Lebanon charges punitive registration fees to Palestinians fleeing Syria war

8 January 2014

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Palestinian refugee families fleeing violence in Syria find themselves in an administrative morass in Lebanon.

(Mutawalli Abou Nasser / IPS)

BEIRUT (IPS) - Over the past year, more than 50,000 Palestinian refugees have fled violence, chaos and destitution in Syria to seek sanctuary in Lebanon. The vast majority have found themselves living in dire poverty and trapped in chronic insecurity.

Denied assurances of legal residence, many are unsure if and how they can continue to live in the country during 2014.

“Who from the Palestinian families can pay $200 for the papers for every family member? If the average family is five people, then that is $1,000. This is impossible as we know most Palestinian refugees aren’t even sure how they are going to feed their children one day to the next,” said Mahmoud Assir Saawi, president of the Council for Palestinian Refugees Fleeing from Syria.

Such sentiments are reiterated time and time again within the squalid camps and overcrowded ghettos throughout Lebanon. Palestinians arriving from Syria find themselves in an administrative morass.

Many of the Palestinian refugees from Syria were originally uprooted from their homeland in 1948 upon the creation of the State of Israel, or during the 1967 war when the Israelis comprehensively defeated the neighboring Arab armies. Another war has exacted its toll and around half of their communities in Syria have fled once again.

Least able to accommodate

Lebanon has received most of this exodus, and of Syria’s neighbors it is perhaps least able to accommodate the influx.

The presence of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in Lebanon has always been a highly divisive issue, with many Lebanese blaming Palestinians for the role they played in the nation’s civil war from 1975 to 1990. The arrival of large communities of their compatriots this past year has further exacerbated existing fears and prejudices.

It is perhaps for this reason that the arriving Palestinians have been classified as “guests,” “migrants” or “displaced people.” To afford them the more apt title of “refugee” would bring with it legal obligations, most notably under the 1951 refugee convention, which Lebanon would struggle to realize.

Fears of Palestinian, and even Syrian refugees settling in Lebanon permanently, and thus shifting the precarious sectarian balance within the country, are common and are regularly aired in the media and by politicians. As such the refugees’ status remains vulnerable and their sanctuary insecure.

Securing residency papers remains one of the biggest problems for Palestinian refugees from Syria. Upon arrival Palestinians fleeing war and hunger are only granted a one-week visa in Lebanon, which they must then extend.

In the overcrowded and destitute Shatila camp in Beirut, Palestinian refugees from Syria have staged sit-ins at the offices of the UN agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA).

The international organization was already struggling to provide basic services to the approximately 420,000 Palestinian refugees already living in the country before the outbreak of the Syrian crisis. UNRWA has been tasked by the Lebanese government with extending these services to the new arrivals.

Vulnerable

Palestinian journalist Maher Ayoub from Yarmouk camp in Damascus knows first hand about the vulnerability of life in Lebanon. On a recent trip to renew his papers he was ordered to leave the country within the week, despite assurances from the Lebanese government that it would not throw out any refugees.

Faced with incarceration in Lebanon or a perilous return to Syria, he has taken refuge in one of the Palestinian camps Lebanese security services are not allowed to enter under an agreement reached at the end of the civil war.

“Where can I go? What can I do? I have no options now,” Ayoub said.

Seeking shelter

Many other Palestinian refugees distrustful of the security services or fearful of being unable to pay their annual visa renewal fees are seeking shelter within the camps.

“We know they are our brethren and we must help them but this is becoming untenable,” said Abu Ahmad, a Lebanese-Palestinian resident from Shatila camp. “I used to get at least a week’s work every month but now there is nothing. Every day we are seeing problems in the camp because of the desperation and the lack of work. People are even starting to pull weapons on each other. We need more support.”

UNRWA has calculated that it will need more than $417 million to support the humanitarian needs of Palestinian refugees affected by the war in Syria during 2014. Over $90 million of that sum has been earmarked to assist those who have fled to Lebanon.

The different Palestinian factions have proven unable to absorb the strain.

For the Palestinians fleeing Syria’s war the struggle looks set to continue in 2014 as they try to build a semblance of stability in their lives.

Additional reporting by The Electronic Intifada.

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