Syria Crisis

Palestinians Fleeing Syria, Doomed To Be "Double Refugees"

The UN estimates that at least 45,000 Palestinians who were already living as refugees in Syria have arrived in Lebanon since the Syrian civil war began.

A demonstration in Gaza in support of the Palestinian refugees in Syria
A demonstration in Gaza in support of the Palestinian refugees in Syria
Firas Alwani

BEIRUT â€" Scenes of Palestinian refugees fleeing from the Yarmouk refugee camp in southern Damascus have been likened to images of the Palestinian exodus following Israeli statehood in 1948, the much-decried event known to Palestinians as the nakba ("catastrophe" in Arabic).

When 25-year-old Rima and her family first fled from Yarmouk, they relocated to northern Damascus for two months. "I remember walking with my family toward the camp's northern exit and the words of my grandparents about their bitterness of leaving their country and home," she recalls.

Rima's family ultimately made their way to Wadi al-Zena, a town situated north of the Lebanese coastal city of Sidon. "Because of my dad's great fear for the family's safety â€" and we had also lost our jobs while relocating â€" he decided it was best to come to Lebanon."

According to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), at least 45,000 Palestinian refugees from Syria have landed in camps in neighboring Lebanon. Kamal, 50, explains that leaving Syria was comparable to his ancestors' flight from Israel in 1948.

"My wife is Syrian," Kamal says. "I feel like I belong to Syria as much as Palestine. I was born and raised there. My entire life was there. We feel the same as people across Syria because we are enduring the same difficult circumstances."

Today he lives in the Palestinian Burj al-Barajneh refugee camp in Beirut, where his wife Hadia works as a teacher at a humanitarian organization that helps Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

"When I came to Lebanon, I dreamed that it would be like how I saw it on television and in the Lebanese media, but I was shocked," Hadia says. "Here in Burj al-Barajneh, the infrastructure is crumbling, there are lots of rats and the sewers have a strong stench."

Kamal and Hadia met in Syria's Yarmouk camp, once home to nearly 200,000 people, including Palestinian refugees and Syrians alike. "You could live a reasonable life in Yarmouk before the civil war," she says. "Yarmouk was like a small city. But today, Lebanon is better than having stayed in Syria."

Second-generation refugees

According to Wesam Sabaaneh, youth director at the Syria-based Jafra Foundation, the nearly half a million Palestinians in Syria "are particularly vulnerable because they are already refugees."

Echoing Sabaaneh, Kamal remarks that they "suffered far more restrictions" than their Syrian counterparts. "I am a second-generation refugee after the nakba," he says. "I was forced to do the same as my father, only I fled from Syria to Lebanon. It's a bizarre feeling to be born and live your whole life as a refugee, and even stranger to have to be a double refugee, seeking refuge yet again but finding a serious decline in our already bad living circumstances."

Back in May, life became even more difficult for Palestinians from Syria who are now in Lebanon when UNRWA announced that an ongoing funding crisis has forced the agency to cut $100 rent stipends that helped them afford housing.

Siham, 39, fled Yarmouk with her father, husband and three daughters in December 2012, when the Syrian military dropped bombs on the camp. Her brother had already been killed by a bullet fired by Syrian government forces earlier that year.

Photo: Syria Deeply

They fled to Qudsaya, a town north of Damascus, where her father died of a heart attack just two months later. "Only three weeks after that, my husband went to work and never returned," Siham says. "I didn't know how to provide for my kids and myself."

Another six months passed before she learned what happened. "A security patrol unit brought my husband's identification papers to the front door," Siham says. "The head officer told me my husband had died in their custody, then just turned and walked away. I was left speechless."

Fighting back tears, she adds, "I had lost my husband, my brother, my father and our home in Yarmouk, so I felt that Syria was no longer welcoming for me and my daughters. That's when I decided to come to Lebanon."

Siham and her daughters ended up in a Syrian refugee camp in eastern Lebanon's Bekaa Valley region, where they live in a single-room tent and are banned from formally working. "We depend on aid from organizations and good people," she says, as tears stream down her face. "Palestinians from Syria are now going through their second nakba."

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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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