Born into displacement: Palestinian children’s struggle for rights on World Refugee Day

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World Refugee Day, commemorated annually on June 20, honours the anniversary of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees—a cornerstone of modern refugee law. Yet, for Palestinians, their displacement predates even this foundational legal framework, and their rights as refugees differ from most other groups.

Palestinians represent the largest stateless demographic worldwide and the longest-standing situation of forced displacement globally. Under international law, the children of refugees and their descendants are considered refugees until a durable solution is found. Subsequently, for over 75 years, generations of Palestinian children have been born and grown up as refugees.

This World Refugee Day, we draw upon decades of research in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria and the Migration Policy Centre’s growing work on children in displacement to highlight the profound impacts of protracted displacement on Palestinian children throughout the Middle East. In light of the escalating crisis in Gaza, we aim to highlight the current child protection challenges and outline the anticipated long-term impacts on Palestinian children in Gaza to inform the need for urgent action to address the legal, social, and political ramifications of this protracted displacement.

Refugee Law and Rights of Palestinians

Starting in 1946 and culminating in 1948, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were forcefully expelled from their homes during the establishment of the state of Israel and sought refuge in other parts of Palestine, as well as in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and beyond.

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) was established in December 1949 to aid displaced Palestinians. Initially, UNRWA defined a Palestinian refugee as someone whose “normal place of residence was Palestine during the period of June 1, 1946 to May 15, 1948 and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict.” Over time, this definition has broadened to align with the evolving political and human rights situations faced by Palestinian refugees.

Palestinian refugees are treated differently than other groups of refugees under the major international legal frameworks that govern the rights and duties of states with respect to refugees. They are the only group with a dedicated UN agency, UNRWA, exclusively for their assistance, unlike others served by UNHCR. Additionally, they can pass their refugee status to descendants, a provision not typically available under the broader refugee law applied by UNHCR and that highlights the ongoing nature of their displacement.

Moreover, Palestinian refugees are governed by Resolution 194:

“[The UN] Resolves that the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or in equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible.” (paragraph 11:1)

Resolution 194 granted Palestinian refugees three fundamental rights:

  1. to have the choice to return to their original homes at the earliest practicable date,
  2. to receive restitution and
  3. to be compensated for their losses.

This Right of Return for Palestinians is supported by eight branches of international law: Most importantly, Israel’s membership to the UN was contingent upon adhering to Resolution 194, binding it to ensure the implementation of the Right of Return. Yet, Palestinians displaced between 1946-1948 have not been allowed to return to their homes, nor have they received restitution or been compensated for their losses. On the contrary since then, the Palestinian refugee population has only increased since 1948, with many being displaced multiple times and most lacking access to fundamental human rights

Growing up as a Palestinian refugee

Today, approximately 6 million Palestinian refugees live throughout the Middle East. As of June 2023, there were close to 2.5 million Palestinian refugees living in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem. It is estimated that at least 40 percent are children. These children born as refugees and have grown up as refugees, and they face numerous challenges, including limited healthcare, education, economic opportunities, and freedom of movement.

In Jordan: Jordan is home to the largest number of Palestinian refugees, many of whom were displaced during the 1948 and 1967 wars. While Palestinian refugees theoretically have rights similar to Jordanian citizens, in reality, discrimination is prevalent, particularly for those living in refugee camps. Despite having legal access to employment and services on par with Jordanian nationals, social and economic disparities persist.

In Syria, the situation for Palestinian refugee children is particularly dire due to the ongoing Syrian conflict and their lack of citizenship. This has led to many Syrians being re-displaced. Those who have been displaced from camps like Yarmouk face hardship, living in temporary shelters without basic services. The ongoing conflict has disrupted the social and educational structures to support children, leaving them highly vulnerable to exploitation and further displacement.

In Lebanon, Palestinian refugee children experience severe restrictions on their rights and opportunities while living primarily in long-established, overcrowded refugee camps. Lebanon does not grant citizenship to Palestinians, which bars them from owning property and pursuing many professional fields, leading to poverty and reliance on UNRWA services. Educational resources are often strained, with schools in camps suffering from overcrowding, underfunding, and infrastructural deficiencies.

In the Occupied Palestinian Territories, children face the dual burden of inherited refugee status and the realities of living under Israeli military occupation. In East Jerusalem, many refugees hold permanent residency status, allowing them to live near or within local refugee camps. However, it is common for these residency permits to be revoked, leading to the ‘deportation’ of many refugee children and their families to other areas of the West Bank. There, refugee children are regularly exposed to violent military raids of the refugee camps they live in, frequently resulting in their arrest and detention without charge. Annually, between 500-700 Palestinian children are held in Israeli military detention, although this figure has skyrocketed in recent months as the Israeli military have carried out almost daily raids throughout the West Bank, and particularly in refugee camps. The situation in Gaza has been exacerbated by a 17-year blockade by Israel and Egypt, which has caused massive destruction to civilian life and infrastructure. In recent years, many young people in Gaza have been coerced into migrating out of Gaza to other countries, often through dangerous and expensive routes with no guarantees of protection. Caregivers struggle to provide for the basic needs of their families, even, for example, an adequate place to live, while also unable to protect them from severe injury or death:

“As long as there is occupation, there is no safety. I mean, we are in a constant situation. You can try to tell the child that there is no occupation, there is no bombing, and make him or her feel safe. But the child will not trust you.” Palestinian refugee mother, Gaza, Palestine, October 2021.

The future for Palestinian children and youth in Gaza 

Child protection risks and harm

The most recent Israel military aggression has raised international attention to the experiences of Palestinians in Gaza, specifically children. However, children in Gaza have long lived in a state of privation. Older children have lived through six wars in their short lives (2008-9, 2012, 2014, 2021, 2022 and 2023), experiencing multiple forced displacements with their families in each of these conflicts. Since October 2023 alone, many families have been displaced over six times, following evacuation orders of the Israeli military to areas declared as ‘safe zones’ – only for each of these ‘safe zones’ to then become a target of Israeli attack

The full impact of the situation in Gaza is challenging to grasp in the midst of a military attack and with restrictions on humanitarian workers being able to deliver support and assess needs. However, these are the current estimates since October 2023:

  • 17,000 children have been separated from or lost their parents, many of whom have been killed during the conflict
  • Over 1000 children have had amputations.
  • 28 children have died of dehydration and malnutrition.
  • There has been a dramatic increase in ‘wasting’ or severe malnutrition among children under two
  • famine is imminent, with infectious diseases spreading rapidly, exacerbated by the destruction of healthcare facilities and the challenges in accessing vaccines

The UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities reports that refugee children with pre-existing disabilities have lost their assistive devices during military attacks and thus have been unable to follow evacuation orders to flee without assistance. In one testimony, a 14-year-old refugee child with a physical disability who needed to be carried said to her mother along a so-called evacuation route, “Mama, it’s over. Leave me here, and you run away”.

For months, Israeli authorities have violated their obligation under international law to ensure access to all supplies necessary for the survival of civilians in Gaza, routinely obstructing the entry of aid and humanitarian assistance. Multiple UNRWA health centres, schools, shelters, and aid distribution centres have been targeted, besieged and demolished by the Israeli military. In the north, where famine looms, Israeli authorities have continually restricted UNRWA’s access to deliver aid. UNRWA continues to be the largest UN agency operational in Gaza, and are currently providing services and assistance to all internally displaced Palestinians in Gaza, not just those who were already registered as refugees.

Impact on children and youth

The long-standing developmental impact of war-related trauma on the young has been widely researched. Indeed, any form of adverse child experiences (exposure to violence, forced displacement, lack of adequate nutrition) can have severe repercussions for young people as they grow up. Already in 2020, a study of school-age students in Gaza found that more than 50% fit the diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder. However, with the term ‘post’ being somewhat irrelevant in the context of continued displacement, the terminology of ‘chronic traumatic stress disorder’ emerged. Yet the scale and intensity of what Palestinian children in Gaza are enduring today is causing many of our colleagues in Gaza to question the very meaning of terms like ‘trauma’ or ‘adversity’ altogether., As one child psychiatrist currently working in Khan Younis, Dr Alakhras, described the language of his many years of professional training have been entirely inadequate to address the gravity of children’s mental health in Gaza today, or consider what the likely developmental outcomes would be.

While the future for displaced children and youth in Gaza is dire, the deterioration of the already desperate situation is preventable; and academia can support this.

Conclusion

At a time when all of Gaza’s universities have been destroyed, the role of international academia to advance the use of research for advocacy and evidence-based policymaking has never been more urgent.  At the Migration Policy Centre, we are dedicated to researching the transnational governance of migration, mobility, and asylum. On this World Refugee Day, we reaffirm our commitment to producing and promoting rigorous research to protect refugees and their children in Gaza and beyond.

To explore how research can help inform protection of displaced Palestinian children, we’ve highlighted five recent research articles:  

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Caitlin Procter is a Part-time Professor at the MPC. She holds a DPhil in International Development from the University of Oxford, and has conducted field research in Gaza, the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Jordan, Lebanon and Tunisia since 2015.

Luigi Achilli  is senior researcher at the MPC and CMI. He holds an M.A. and a Ph.D. in political anthropology from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). His work is based on extensive field research in the Middle East, and he has taught at various universities in the Middle East.

Stephanie Acker is a research associate at the MPC. She holds a M.A. in public administration from Harvard University John F. Kennedy School of Government. She has conducted research and evaluation in Gaza and the West Bank focusing on children in UNWRA schools and residents’ lived experiences in refugee camps.