To resolve the Syrian war, the international community must recognise the plight of 'the forgotten people' there – Palestinian refugees.
Palestinians are 'the forgotten people' in Syria's ugly conflict
The US secretary of state, John Kerry, is in the Middle East again with a rather full plate. I don't want to pile on more but there is an issue connected to both the Syrian civil war and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that must not be ignored.
While significant political and press attention has been focused on the growing humanitarian crisis facing the 1.3 million souls who have been forced to flee Syria, one subgroup of refugees has largely been ignored. American Near East Refugee Aid (Anera) has just issued a valuable report on the newly combined plights of the Palestinian refugee communities in Syria and Lebanon, whom Anera correctly refers to as "the forgotten people".
Before Syria imploded into civil war, the half-million Palestinian refugees in Syria lived under fairly good conditions. They were not entitled to citizenship, but were permitted to work and own businesses and were provided the same access to education and universal health care as Syrians. Many achieved some success and were able to move out of their camps, build homes and plan a future for their families.
Today, all that has changed. With many Palestinians having lost their jobs and their homes in Syria, they have been forced to flee the fighting that has engulfed the country. For example, according to the Anera report, 85 per cent of the Palestinians who once lived in Yarmouk Camp, in Damascus, have been forced into exile - becoming refugees for the second time. More than one-half have reported that their homes have been destroyed, with one in five reporting that a member of their family had perished in the fighting.
These Palestinians, because of their non-citizen status, have had difficulty entering Turkey and Jordan. As a result, many have crowded into Lebanon. And because they are Palestinians they have been compelled to find refuge in Lebanon's already crowded and desperately poor camps.
When I spoke with Anera's president, William Corcoran, last week he described the horrible living conditions these Palestinians in Lebanon are facing. They are crammed into unsanitary and decrepit living quarters, with 60 per cent of all households living in one space, sometimes a garage with no windows or doors. In some cases, as many as 20 members of an extended family have been jammed into a single room. These Palestinians from Syria do not have the right to work in Lebanon. As a result, 90 per cent are unemployed.
The United Nations Welfare Relief Agency (UNWRA) has the responsibility for the care and support of the Palestinian community in Lebanon. Already suffering from a shortage of funds, UNWRA's resources are overstretched. As a result, three-quarters of the Palestinian children coming from Syria are not in school and disease among them is rampant. Almost 40 per cent have a form of influenza, and almost 20 per cent are suffering from diarrhoea. An additional problem is that like all refugees fleeing horrific conflict, there are mental health needs - dealing with loss, trauma and fear - that are not being met.
Anera is right to point out that there are several reasons why the international community must pay attention to the special situation of this group of refugees. Ignoring them will only mean that the disastrous conditions they are currently facing will grow and deepen - for them and for those who will be joining them, as the war in Syria shows no sign of letting up. After all, these Palestinians are vulnerable human beings and they have needs that cry out for our attention. Additionally, should the diseases they have contracted continue to go untreated, they will spread. Epidemics in the camps will move beyond the camps, with potentially devastating consequences for the entire region.
Equally important to consider is the stress this influx of refugees is placing on the already unstable and intolerable circumstances in Lebanon's Palestinian camps. Continued impoverishment of this community will only lead to growing despair and anger, which could fuel extremist and potentially violent currents.
Anera's report has provided an important reminder of this too-long ignored consequence of the Syrian civil war. It is right for the international community to address the needs of Syria's displaced and refugee population because it is a true humanitarian disaster. And they are right to search for a way forward to help to end the conflict and put Syria on the path to transition to a peaceful and democratic future.
But the international community must also recognise the plight of "the forgotten people" - the Palestinian refugees from Syria and those in Lebanon. Political efforts to resolve the Syrian war and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict must include a political solution to the Palestinian refugee problem. Their needs and their rights must be considered in all our calculations.
James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute
On Twitter: @aaiusa