Palestinian Emigration (II)

Palestinian Emigration (II)

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Paterson, New Jersey, US, renames Street "Palestine Way"

15 May 2022
Courtesy of Reem Farhat

The political conditions and the difficult economic repercussions that arose from Israeli settler-colonialism after 1967 compelled Palestinians to look for individual solutions to their many social and economic problems. As job opportunities dwindled and unemployment increased, and in the absence of security or political stability, emigration became one solution for young individuals and families.

The Increase in Emigration from the West Bank and Gaza after 1967

In the 1970s and 1980s, emigration tended to be widespread; it was not confined to particular sectors of society or particular areas, as it had been before the Nakba . Whereas in previous decades emigration was often an individual choice that affected only the individual, in the 1990s it included the whole family—the husband, the wife, and the children. In the vast majority of cases, husbands emigrated first, and their wives joined them soon thereafter. Generally the wives and children returned to the home country after a limited stay lasting a few years because the parents want to bring up the children in a traditional Arab way and preserve their national identity. Links between the emigrants and their relatives in the home country were reinforced through repeated visits, remittances to family and relatives, and investment in family projects or in public development projects such as building schools or roads.

A 1999 survey conducted by the Institute of Women’s Studies at Birzeit University showed that a high proportion of families (49 percent of those surveyed) in towns, villages, and refugee camps in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip had at least one member who had emigrated. The survey showed that 38 percent of the emigrants left during the first twenty years of Israeli occupation (1968–88) and 25 percent during the period 1988–99. It showed that 79 percent of emigrants in the years after the Nakba (1948–66) went to Jordan and the Arab Gulf states , while less than 50 percent went there in the early 1990s; emigration to North America , Europe, and Latin America increased, to 27 percent of the total. 

The availability of jobs, family networks, and professional skills determine the choice of destination country: a high proportion of educated emigrants headed to Jordan and the Gulf countries to join relatives who were already resident in those countries, whereas less educated and less skilled emigrants went to the Americas to join relatives there.

Emigration Continues after the Oslo Accords

Because Israel continues to control the crossing points on the borders of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and because no data is available on people leaving through the crossing points into Jordan or Egypt or through Israeli airports or land borders, it is impossible to obtain accurate statistics on emigration from the occupied territories.

The same applies to Palestinians inside the Green Line . There are no statistics on their movements because the statistics do not distinguish between people of Jewish origin and those of non-Jewish origin. But many studies indicate that the difficult political and economic conditions imposed on them, the racially discriminatory policies, and the increasing daily harassment they undergo are factors that encourage them to emigrate.

One of the few sources of reliable and detailed statistics on emigration from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip is the first national survey carried out in 2010 by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics . The survey showed that emigration from the territories is temporary; reasons include education (34.4 percent), work (28.3 percent), and accompanying husbands and parents (21.9 percent). If the last category is excluded, half the emigrants went abroad for education and the other half to improve their economic circumstances. The survey showed that 6.7 percent of families in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip had at least one emigrant member, and the average number of people emigrating was about 6,570 a year over the period 2005–2009. Estimates of net migration between the censuses of 2007 and 2017 indicate a net migration of about 110,000 people from Palestine; most of them were young.

According to the national survey, most of the emigrants lived in Arab countries (52 percent), especially Jordan (23.5 percent) and the Arab Gulf (20.4 percent). The United States was the destination for 21.6 percent of the emigrants, and other non-Arab countries accounted for 26 percent. The figures imply that a large percentage of the emigrants were moving abroad temporarily, especially those in the Gulf countries, which prevent foreign workers from long-term residence. These individuals are also usually well-educated and accumulate experience through their work in the Gulf, which makes them highly qualified and more likely than others to return and work or invest in their homeland.

Effects of Emigration on the Home Country

After 1967, emigration affected all aspects of life in the occupied territories, especially in those areas that had seen early emigration. Some people came to rely wholly on remittances from their relatives abroad. This had a direct impact on the organization of manpower inside the family, and thus on the professional choices and lifestyles of family members. It contributed to rural families neglecting agricultural activities or urban families neglecting traditional trades and economic activities and turning to work in commerce or in the construction sector, both of which expanded constantly in most of these villages and towns.

This was accompanied by the appearance of new styles of consumption and behavior that had not been seen before, especially in the rural areas. The pattern of food consumption in farming families tended toward the urban pattern of consumption, with increasing reliance on markets to provide the family’s food needs. Reliance on remittances from abroad increased the purchasing power of many rural and urban families, and the foodstuffs they bought became more diverse after dozens of Israeli foodstuffs entered the Palestinian market. Demand for consumer goods other than foodstuffs, such as household appliances, electrical goods, and vehicles, increased as well. This was accompanied by important changes in styles of living and of architecture, with more and more fancy villas built in the European style. 

Emigration also contributed to developing the infrastructure and services in many of the Palestinian villages and towns that the Israeli occupation had marginalized in past years. Remittances helped to improve the living standards of a broad sector of Palestinians and played an important role in reinforcing their resilience, especially in years of political crisis and during the First and Second Intifadas . Emigration and the investment it brought also helped to create local jobs and to diversify economic activities in the Palestinian territories, which helped to reduce the dependence of the population on work in the Israeli labor market. 

Palestinian emigration helped to create a Palestinian middle class in the diaspora, especially in the Gulf countries and in Jordan, as part of the local communities of emigrants. But they did not interact with social classes of the host countries. They adopted conservative attitudes, in harmony with those prevailing in the services sector in oil-producing economies, with their marginal position in the political systems of those countries, and with the conservative culture, promoted by the latter, which limits the spread of democratic values. As for emigrants to Europe and the Americas, their level of education and the kind of jobs they held (merchants, academics, employees, students, workers) affected their class status.

Emigration contributed to reinforce the conservative tendency in the villages, towns, and camps of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, because it was an option available mainly to the more educated people in society, especially those qualified individuals who went to the Gulf for work, and those who moved to Europe for education, thus depriving Palestinian society of their skill sets. Migration also had conservative dimensions and effects: the majority of Palestinians emigrated to improve their economic conditions and life opportunities, and not to change their lifestyle, habits, or social culture This shaped their interaction and integration with the host communities (conservative towards Western culture in the Americas or and in Europe and tolerant towards the traditional culture in the Gulf States). This also shaped their relations with their local communities in Palestine.

They maintained kinship solidarity and increasing reliance on family and kinship relationships, which no doubt reinforced the conservative effects of migration and helped to underpin patriarchal relationships and the traditions and the rituals that support them.

Migration from the Palestinian Diaspora

The Emigration of Palestinian Refugees from Lebanon

Ever since 1948, Palestinians in Lebanon have suffered from several forms of spatial marginalization. The camps are largely isolated from the surrounding population, and the denial of civil rights is accompanied by economic, social, and institutional marginalization. The Lebanese political and legal environment is hostile to Palestinians and does not want them to settle permanently in the country. The great majority of Palestinians in Lebanon live in extremely poor conditions, below the internationally accepted minimum standards for housing, health, and the environment.

The plight of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon is linked to a long history of violence and displacement. They have been displaced repeatedly because of internal civil conflicts and successive Israeli attacks since the mid-1970s. Emigration picked up after the Israeli Invasion of Lebanon in 1982, especially after the Sabra and Shatila Massacres and the conflict known as the War of the Camps between 1985 and 1987. At the time the emigrants were mostly young people, especially from the camps. The number of Palestinians who migrated to Scandinavian countries during the War of the Camps was estimated at more than 10,000. Libya and some other oil-producing Arab countries continued to take in Palestinian workers from Lebanon, with 15,000 of them moving to Libya alone. Emigration to Germany , Holland , Norway , Sweden , Denmark , Canada , and some Gulf countries increased throughout the 1980s and 1990s, and more than 100,000 Palestinians are estimated to have emigrated from Lebanon during those years.

Although there are no current statistics on the number of Palestinian emigrants from Lebanon, most reports and studies agree that the number has doubled since 2019 because of the economic crisis that has affected Lebanon in general and Palestinian refugees in particular. These reports are based on the statistics of the Lebanese General Security Directorate , which gives numbers for Palestinian illegal migration, registered through incidents in which they are involved or because they have been arrested while trying to migrate without visas. These statistics suggest that in 2020 between 6,000 and 8,000 Palestinians emigrated and did not return and that more than 12,000 left in 2021. 

The decline in living standards in the Palestinian camps in Lebanon, high levels of poverty and unemployment, a decline in the quality of services, and a sense of insecurity among Palestinians in the camps made more of them want to emigrate to European countries. Some youth movements have even emerged that advocate emigration and have called on some embassies to facilitate Palestinian emigration, an unprecedented development in the camps. People also became more ready to resort to illegal emigration. Given that traffickers ask for between $6,000 and $10,000 per person, some potential migrants have to sell their house or their wives’ gold jewellery or borrow from relatives to raise the money for the journey. Increasing numbers of Palestinians in Lebanon resort to illegal methods of migration, but very few reach their destinations, and some drown in the attempt.

The Emigration of Palestinian Refugees from Syria

After the outbreak of the Syrian crisis in 2011, Palestinians in Syria , just like Syrian nationals, faced a catastrophic situation, especially when their camps were wholly or partially destroyed. Second- and third-generation Palestinian refugees fled their camps, either to destinations within Syria or abroad. About 130,000 Palestinian refugees were forced out of Yarmouk refugee camp , while others were besieged and starved: dozens of camp residents died. About 15 percent of all the Palestinians in Syria are thought to have left the country; about 156,000 of them headed to Europe, either legally or illegally, by the end of 2016.

The Palestinian migration from the camps in Syria and Lebanon will no doubt have deep demographic and social effects on the Palestinian community in both countries. This migration has affected all social sectors, including the more qualified and better educated middle classes. But it has been mainly confined to young men. The number of young women in Palestinian families now exceeds the number of young men. This rapid migration has weakened and distorted the Palestinian social fabric in the camps in Lebanon and Syria politically and economically.

The Emigration of Palestinian Refugees from Jordan

There are no statistics or estimates for the number of Palestinians emigrating from Jordan, because the Jordanian census and other statistics do not distinguish between Jordanians of Jordanian origin and those of Palestinian origin. But according to some surveys, more than 50 percent of young Palestinians in the camps wish to emigrate, and about 2 percent of the camp population lived outside Jordan in 2005, and 6 percent of adults work abroad, especially in the Gulf states and neighbouring Arab states. These studies indicate that marriage, education, and companionship drove migration for 35 percent of all emigrants, followed by work (16 percent). There is no doubt that the increasing rates of poverty and unemployment are among the main reasons for the increasing desire of young refugees to emigrate from Jordan.

Remittances from emigrants to their families and other relatives in Jordan play an important role in improving the standard of living of refugee families. This assistance is usually accompanied by family initiatives to invest in building and home improvement work and in starting small businesses inside and outside the camps.


As a whole, Palestinian emigrants interact with the societies in their host countries in various ways, depending on the policies of those countries, the education level of the emigrants, their class status, and the cultural and ideological inclinations that define the extent of their integration or absorption, or their resistance to and isolation from the host community. Some of them have sought to reproduce their national, ethnic, or religious identity and to engage in political activities in the diaspora to assert their national identity. This was the case for Palestinians in Kuwait and other Gulf states in the 1950s and 1960s; most of the Palestinian immigrants to those countries took part in Palestinian resistance activities at an early stage and played an important role in supporting the Palestinian resistance financially and in other ways and in creating a political elite that assumed leading positions in Palestinian organizations. Others managed to integrate economically, especially in the Gulf countries and, thanks to their education and competence, were able to progress step by step, from being humble employees to being businessmen and owners of large companies, mainly in the commercial sector and secondarily in the construction sector.

Other emigrants, especially those who settled in Jordan, worked in the private sector and in some state institutions. Most of them combined a strategy of social and economic integration with maintaining their Palestinian identity and their links with relatives in the West Bank. Palestinians in western countries sought to acquire citizen rights through naturalization, integration, or conformity with the culture and policies of the host community, in order to achieve more professional success and economic stability.

Selected Bibliography: 

Baeza, Cecilia. “Palestinians in Latin America: Between Assimilation and Long-Distance Nationalism.” Journal of Palestine Studies 43, no. 2 (Winter 2014): 59–72.

Christison, Kathleen. “The American Experience: Palestinians in the U.S.Journal of Palestine Studies 18, no. 4 (Summer 1989): 18–37.

Khawaja, Marwan and Åge A. Tiltnes, eds. On the Margins: Migration and Living Conditions of Palestinian Camp Refugees in Jordan. Oslo: FAFO, 2002.

Serhan, Randa. “Suspended Community: An Ethnographic Study of Palestinian-Americans in New York and New Jersey.” Ph.D Thesis, Columbia University, 2009.

Shiblak, Abbas. The Palestinian Diaspora in Europe—Challenges‏ ‏of Dual Identity and Adaptation. Ramallah: Palestinian Refugee and Diaspora Center (Shaml) and the Institute of Jerusalem Studies, 2005.