How Palestinians risk massive new displacement and limited access to asylum in Europe

7 min read
26 March, 2024

After the 7th of October, Palestinians living under UNRWA’s five areas of operations (Gaza, West Bank, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan) face unprecedented risks.

Not only are their lives being threatened by daily shelling and attacks in Gaza - more than 30,000 Palestinians, mostly civilians, have been killed in Israel's war, including 13,000 children - but their most fundamental rights to enjoy asylum are also at stake.

“If Israel succeeds in opening the borders to Egypt, massive displacement can become real with secondary influx to Libya and to Europe,” Lex Takkenberg, advisor with the Arab Renaissance for Democracy and Development (ARDD) and non-resident professor at Fordham University, told The New Arab.

According to him, the potential scale of displacement could be bigger than the 2015 crisis - when millions of Syrians escaping the war sought refuge in neighboring countries and in Europe.

“The EU should be mindful that in this case we are talking about five areas of origin where UNRWA has operations. Even in Jordan stability would be at risk,” Takkenberg added.

"If Israel succeeds in opening the borders to Egypt, massive displacement can become real, with a secondary influx to Libya and to Europe"

In October and December, Israel announced evacuation orders for more than a million Palestinians trapped in Gaza and established 'safe zones', but aid delivery led by Israel has been a disaster with recurrent episodes of crowds of civilians stamped and being shot at.

“In this evacuation plan, why there are no safe zones also in the West Bank and inside Israel?”, Special Rapporteur for Palestine, Francesca Albanese, questioned during an online seminar held by Oxford University Refugee Study Center this month.

In the south of Gaza, the border with Egypt is currently allowing restricted passage of Palestinians “cleared” by Israeli security. Fees involved in the crossing have been abusively increasing - up to $ 10,000 - and are being managed by private actors to the detriment of national authorities.

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Feeble response from Arab states

While Egypt has signed the 1951 Refugee Convention, it excludes Palestinian refugees, based on concerns for their right to return to Palestine, while the UNHCR (the UN agency for refugees) has a limited space of operations in Egypt.

“Durable solutions do not exclude the right of return. Palestinians cannot be held hostage to infinite cycles of displacement and dispossession,” said Takkenberg, in reference to the UN framework for solutions for refugees, which includes return to the country of origin, integration in the host country, or resettlement in a third location.

In practice since the establishment of Israel, Palestinians have enjoyed rights similar to nationals only in Jordan. Syria has also extended rights to work, education and health, as well as to travel, for Palestinians, while in Lebanon they still cannot own property, work in several professions, or have full access to health and education.

“I don’t see Arab states doing much for Palestine at the moment. South Africa is doing instead,” noted Albanese in reference to the ongoing proceedings at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) initiated by the African country against Israel in December last year.

Gazans are facing famine-like conditions as a result of Israeli restrictions on humanitarian aid. [Getty]

While historically Arab states have recognised the State of Palestine and hosted Palestinian refugees, they have come up with a common set of standards for the treatment of Refugees in 1965: the Casablanca Protocol.

The Protocol regulates the right to work on par with citizens, the right to leave and return, the issuance of travel documents, and the right to equal treatment to citizens of the League of Arab States (LAS).

“The League needs to live up to their commitment under the Casablanca Protocol and provide Palestinians with all the rights guarantees under the Protocol. This reminder is more urgent than ever in light of the mass killing and destruction in Gaza, but also in light of the increased settler and IDF violence against Palestinians in the West Bank,” argued Susan Akram professor of Law at Boston University in an interview with The New Arab.

"Durable solutions do not exclude the right of return. Palestinians cannot be held hostage to infinite cycles of displacement and dispossession"

The UNRWA factor

UNRWA, the UN agency overseeing aid to Palestinians, has since 1950 been considered a stability factor in the Middle East. While not fully assuming a protection role, UNRWA has been crucial in delivering daily life-saving relief and services.

Since 7 October, the agency has been subject to major defunding from 16 donor states and increased limitations to its operations, orchestrated by Israel in Gaza and in the West Bank. As a result, UNRWA has said it could cease operating by the end of February or early March, if funding isn’t renewed.

“There is a clear campaign to extinguish UNRWA especially in the Occupied Territories,” said Special Rapporteur Albanese.

This translates into putting Palestinian refugees at dire risk, with around 5.7 million recognised as refugees under UNRWA. Most were displaced during the Nakba in 1948 with the creation of the State of Israel, and many have endured further displacement in 1967, in the 1970s, and more recently after 2011 with the Syrian conflict.

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“The cuts to UNRWA's funding by its biggest donors also have serious ramifications for UNRWA's services to Palestinian refugees in all of its service areas, not only to Gazans; Palestinian refugees in the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria are also affected,” said Professor Susan Akram.

As Israeli allegations were not supported by evidence, Canada, Sweden, and Australia have re-committed to resuming payments to UNRWA, while other countries have increased donations.

“However, the US provides approximately half of all UNRWA's revenue, so the loss of that single source of aid is hugely consequential,” added Professor Akram.

The agency, in fact, has been suffering from chronic funding issues long before the current crisis, and the calls for its reform have centered around a revised mandated focused on protection and advocacy towards Palestinians right of return, compensation and restitution.

“Everything is up in the air since the 7th of October, but the 2016 New York Declaration has reiterated Palestinians rights of return, and it is an opportunity for a paradigm shift,” affirmed Takkenberg.

UNRWA centres in the Gaza Strip have faced colossal damage to their infrastructure during Israel's war. [Getty]

Europe's response

In January, with the escalation of violence in Gaza, the EU Court of Justice (CJEU) in a groundbreaking move advised that Palestinians can apply for asylum in Europe arguing that assistance from the UN agency has “ceased”.

This means that Palestinians can apply for refugee status without having to prove that they are specifically targeted. The fact that there is no safety in Gaza is sufficient to prove their eligibility for protection.

“The Advocate General's Opinion at the CJEU is an extremely important application of the Court’s jurisprudence on Article 1D and Palestinian claims as stateless refugees,” explained professor Akram.

“This is an enormous relief for Palestinians from Gaza in Europe, who in reality have nowhere to return, and an affirmation that there is nowhere safe in Gaza, let alone anywhere within UNRWA's areas of operation.”

Despite the CJEU opinion, the situation is still quite messy among European countries at the moment. “There is inconsistent application of asylum policies and registry, incurring in risks of invisibility even,” said Takkenberg.

Examples range from recent cases of Palestinians from Gaza in The Netherlands facing challenges for requesting family reunification after immigration authorities announced a freeze on requests, to UK courts granting asylum to a Palestinian citizen of Israel on the grounds of his race, faith and the “apartheid regime” in Israel.

“It would be crucial to have a focal point at European Council of Refugees and Exiles (ECRE) for unifying procedures and advise on policy,” added Takkenberg.

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Safeguarding Palestinian refugees’ right of asylum could also be an opportunity for Europe to recognise both its former responsibilities as a colonising power in the Middle East and the Palestinian right of return.

“The UK and other governments can recognise Palestinian nationality and re-commit to their right to return as nationals of Palestine per the Lausanne Treaty of 1924 and Britain's own codification of that treaty during the mandate in the British Palestine Citizenship Orders of 1925,” said Akram.

For Special Rapporteur Albanese, international power dynamics ongoing in Palestine are emblematic of the Global South-Global North relation.

“This settler-colonial practice and mindset, from European countries and the US, is unacceptable,” she said.

Carolina Montenegro is a journalist based between Italy and The Netherlands who specialises in International Refugee Law.