Do Palestinian Refugees Exist?

Palestinian refugees have always dealt with the problem of absence. (Photo: Rio 2016)

By Mahmoud Zidan

The 2016 Olympic Games, held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, have been marred by several dark spots from the get-go: the hyperbolised spread of the Zika virus in Latin America, which led some sportspeople to boycott the games; the volatile political situation in Brazil; the algae-filled swimming pool where competitions are held; the Russian doping scandal; the preparedness of the Olympic Village itself; the rampant chauvinism — not dissimilar to previous Olympic gatherings — defying the very purpose for which the Olympics was designed; the rise in crime; and so on. 

All these spots have made the Olympics this year arguably infernal. But perhaps there has been a beacon of hope, identified by many as the recognition of the sufferings of refugees by the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

For instance, Ibrahim Al Hussein, a Syrian swimmer who had lost part of his right leg during the war in Syria, carried the Olympic Torch in Greece.

A more publicised aspect of that recognition, however, was the formation of the Refugee Olympic Team.

Commenting on the team, Thomas Bach, IOC president, declared: “We want to send a message of hope to all the refugees of the world.”

It is true that all refugees need messages of hope, but I doubt that all of them will interpret the team as such.

The team comprises ten refugees, five from South Sudan, two from Syria, two from the Democratic Republic of Congo, and one Ethiopian. 

Initially, in March, 43 potential candidates were identified from refugee camps in Africa and Europe by national Olympic committees.

According to the IOC website, the selection process was based on three criteria: personal circumstances, ability and UN-verified refugee status.

In June, it was announced that 10 athletes had been selected to be members of the refugee team, with Syrian Yusra Mardini being the team’s iconic image.

Still, there was some controversy over the selection process when the names of the team members were publicised in June.

Some refugee athletes claimed that the members were cherry-picked and, as a result, better-prepared athletes were excluded. But those reports were challenged by IOC.

Nevertheless, one might still be sceptical about the selection process, acknowledging the impossibility of representing all refugee groups. For, it is difficult not to notice jarring absences.

One may wonder where are Iraqis, Libyans, Yemenis, Haitians, Rohingyas and many others. Are there no skilled athletes among these groups of refugees?

At the opening ceremony of the Olympics, Bach claimed: “In this Olympic world, there is one universal law for everybody. In this Olympic world, we are all equal.”

Apart from the medal table itself, the constitution of the refugee team contravenes Bach’s statement, which was made in English.

In fact, the Olympic Village itself displaced more than 70,000 Brazilians, a fact which suggests that the Olympic world is only a replica, albeit in disguise, of our world and is accordingly replete with exclusionary policies and practices. 

A flagrant example of that exclusion is the absence of Palestinians from the refugee team, an absence that begs such questions as: Are there no Palestinian refugee athletes? Are they not skilled enough? 

Answering the questions relating to the absence of Palestinian refugees is, interestingly enough, a little easier than addressing the set of questions about the absence of other refugee groups.

Palestinians, in general, and Palestinian refugees, in particular, have always dealt with the problem of absence.

The Israeli colonial machine has consistently promulgated two — among many others — myths: Palestinians do not exist, and there is no such thing as the Palestinian refugee problem.

Instead of recognising the sufferings that they created, the Israeli colonists proposed — to give only one example — the so-called “Jordan option”, which entails naturalising Palestinian refugees in Jordan.

Thus, Jordan becomes an alternative homeland, and Palestinians lose any chance of returning home.

Such ideas and myths are preposterous, but what is to be expected of a brutal colonial power like Israel, except its deliberate negation of Palestinians?

What might be less expected is the United Nations’ complicity with those processes.

Take as an example the 1951 Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, which the United Nations Higher Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) describes as “the key legal document that forms the basis of our work”.

In that document, Article 1D reads: “This convention shall not apply to persons who are at present receiving from organs or agencies of the United Nations other than the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees protection or assistance.”

At the time of signing the document, Palestinian refugees were “provided for” by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).

The existence of UNRWA means that the principles that apply to other refugees, including the right of return, do not apply to Palestinian refugees.

On top of all that systemic negation, the very existence of a Palestinian delegation at the Olympics reinforces that logic and gives the impression that the Palestinian refugee problem has been resolved.

Palestinian participation — despite all the impediments imposed on Palestinian athletes — is significant. Palestinian refugees should never be sidelined and excluded.

The exclusion of Palestinian refugees, and other refugees for that matter, is only symptomatic of the fact that oppressive powers have even used humanitarian organisations and gestures — such as the presence of a Palestinian delegation — to further demonise, marginalise and oppress the already oppressed.

Most importantly, those powers have always attempted to deprive the oppressed — Palestinians, as a case in point — of their humanity, some aspects of which are culture and sports, claiming that the oppressed do not have cultures and do not play sports.

Sports and politics have always been intricately linked, and delinking them — let alone using sports itself for that delinking — will not succeed.

The Olympics, or any other sporting event, should not be a façade behind which harrowing realities are hidden. Rather, sports should contribute to changing those realities.

Like other refugees, Palestinian refugees are determined — against all odds — to create an alternative reality in which their presence is felt, not only in sports but also in their homeland.

– Professor Mahmoud Zidan lives in Jordan. He contributed this article to

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  1. In fact Israel’s Eastern European leaders use Judaisim as tool of oppressing a non European people, which is the only thing they are able to digest about Palestinians. If you note, the only thing these European immigrants that formed Israel have going for them in international debates is that “they are Jewish,” and Palestine is their homeland from “two thousand years ago.” Now, zoom in, and let’s face reality here — the majority of these European Israelis after seven decades still look European, and if we look at the form of Judaism practiced in Israel, it does in fact appear as rebellious Christian Europeans.

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