Palestinian Refugees Affected by the 2011 Libyan Uprising: A Brief Overview
Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, Refugee Studies Centre[*]
Whilst Palestinians in Libya remain a largely invisible population, overshadowed by the larger numbers of Palestinians in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank, Gaza and Egypt, at the outbreak of the Arab Spring Libya was home to over 100 Palestinian students, an estimated 50,000 - 70,000 Palestinian migrant-workers, and over 8,000 Palestinians recognised as refugees by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
As the anti-government protests rapidly escalated to a major conflict characterised by widespread attacks between pro- and anti-Gaddafi forces, Palestinians were subjected to violence from all sides, tens of thousands were displaced within the country, and thousands more attempted to escape the conflict by crossing the Libyan- Egyptian border. Palestinians’ experiences before, during and after the 2011 Libyan uprising demonstrate the ongoing and overlapping vulnerabilities faced by Palestinians in the region, and the challenges of identifying a safe haven for refugees who have been displaced multiple times in their lives.
This article provides a brief overview of Palestinians’ presence in Libya from the 1970s to the present, and of the multiple processes of displacement and expulsion faced by Palestinians during this period, culminating in the most recent 2011 conflict.
Palestinians’ presence in Libya: 1970s – 2011
From the early-1970s, Colonel Gaddafi supported Palestinians by opening a Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) office in Tripoli, offering scholarships for Palestinian youth to complete their secondary and tertiary studies, and granting work permits to tens of thousands of Palestinian migrant workers.
Table 1: Estimated Palestinian Population in Libya, 1970-2011
Sources: I. Abu-Lughod, ‘Educating a Community in Exile: The Palestinian Experience,’ (1973) 2(3) Journal of Palestine Studies 94-111; P.A. Smith, ‘The Palestinian Diaspora, 1948-1985’, (1986) 15(3) Journal of Palestine Studies 90-108 at 90; J. Tahir, ‘An Assessment of Palestinian Human Resources: Higher Education and Manpower,’ (1985) 14(3) Journal of Palestine Studies 32-53 at 42; Palestine Red Crescent Society, The Situation of the Palestine Refugees in Diaspora: Demographic, Socio-Economic Characteristics and Health Status (Rome, PRCS, 1994), 5; Al-Majdal, ‘The Palestinian Crisis in Libya 1994-1996: Interview with Professor Bassem Sirhan,’ (2010) Al-Majdal, Issue No. 45: Forced Secondary Displacement: Palestinian Refugees in the Gaza Strip, Iraq, Jordan, and Libya.
In line with Libya’s Reservation to Article 1 of the Protocol for the Treatment of Palestinians in Arab States, Gaddafi’s government has historically considered Palestinians to be “Arab citizens residing in Libya” rather than refugees per se. However, as in other countries in the region, Palestinian refugees have been “increasingly asking to be recognized as just refugees, full stop.”
Indeed, thousands of Palestinians who were born as refugees and were registered by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) as refugees at birth in Gaza, West Bank, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan or Egypt, have also applied for and have been granted asylum in Libya. Since 1996, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has documented that thousands of Palestinians have been recognised as refugees under the 1951 Geneva Convention or as individuals in need of alternative forms of humanitarian protection (Tables 2 and 3, and Chart 1). Of the 943 Palestinian applications for asylum in Libya in 2008, for instance, 544 were offered 1951 Geneva Convention Refugee Status, and 344 were granted complementary protection (63 cases were pending at the end of the year). In the case of Palestinians in Libya, many can therefore be considered to be “double refugees.”
Table 2: Total Palestinian Refugee Population Registered by UNHCR, New Palestinian Arrivals / Asylum Applicants, and UNHCR Assisted Palestinians in Libya, 1996-2009 (where information is available)
Sources: UNHCR Statistical Yearbooks and Statistical Overviews (1996-2009)
Table 2: Gender and Age of New Palestinian Arrivals/Asylum Applicants (where information is available)
Sources: UNHCR 1997, 1999 and 2001 Statistical Yearbooks and Statistical Overviews
Chart 1: Gender and Age of New Palestinian Asylum Applicants in Libya in 1996, 1998 and 2000.
Sources: UNHCR 1997, 1999 and 2001 Statistical Yearbooks and Statistical Overviews.
Palestinian Displacement in and from Libya: 1970s – 2011
The mass displacement of Palestinians within and from Libya in 2011 is not the first time that Palestinians have faced expulsion from the country. For instance, hundreds of Palestinian migrant-workers were expelled from Libya in March 1971, and more recently, in March 2007, Gaddafi had threatened to deport all Palestinians “in retaliation for the latest Arab peace initiative.”
The most significant experience of mass displacement from Libya occurred in September 1995, when Gaddafi threatened to expel all of the country’s estimated 30,000 Palestinian migrant workers in protest of the PLO having signed the Oslo Accords. Palestinians were forcibly collected, transported and deported by Gaddafi’s forces, with over 13,000 Palestinians deported from Libya over the course of eight months. Thousands more were left stranded on the Egyptian-Libyan border as most countries in the region under UNRWA’s area of operations introduced further “restrictions on the entry of Palestinians, even on those who had right of residence.” An unknown number of Palestinians eventually returned to Libya in search of work, but found themselves in a highly uncertain situation; thousands reportedly stayed in an irregular status, fearful of renewing their work permits and engaging with the Libyan authorities. Such fears are grounded in an acute awareness of the vulnerability of Palestinians in the country; these overlapping vulnerabilities emerged once again during the most recent conflict.
Since the outbreak of violence in February 2011, thousands of Palestinians have been “internally stuck refugees” and “internally displaced refugees,” with witnesses denouncing that Palestinian families and neighbourhoods had been targeted by Gaddafi and anti-Gaddafi armed forces alike. Although all of the Palestinian recipients of Libyan scholarships had been evacuated from Libya by early March 2011, at least one Palestinian refugee-student, Khan Younis from the Gaza strip, was reportedly killed in Libya during the violence. His sister highlighted the particular vulnerability of young Palestinian refugees in the conflict:
there is a dangerous level of incitement against the Palestinians in Libya [...] the mercenaries of the Qaddafi regime are responsible for several attacks against the Palestinians in the country.
Other reports assert that Gaddafi’s forces “detained Palestinians studying at a military college in the northwestern city [of Misrata] after they refused to join the pro-regime forces.”
Given the invisibility of Palestinians in Libya before and during the conflict, and the international community’s failure to collect reliable information regarding the number, whereabouts and protection needs of Palestinians in the country, it is impossible to know exactly how many Palestinians have been injured, killed, or displaced by the conflict.
What is clear is that throughout the conflict, thousands of Palestinians fled within Libya, while others attempted to cross the Libyan-Egyptian border. As in 1995-1996, hundreds of Palestinian individuals and families were left “stranded” at the Salloum border crossing while the authorities decided whether they could cross the border, and where to. By 3 June 2011 UNHCR had “helped 765 Palestinians stranded in a no man’s land to travel to Gaza, through the Rafah border crossing, in Egypt.” However, there is no reliable information about precisely how many Palestinians “successfully” left Libya, and how many, and who (i.e. gender, age and point of origin) have remained internally stuck and why. Further research is also urgently needed to know how Palestinians have experienced the period following the execution of Gaddafi on 20 October 2011, and what their ongoing protection needs are.
Precisely where Palestinian refugees should, could, or might want to be safely evacuated to, and by whom, is a highly complex issue given dynamics in the region and the ongoing Israeli occupation and blockade. Especially in the case of Palestinians who had been registered by UNHCR or had been offered refugee status or complementary protection since arriving in Libya, but also for the tens of thousands of “refugee migrant workers” for whom Libya has been “home” for ten or twenty years, can the international community either expect, or indeed responsibly allow, Palestinians to return to Gaza, to the refugee camps in Lebanon, or to the explosive situation in Syria, where Syrian forces attacked a Palestinian refugee camp near Latakia (North-East Syria) on 15 August 2011, displacing over 5,000 Palestinians? Proposals for Palestinians formerly and currently based in Libya to be “returned” or “resettled” within the region are highly problematic given historical and contemporary restrictions on Palestinians’ movement, and the violation of their human rights across UNRWA’s sites of operation.
The 2011 Libyan crisis has been characterised by thousands of Palestinians’ inability to seek sanctuary by crossing the Libyan borders to Tunisia or Egypt, even when holding valid travel documents. In this and other ways, the conflict visibly demonstrates the ongoing and overlapping vulnerabilities faced by Palestinians in the region. Whilst characterised by an unprecedented degree of violence, for Palestinians formerly and currently based in Libya, the parallel processes of conflict-induced displacement and conflict-induced immobility, may be experienced as an instance of history repeating itself, yet again.
Palestinian refugees’ inability to safely “integrate” into host countries in the region, and the constant fluctuation and intensification of vulnerability experienced, have previously justified the resettlement of Palestinians to third countries outside of the region, as evidenced in the precedent of the resettlement of ex-Iraqi Palestinian refugees “stuck” at the Iraqi-Syrian and Iraqi-Jordanian borders. In March 2011, the UN reasserted “the need to identify solutions to resettle some 1,000 third country nationals (mostly Iraqis and Palestinians) at Libya’s borders with Egypt and Tunisia who do not wish to return to their countries”.
Precisely who will be prioritised for resettlement or other forms of protection, by which states and how soon, remains to be explored, as will the inevitable challenges which will be presented by state and non-state actors who reject even the prospect of the resettlement of Palestinians outside of the region.
I would argue that a balance must be achieved and maintained between the individual and collective protection needs of Palestinian refugees, and the geopolitical interests of diverse actors including Middle Eastern and North African states, the Palestinian Authorities, international organisations such as UNHCR and UNRWA, and potential resettlement states themselves. While concerns will invariably be raised that resettlement outside of the region would jeopardise Palestinians’ Right of Return (as enshrined in UN Resolutions 194 and 3236) it is essential that Palestinians themselves have the opportunity to decide the best means to secure effective protection for themselves and their families, rather than having decisions and “solutions” presented by diverse actors on their behalf.
[*] Departmental Lecturer in Forced Migration at the Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford. A longer version of this article is available as Research Paper no. 225, New Issues in Refugee Research.
 M. Kagan, ‘The (Relative) Decline of Palestinian Exceptionalism and its Consequences for Refugee Studies in the Middle East,’ (2009) 22(4)Journal of Refugee Studies 417-438 at 434.
 UNHCR Statistical Yearbook 2008 at 117.
 A. Sachs, ‘Apartheid, Destabilization and Refugees,’ (1989) 2(4) Journal of Refugee Studies 491-501.
 W.A. Otman and E. Karlberg, The Libyan economy: economic diversification and international repositioning (New York: Springer, 2007), 36.
 R. Nahmias, ‘Libya threatens to deport Palestinian refugees to Gaza,’ YNet, 17 Mar. 2007.
 Al-Majdal, ‘The Palestinian Crisis in Libya 1994-1996: Interview with Professor Bassem Sirhan,’ (2010) Al-Majdal, Issue No. 45: Forced Secondary Displacement: Palestinian Refugees in the Gaza Strip, Iraq, Jordan, and Libya, at 47.
 Al-Majdal supra note 6.
 Telephone interview, Benghazi resident, April 2011; personal communication, relative of Palestinian refugee in Tripoli, April 2011.
 Telephone interview, Benghazi resident, April 2011; personal communication, relative of Palestinian refugee in Tripoli, April 2011.
 Cited in IMEMC, ‘Palestinian Student Killed by Mercenaries in Libya,’ International Middle East Media Centre, 26 Feb. 2011.
 Ma’an, ‘Gadhafi forces detain Palestinian students,’ Ma’an News Agency, 2 Mar. 2011.
 UNHCR, Update # 27. Humanitarian Situation in Libya and the Neighbouring Countries. 3 June 2011.
 Dar Al-Hayat, ‘Munazamat al-tahrir tudin fi shidda iqtiham mukhayyam al-Raml wa tahjir sukanihi’(The PLO strongly denounces the al-Raml camp incursion and the displacement of its people), Dar Al-Hayat, 16 Aug. 2011; The Guardian, ‘Syria assault on Latakia drives 5,000 Palestinians from refugee camp,’ The Guardian, 15 Aug. 2011. Addressing the vulnerability of Palestinians in Syria in the summer of 2011, UNRWA’s Commissioner General, Filippo Grandi, noted that “In Yarmouk in June, Hama in July and Latakia in August, the violence extended into the camps with tragic consequences for Palestine refugees” – F. Grandi, Waiting for solutions in uncertain times: Palestine refugees in the Middle East context (2011 Barbara Harrell-Bond Lecture, Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford, 16 Nov. 2011.
 Also see A. Badwan, ‘Al-qalaq al-mutazayid wa haal al-filistiniyin fi libia’ (Growing concern for the situation of Palestinians in Libya), Al-Quds, 28 Mar. 2011.
 See B. Goddard, ‘UNHCR and the International Protection of Palestinian Refugees,’ (2010) 28(2&3)Refugee Survey Quarterly 475-510, at 502. In 2003, the UNHCR estimated that the total population of Palestinians in Iraq was 34,000, with 23,000 of these having registered with the UN refugee agency – UNHCR, ‘Iraq: Mortar attack targets Baghdad Palestinians,’ Briefing Notes, 20 Oct. 2006.
 OCHA, Libyan Arab Jamahiriyah - Crisis Situation Report No. 15. 22 Mar. 2011, emphasis added.
by by Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh
Volume 2, issue 1, Spring 2012, Third Edition Journal of Palestinian Refugee Studies