarian disaster for all of Syria’s disparate communities and confessions. The country is currently divided between rebel-held territory and areas where the government maintains authority, with broad swaths in between subject to violent battles for control. Sectarian tensions have flared, and the presence of foreign elements backing particular constituencies has further entrenched already potent divisions in Syrian society. Undoubtedly, reestablishing a politically and socially integrated polity in a post-Assad era will prove an extraordinarily difficult task. However, owing to the economic, social, and political factors described above, the reintegration of Syria’s Palestinian refugees presents an even more challenging dilemma. The collapse of the Syrian economy has eliminated much of the economic advantage that Palestinians enjoyed in comparison to other host countries, and the economy may not be able to accommodate the proportion of refugees it did after their 1948 arrival. And as past periods of economic decline have demonstrated, competition from Palestinians for jobs may again result in social tension. Moreover, the PRS are in a uniquely vulnerable position as refugees, unable to participate in the electoral process and thus more effectively demand official remedies to help restore their previous socio-economic position. Regrettably, this civil war has transformed the case of Palestinian refugees in Syria from one of the issue’s more positive incarnations into one of its most tragic.
 Brand, Laurie. "Palestinians in Syria: The Politics of Integration." Middle East Journal 42.4 (1988): n. pag. JSTOR. Web. 29 Apr. 2013.