Boat disaster hits Palestine refugees in Lebanon hard

The mother of a young Palestinian man who drowned at sea displays his photo before his funeral in Shatila refugee camp in Beirut, Lebanon, on 24 September.

Stringer ZUMA Press

At least two dozen Palestinian refugees, most of them from Nahr al-Bared camp in northern Lebanon, are among the nearly 100 dead after a boat full of asylum seekers headed towards Italy capsized off the coast of Syria last week.

While a smuggler has reportedly been arrested by Lebanese authorities for his role in the tragedy, there is plenty of blame to go around for creating the dire situation that the Palestinian refugees and the other passengers were seeking to escape.

Among the 24 children who reportedly perished were two students who attended schools run by UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestine refugees, according to a spokesperson for that agency.

Between 120 and 170 people were on board the boat, which set sail from Tripoli in northern Lebanon. Most of them were Syrian, Lebanese and Palestinian.

Twenty people survived and more remain missing, according to Syrian state media.


“The situation of Palestine refugees in Lebanon is reaching such a desperate level that they are willing to risk their lives along these perilous routes if there is hope on the other side,” Tamara Alrifai, a spokesperson for UNRWA, told Al Jazeera.

“And the other side always looks better than what many of them describe as hell,” Alrifai added.

Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are “marginalized, disenfranchised, barred from owning property, barred from professions and the economic and financial collapse of Lebanon, particularly this last year, has hit at the most vulnerable first,” she said.

“Palestinian refugees are amongst the most vulnerable more so because …. apart from UNRWA, they have no one to care for them,” according to Alrifai.

Yet UNRWA has been in an acute financial crisis for around a decade. Without UNRWA, which provides schooling and essential health services, Palestinian refugees will lose a last vestige of stability and normality, Alrifai warned.

Millions of Palestinians, including those living in Lebanon, have remained refugees for decades after the 1948 dispossession of Palestine.

Israeli law allows Jewish people an exclusive right to enter the country and receive citizenship. Meanwhile, Israel denies Palestinian refugees and those internally displaced within the country their right to return to their homes and property as enshrined in international law.

As Amnesty International has explained, “since its establishment in 1948, Israel has pursued a policy of establishing and then maintaining a Jewish demographic majority, and maximizing control over land and resources to benefit Jewish Israelis.”

So in pursuit of Israel’s system of apartheid in service of its colonization of Palestinian land, Palestinian refugees are left in “a perpetual limbo of forced displacement,” according to Amnesty.

“Pushed to the brink”

Some 27,000 Palestinians were forcibly displaced from Nahr al-Bared when it was destroyed during and after fighting between the Lebanese army and a Salafist group that had infiltrated the camp in 2007.

Around 20 percent of those who were displaced remain uprooted and movement to and from the camp is controlled by the Lebanese army, limiting economic recovery.

The camp has also hosted Palestinian refugees displaced during the war in Syria, as well as a few dozen Syrian families, according to UNRWA.

Due to waning donor support, that agency has been forced to slash services in the face of growing needs due to compounded crises in Gaza, Syria and Lebanon.

“We call for full solidarity from the international community to help improve the conditions of forcibly displaced people and host communities in the Middle East, particularly in countries neighboring Syria,” Filipo Grandi, the UN high commissioner for refugees, stated after the deadly capsizing last week.

“Too many people are being pushed to the brink,” he added.

The fickle solidarity of the so-called international community is not the only contributing factor to deteriorating conditions for Palestinian refugees.

In addition to forbidding Palestinian refugees from exercising their rights for decades, Israel and its supporters in the US have attacked UNRWA and its mandate. By doing so, they hope to redefine the status of Palestinian refugees so their fate no longer remains an outstanding question.

While the economic crisis in Lebanon has hit everyone living in that country – the poverty rate nearly doubled from 42 percent in 2019 to 81 percent in 2021 – it has hit Palestinian refugees even harder as they are prevented from owning property and practicing many professions.

“Refugees I met are utterly desperate and struggle to cover their basic needs,” Phillippe Lazzarini, the head of UNRWA, said in December last year after visiting the country.

“I met young graduates whose only hope for a better future is to emigrate. They know the prices of each migration route,” he added.

And without any flicker of hope for a secure future, the cost for those seeking a life with dignity will rise unbearably higher.


Maureen Clare Murphy

Maureen Clare Murphy's picture

Maureen Clare Murphy is senior editor of The Electronic Intifada.