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Palestinians Living in the Diaspora

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 08.03.2008:

By Ingrid Jaradat Gassner

Sixty years ago, prior to the establishment of Israel and the Palestinian Nakba (catastrophe) in 1948, the overwhelming majority of the Palestinian people were living in their homeland Palestine. Today the Palestinian population worldwide is estimated to be 10.1 million,i with more than half (approximately 5.2 million) living in the diaspora.

Checking the dictionaries, one finds that the term diaspora commonly carries a sense of displacement and describes a population that finds itself separated from its national territory. Diaspora communities usually have a hope or desire to return to their homelands at some point. Along similar lines, the term “exile” is used to describe a form of punishment and an explicit denial of the right to return. When a large portion of a nation is exiled, it can be said that the nation is in exile or diaspora. Palestinians are such a nation.

Who are Diaspora Palestinians?

Only 29 percent of the Palestinian population today have never been forcibly displaced, and most of those reside in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip (OPT) and in Israel. Approximately 71 percent of the Palestinian people are refugees and internally displaced persons. It can be assumed therefore, that the overwhelming majority of the Palestinians in the diaspora are refugees.

The Palestinian diaspora is composed mainly of those displaced or expelled from their homes in the shadow of the 1948 War (the Nakba) and their descendants, including 2.7 million currently registered with UNRWA in Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. It also includes Palestinians (approximately 950,000) who became refugees in the context of the 1967 War, and those who were staying abroad during the two wars in Palestine. The number of those abroad during the 1967 War is estimated to be 60,000,ii whereas numbers for 1948 are unknown. Most of them were unable to return to their places of origin in Israel and the OPT following the cessation of hostilities, and they became refugees sur place.

More Palestinians have joined the diaspora during the four decades of Israel’s military occupation. Estimates of forced displacement between 1967 and 1986 indicate that some 20,000 Palestinians were displaced per year.iii More recent studies estimate that the rate of out-migration/displacement to neighbouring Arab states and further abroad as being as much as 2 percent of the total population per annum.iv

Waves of Displacement: Where Are the Diaspora Palestinians?

Today Palestinians live in many parts of the world. Despite changes in the geographic distribution of the Palestinian diaspora over the past 60 years, however, the majority have remained in the Middle East, and most still live within 100 kilometres of the borders of Israel and the 1967 OPT, where their homes of origin are located.

During the major waves of displacement in the 20th century, Palestinians have tended to remain as close as possible to their homes and villages of origin, based on the assumption that they would return once armed conflict ceased. In 1948, an estimated 65 percent of the Palestinian refugees remained in areas of Palestine not under Israeli control – i.e., the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The remaining 35 percent found refuge in neighbouring states, including Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and Egypt. Also in 1967 the majority of displaced Palestinians found refuge in neighbouring states. Most (95 percent) were displaced to Jordan, with smaller numbers displaced to Syria, Egypt, and Lebanon.v

Changes in the geographic distribution of the Palestinian diaspora are primarily the result of additional armed conflicts, during which Palestinian refugees were again expelled or forced to flee host countries in search of safety. Changes in political regimes and discriminatory policies in host countries, the relationship between the PLO and host-country authorities, and economic push-and-pull factors, moreover, have induced further displacement/migration and have shaped the Palestinian diaspora.

Thus, for example, the number of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon has decreased over time. Internal conflict, wars, and legal and political obstacles have militated against Palestinians’ asylum in Lebanon, and during the 1980s, many Palestinian refugees fled Lebanon to Germany, the Netherlands, and Scandinavia. Although economic migration had led to a large Palestinian diaspora in the Arab Gulf from the 1950s onwards, a dramatic decrease occurred, in particular in Kuwait, as a result of the 1991 Gulf War. Many Palestinians migrated or were expelled from Arab Gulf states, eventually finding shelter in Canada, Scandinavia, the United States, or other countries in the Arab world. Currently, many of the Palestinian refugees experiencing persecution in Iraq are fleeing to Syria, Jordan, or elsewhere, and some have been reported as far away as India and Thailand.

Today, approximately 5.2 million Palestinians are living in exile in many parts of the world. Little statistical data is available, however, about this large diaspora, because no comprehensive census has ever been conducted among them. Few host countries carry out a regular census of their resident refugee population. Some countries, such as Jordan, include Palestinians as a census category, but this data is not publicly available. Registration data of UNRWA and other international agencies that provide assistance and protection to Palestinian refugees are not statistically valid, because reporting is voluntary. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) maintains records of Palestinian refugees outside UNRWA’s area of operations but has registered only a very minor portion. At the end of 2006, approximately 341,000 Palestinian refugees were registered with the UNHCR, most of them resided in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iraq, and

Most diaspora Palestinians, moreover, do not carry personal documents that identify them as Palestinians. An initiative by the United Nations in 1982 to issue identification cards to all 1948 and 1967 Palestinian refugees and their descendantsvii failed due to lack of co-operation by host states. In North America and Europe, Palestinian asylum-seekers often “disappear,” because they tend to be subsumed under general categories of “stateless” persons or are registered according to their place of birth or the host country that issued their travel documents.

In the absence of statistical data, figures about Palestinian diaspora communities are indicative rather than conclusive, and derived from a variety of sources.

a In countries outside the Middle East, Palestinian diaspora communities themselves have remained the major source of information. Estimates listed here for Australia, Canada, Chile, Denmark, France, Greece, Germany, Italy, The Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States were provided by the respective Palestinian communities to the Oxford University Civitas Foundations of Participation Project database. (See

Additional Palestinian diaspora communities estimated to be smaller than 3,000 persons exist in Austria, Belgium, Finland, Poland, and elsewhere.

b Data for Jordan is based on FAFO (1996). Refugees constitute 85 percent (2,359,000 persons) of the total number of Palestinians in Jordan.

c Data for Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, other Gulf countries, Lebanon, Syria, and other Arab countries is derived from Abstract of Palestine 2005, issued by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics.

e-f Data for Egypt, Libya is based on UNHCR sources. The number of Palestinians currently remaining in Iraq is unclear. In 2003, 22,700 Palestinian refugees were registered with the UNHCR in Iraq, but registration stopped as a result of the ongoing armed conflict. At that time, the UNHCR estimated that approximately 34,000 Palestinian refugees resided in Iraq.

However, by the end of 2006, it was estimated that no more than 15,000 Palestinians had remained in Iraq. The whereabouts of the more than 15,000 persons who have left is unknown.

Source: Figure 2.3: Estimates of the Number of Palestinian Refugees and IDPs Worldwide, 2006. In Survey of Palestinian Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons, Vol. V, 2006-2007. BADIL Resource Center.

The case of the Palestinian diaspora in Central and South America is special due to the early onset of its formation and its particular demographic composition. Palestinian immigrants to this region were predominantly members of Christian communities who left Palestine during Ottoman rule, mostly from towns and villages in the central West Bank, such as Ramallah, Bethlehem, Beit Sahour, and Beit Jala. Today, large Palestinian communities exist in Chile, Brazil, El Salvador, Honduras, and Peru. In Peru, both candidates for the March 2004 presidential elections were descendants of Palestinians who had emigrated from Bethlehem in 1912 and 1914 respectively.

Palestinian diaspora communities in Australia, Europe, and North America are much younger. Most Palestinians in Europe and the United States, for example, arrived from Arab Gulf states and Lebanon, and some from the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. Many Palestinians entered these countries as students and visitors but stayed on and joined the diaspora there.

Characteristics of the Palestinian Diaspora

In many places of the world, in particular in and around refugee camps, Palestinian communities continue to organize themselves based on their villages of origin even 60 years after displacement. In Syria, for example, Al-Yarmouk Camp is divided into quarters based on the refugees’ villages of origin of al-Tira, Lubya, Balad ash-Sheik, and ‘Ayn Ghazal.

Although the Palestinian diaspora is a diaspora of refugees, the large majority does not live in refugee camps. Only one-third of the total UNRWA registered refugee population (1948 refugees) and approximately 20 percent of the total Palestinian refugee population live in camps.

Several factors explain why Palestinian refugees have remained in camps after more than six decades of exile: family and village support structure in the camp; lack of resources to rent or buy alternative accommodation outside the camp; lack of living space outside the camp due to overcrowding; legal, political, and social obstacles that force refugees to remain in the camp; issues concerning physical safety; the refugee camp as a symbol of the temporary nature of exile and the demand to exercise the right of return.

Most Palestinian refugees in the Middle East rely on income from wages and self-employment. Annual per capita income among Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan ranges from US $450 to US $600. Households that depend on financial transfers remain a vulnerable low-income group. In Jordan, 2.6 percent of the refugee households suffer from deep poverty compared with 7.4 percent in Syria and 10.8 percent in Lebanon.viii Across the region, the civil war in Lebanon (1976-1991), the 1990-91 Gulf War, the US-led war and occupation of Iraq, and Israel’s war on Lebanon in 2006 have had particularly negative impacts on access to employment, labour force participation, and household income of Palestinian refugees. The level of education has a mixed association with unemployment rates. In Jordan, unemployment decreases with higher education; in Lebanon, however, the level of education has no impact on unemployment rates.

Still, education is highly valued in the face of the protracted nature of the Palestinian exile. It is seen both as offering an opportunity for a better life and as a means of reaffirming identity. A study commissioned by UNRWA showed that 76 percent of the adolescents questioned aspired to higher education.ix Access to secondary and higher education, however, is restricted in some host countries, and financial constraints prevent many from continuing education.

Irrespective of fragmentation and location in many parts of the world, Palestinian diaspora communities have maintained a Palestinian identity and a sense of belonging to Palestine, even after decades of exile. In Europe and the Americas, in fact, it is often the young generation who – no longer inhibited by the hardships and estrangement suffered by the first generation – have come to re-affirm their Palestinian identity and seek to be part of the nation.

Ingrid Jaradat Gassner is director of BADIL Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights,

All data, unless specified otherwise, is taken from the Survey of Palestinian Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons, Volume V, 2006-2007 (BADIL 2007) and Closing Protection Gaps: Handbook on Protection of Palestinian Refugees in States Signatories of the 1951 Refugee Convention (BADIL 2005).


i. Palestine in Figures 2006, Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, Ramallah, 2007, p. 13.

ii. Amro, Tayseer. “Displaced Persons: Categories and Numbers Used by the Palestinian Delegation [to the Quadripartite Committee] (not including spouses and descendants).” Article 74, 14, Jerusalem: BADIL/Alternative Information Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights, 1995, Table 5: Palestinian Estimates of Displaced Persons and Refugees During the 1967 War.

iii. This figure does not take into consideration the number of persons who may have returned to the occupied territories. George F. Kossaifi, The Palestinian Refugees and the Right of Return. Washington, DC: The Center for Policy Analysis on Palestine, 1996, p. 8. According to the Jordanian government, some 7,000 Palestinians from the West Bank were displaced to Jordan every year between 1968 and 1988. UN Doc. CERD/C/318/Add.1, 14 April 1998. See Reports Submitted by States Parties under Article 9 of the Convention, Twelfth Periodic Report of States Parties due in 1997, Jordan, para. 25.

iv. Growing Fast: the Palestinian Population in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Pederson, Jon, Sara Randall, and Marwan Khawaja (eds.). Norway: FAFO Institute for Applied Social Science, 2001, p. 153.

v. Report of the Secretary General under General Assembly Resolution 2252 (ES-V) and Security Council Resolution 237 (1967), UN Doc. A/6797, 15 September 1967.

vi. UNHCR Statistical Yearbook 2005, Occupied Palestinian Territories:

vii. UNGA Resolution 37/120 (I), 16 December 1982. Report of the Secretary-General, 12 September 1983, UN Doc. A/38/382.

viii. Statistical Abstract of Palestine 7, Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, Ramallah, 2006.

ix. Report of the Commissioner-General of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, 1 July 2004-30 June 2005. UN GAOR, Sixtieth Session, Supp. 13 (A/60/13), 2005 para. 82, p. 20.

This Week in Palestine

March 2008

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