For a Syrian Refugee in Palestine: A Lifelong Plight of Unanswered Rights

[Editor's Note: This blog post by IMOW contributor  Simba Russeau was originally published on Debating Human Rights for Blog Action Day 2013.]

On December 10, 1948 at the Palais de Chaillot, Paris, the first Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) -- which consists of thirty articles -- was adopted by the United Nations (UN) in response to a global need for the observance and respect of human rights regardless of religion, gender, or race.

 “The first Universal Declaration of Human Rights isn’t the first but it’s the greatest and most important. It was drafted in 1948 by the fifty-six member states of the United Nations. Our goal was to draft text that would be universally accepted as rights and freedom that applied to everyone,” St├ęphane Hessel, former Ambassador to the UN and a co-drafter of the UDHR in 1948 said.

“However, people continue to contest the first human rights declaration by stating that westerners drafted it. This isn’t true. People from all areas of the world drafted it. People have said that it was drafted by the colonial powers and not by the de-colonialised people of the world. This is also false because we did take into account that some people were already independent and others not yet and that this declaration needed to apply to them also.”

At the time of it’s drafting, a mass exodus was taking place. According to the United Nations Conciliation Commission for Palestine, the 1948 Nakba forced an estimated 711,000 to 725,000 from their homelands.

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Palestinian children in the Badawwi Refugee Camp in Beirut, Lebanon. Photo credit: Simba Russeau.
Calling into question the lack of energy put into securing the homeland of Palestinians at the time of the drafting of the UDHR. “There terrible crisis in the Middle East is still not solved but the declaration on human rights lays out all the things that should be applied by Israel,” adds Hessel.

“Please don’t mix the question of implementation and the question of declaring values. The declaration declares values but it’s the responsibility of the countries, non-governmental organisations and the people to implement those values and that has not happened when it comes to the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.”

Forty-six year old Omar, who requested anonymity due to security concerns, was born in Syria. In 1948, his parents fled the city of Haifa, which is the largest city in northern Israel. More than 470,000 Palestinians were residing in Syria’s before the war. Many, like Omar, hail the hospitality offered to their ancestors during their desperate search for safe haven.

“Before the war, life in Syria was good. The Syrian government and the people treated us very well. Our families, who fled in 1948, were accepted without conditions and given full rights in the country,” Omar said. “I worked for a good company as a civil engineer. Basically, we lived as if we were Syrians. I earned a good salary, we had a home and I was able to provide for my family. Our children were getting a good education.”

Omar’s life changed when fierce clashes between fighters loyal to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and the opposition engulfed the Palestinian camps of al-Yarmouk, which is nestled on the southwest outskirts of Damascus.
“Everyone was excited when the revolutions started in the Arab countries. Many governments mistreated their people so it’s only natural that people started to take to the streets to demand that their basic human rights and freedom be granted. However, the situation in Syria spun out of control,” says Omar.

“For Palestinians, life became difficult when the war reached our areas because the Free Syrian Army and the government were trying to force us to choose sides. This caused some divisions amongst Palestinians. Some believed that it was our obligation to join the government because they welcomed us while on the other hand there was Palestinians who were outraged at the lack of protection the government provided during the war and wanted to join the opposition.”

Wary of taking sides and the unbearable situation of living in the midst of daily bombings, shelling and fighting, Omar decided it was time to think about the security of his family of six. However, the reality of having no official passport only made matters worse.
Every day people were dying. I have four children and, in my mind, during the war, I was always thinking about how they would survive if I were killed. My father, mother and sister stayed in Syria and all I can think about on daily basis is their safety, adds Omar.
“When it comes to refugees, we’re a special case. None of the neighbouring Arab countries will grant me entry because I only have a travel document. I’m grateful that Thailand was willing to give us a visa.”

Currently, there is an estimated 300 Palestinian refugees from Syria in Thailand. Many are flocking to Bangkok, due to it being the home of the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in the region, in hopes of applying for resettlement. However, the main obstacle is that the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees’ (UNRWA) - the UN body tasked with providing assistance to Palestinians - mandate is only operational in certain countries. Thailand isn’t one of them.
I was born a refugee and I will give this status to my children. Ten months ago when I approached the UNHCR they insisted that I must prove once again that I’m a refugee, Omar said.
“I would like to say to the UN that if you truly regard me as a human being then give me life. Give my children a name, a future, a country and a home. We’re all educated and professional people who are willing to take care of ourselves but give us the necessary documents so that we’re capable of doing so.”

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