Syria Crisis

Final Stop: Why Syrian Refugees Have Ended Up In Gaza

Khaled's family is one of the 190 from Syria that have recently moved to poor and isolated Gaza. Doors elsewhere for refugees are closing, especially to the Palestinian minority fleeing Syria.

Sunset in Gaza
Sunset in Gaza
Francesca Paci

GAZA CITY - Gaza has again become one of the most forgotten places on earth. This may help explain why hundreds of Syrians fleeing the country's civil war have found refuge there.

As the war moves into its third year, having already claimed more than 120,000 lives, it may seem like a paradox that those who escape from hell are finding shelter in an open-air prison that's home to nearly two million Palestinians.

Still, the Syrians do not have much choice, as they are less and less welcome in other neighboring countries: from Lebanon, where Syrian refugees now account for nearly one-quarter of the population, to Jordan, which hosts Zaatari, the largest Syrian refugee camp, to Turkey, every day more determined to close the border, not to mention post-Morsi Egypt where fleeing opponents of the Syrian regime are associated with the hated Muslim Brotherhood.

Gaza is the last option, says 46-year-old physician Khaled Hussein, speaking in the Gaza City apartment where he has lived since September with his wife and their 16-year-old daughter. In this faceless block apartment, the only sign of home back in Syria is a single hand-woven handkerchief.

He'd spent his adult life in the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk, near Damascus, where he'd arrived with his family 25 years ago. "Soon after we arrived, I started working at the hospital," Hussein recalls. "Life was good. We had a nice house with a garden, the salary was good."

Hussein explained that the the system in Syria was organized differently from Lebanon, where he'd lived before and where "Palestinians have no rights." He said that he was not excluded from any line of work. "I have always kept away from politics and even when the revolt started three years ago, I was on the sidelines," he said.

A doctor's duty

But Assad soon after began to accuse Palestinians. "Things got complicated. As soon as some rebels came to take refuge in Yarmouk, we immediately became the targets of the loyalists," he said.

Then one day an injured commander of the Free Syrian Army arrived at the first aid where Hussein was working. "I performed surgery on him. It was my duty," he recalled. "Shortly after, a regime general came in, telling me to disconnect the oxygen tube. I am a doctor; I take care of sick people. I could not kill my patient."

Hussein tried in vain to explain. "But there was nothing to do: the general gave me 48 hours to leave the country. So I went back home, I picked up my wife and my daughter and fled to Lebanon with only a few clothes."

A recent Gaza rally in solidarity with Palestinians under siege in Syria (Mohammed Asad/APA Images/ZUMA)

Khaled’s story is similar to those of about 190 Palestinian-Syrian and Syrian-Syrian families who have wound up in Gaza over the past five months. After being mistreated in Lebanon, the family went to Jordan, and found more of the same. "If the Syrian refugees are unpopular, the Syrian-Palestinians cannot even set foot in the country," he said. "A taxi was waiting for us at the border with orders to take us directly to the port of Aqaba to embark for Egypt. But once in Cairo, it was a real nightmare."

President Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood had just been banished and the Syrian-Palestinians were considered spies and traitors. "We stayed two months living like animals, eating thanks to the aid of humanitarian organizations and we could not even take a shower," he explained. "Since I had relatives in Gaza I decided to play my last card: I waited for the Rafah crossing to be opened to spare my wife and my daughter at least the humiliation of going under the tunnel as thieves."

A waiter named Basem Shnar, had also fled Syria around the same time, and works in a small bakery in Gaza City. But he too does not want to talk politics. The Geneva 2 conference seems remote, a meeting among powerful countries that pass right over his head, and destiny. "I would like to rebuild my life in Europe or in America," Shnar said. "When I left to go to Gaza, the (clandestine) sea voyages from Egypt to Italy had not started yet, otherwise I would have left."

Gaza has its own problems, with an unemployment rate exceeding 40% and a fertile “business of the tunnels” across the Egyptian border, which has been destroyed by the Egyptian army, and left thousands of youths waiting for a contract.

Two-way street

Over the past two years, some young people have left Gaza to fight in Syria against Assad. A few months ago, 28-year-old Fahd al Habash recorded a message for his family living in the Jabalia refugee camp in Gaza, asking not to mourn his eventual death. He said he wanted to go to Turkey to search for a job and did not mention Syria. Now it's up to his brother Shehata to explain to two little orphans that their father was killed near the Syrian city of Homs.

Since 2011, at least 30 Palestinian militants are believed to have left Gaza to join the Syrian rebels. However, the counter-exodus, Syrians arriving in Gaza, is much more significant. Before the crisis, at least half a million of Palestinians where living in Syria: they are refugees from the 1948 and 1967 wars, and their descendants.

According to the United Nations, the current fighting in Syria between government and rebels has forced at least 150,000 Palestinians to flee from the Yarmouk refugee camp near Damascus. Just few days ago, a young girl called Israa al Masri died of hunger in the camp, and her picture made global headlines.

Currently, the UN is taking care of at least 1,000 Syrian-Palestinians who fled to Gaza.

Hamza Issa, the Syrian chef of a new restaurant in Gaza City, chose to come here for different reasons. "I am fully Syrian but I had a very bad experience in Lebanon and Turkey, since it was too expensive. So I came to Gaza instead," he said.

Syrians are often skilled businessmen and traders, and Issa has reinvented his life in just a few months. But he doesn’t want to stay, "My girlfriend is still in Latakia (western Syria). She is not as conservative as the women here, she could not resist, but as soon as things improve I will return to Syria."

Ahmed, who works in a kebab kiosk, escaped with his family from Dara’a, in southern Syria, where the revolution against Assad began. "The Damascus government has massacred hundreds of thousands of citizens."

Hamas, which holds power in Gaza, severed its relationship with Damascus in 2011, embracing the Sunni cause sponsored by Qatar and Turkey. Those who live under its control, sympathetic or not, keep a low profile, so to receive $500 per family promised to Syrian refugees.

But this amounts to mere material and psychological crumbs. Home is back in Syria, while all that's left here is woven into that last remaining handkerchief.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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