Perfect Lebanese storm leaves refugees struggling to meet needs

A man pushes a cart with bread in front of a poster depicting the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem

Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are struggling to meet basic needs amid a financial crisis, the COVID pandemic and UNRWA budget cuts.

Elisa Gestri SIPA USA

Desperate and struggling to meet basic needs.

That was the verdict from Philippe Lazzarini, head of the United Nations Works and Relief Agency UNRWA, in December.

Lazzarini painted a stark picture of the situation for Palestinian refugees in Lebanon for whom, just this week, UNRWA launched a special appeal.

“I met young graduates whose only hope for a better future is to emigrate. They know the price of each migration route,” Lazzarini said. “I met parents who have nightmares about how they will afford to buy milk and diapers for their children the next day.”

Lebanon is grappling with a financial and political crisis that is afflicting everyone but is having a particularly devastating impact on the some 480,000 Palestinian refugees in the country, already among the poorest and most marginalized members of Lebanese society.

Compounding the situation, UNRWA – set up in the wake of the 1948 forced mass displacement of Palestinians from their homes and lands, the Nakba, to support refugees until such a time as they can return – is undergoing a critical budget crunch.

According to a Brussels conference in November, the agency was operating with a $60 million deficit in 2021.

As a result, UNRWA scaled back services across the region, causing protests and anger in the Gaza Strip, where the budget crunch is seen as an attempt to undermine refugee rights.

Decades of underfunding

UNRWA needs an annual budget of about $800 million to provide health, education, relief and social protection services in its five areas of operation: Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, the Gaza Strip, and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem.

At the Brussels conference, the agency secured donations of more than $600 million and reached an agreement with eight UN member states in which they committed to providing support for the next two to five years.

However, for 2022, even if all donations are realized, the agency has still only secured 40 percent of its budget.

And fully realized is the exception, not the rule. UNRWA’s budget is dependent on voluntary contributions. But donors have consistently failed to live up to their promised support. For decades, the agency has operated under the threat of suspended or reduced funding and political pressure.

The agency therefore has to be hypersensitive to the politics of donors and the broader international community, limiting its programs and further marginalizing Palestinian refugees.

Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are dependent on UNRWA for education, health and other social services. UNRWA has allocated roughly $125 million for its operations in Lebanon, but its dramatically reduced services do not meet the refugees’ basic needs. In December, Lazzarini acknowledged that the agency’s austerity measures had “reached its limit and is impacting the quality of our services.”

Yet even before the current crises, health services and infrastructure in many Palestinian camps were crumbling, aged and insufficient.

A perfect storm

More than 200,000 Palestinian refugees live in 12 overcrowded and dilapidated camps across the country. In addition, 29,000 Palestinian refugees from Syria have sought refuge in Lebanon since the outbreak of the Syrian conflict in 2011.

Last February, UNRWA reported that 87 percent of Palestinian families displaced from Syria to Lebanon live in poverty and are dependent on cash assistance.

However, the agency recently reduced its cash assistance program. Palestinian refugees from Syria previously received $100 per month per family as well as $25 per person per month in cash food assistance. They now receive cash assistance of $150 per family twice a year and $25 per person per month. After protests, UNRWA announced that they would provide a one-time cash payment of $75 per person.

These changes have been implemented even as rent and food costs have soared.

Indeed, the combination of the COVID-19 pandemic and Lebanon’s financial crisis has only deepened poverty among Palestinian refugees. According to UNRWA, nearly 75 percent of these refugees now live below the poverty line and suffer from food insecurity.

The collapse in the value of the Lebanese currency and skyrocketing conversion rates to the US dollar have also contributed to a decline in purchasing power.

This has been compounded by the work stoppage and closures related to the pandemic, daily power outages, and the lack of available food supplies, toiletries, medicine and fuel. After the Lebanese government lifted subsidies on basic necessities, food prices have risen uncontrollably. In September, the World Food Programme reported that the cost of its basic necessities food basket has increased fivefold in less than two years.

According to the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA), the poverty rate in Lebanon has nearly doubled from 42 percent in 2019 to 82 percent of all Lebanese and non-Lebanese in 2021.

Ghada N. is a Palestinian refugee mother of four in Beirut’s Dahiyya suburb. Her family was not dependent on UNRWA’s programs before the current crises. They are now.

“At the beginning of the economic crisis we gave up on luxuries in case it continued for an extended period,” Ghada told The Electronic Intifada. “Now we are faced with giving up more and more basic necessities. There is no longer a middle class. Every Palestinian refugee needs help.”

The World Food Programme currently distributes food parcels to about 100,000 marginalized Lebanese families and monthly cash assistance to Syrian refugees.

By contrast, UNRWA only provides food and cash assistance on a quarterly basis to those Palestinian refugees it has determined are hardship cases. And over the past two years of the economic crisis and the pandemic, UNRWA has only provided emergency cash assistance twice. In May 2020, roughly $30 was provided to each Palestinian refugee in Lebanon.

In September 2021, UNRWA gave $40 to each Palestinian refugee child under the age of 18. Meanwhile, Palestinians have held demonstrations protesting cuts and calling on UNRWA to provide monthly support to all refugees. The Lebanese government is offering an assistance program to its citizens, but refugees are excluded.

Undermining health services

UNRWA’s health services have also been severely impacted by Lebanon’s collapse. After the Lebanese government lifted subsidies on medications, most refugees have been unable to afford their prescribed medicines.

UNRWA has also reduced benefits and the amount it contributes to cover the costs of hospital admissions, specialized surgeries, and laboratory and radiological tests. In addition, hospitals run by the Palestinian Red Crescent have been forced to reduce or halt their operations due to lack of fuel and electricity as well as shortages of medicine and equipment.

Samer Manna, a human rights advocate for Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, said the refugees’ precarious situation means they are dependent on cash-strapped organizations and charities as well as relatives abroad for financial assistance to receive medical care.

“In order to cover expenses for medical treatment, Palestinians are forced to wander endlessly through a maze of organizations, officials, and individuals and they are still unable to secure the required amount [for treatment],” he told The Electronic Intifada.

“Pursuing funds for medical expenses has become more painful than the illness itself.”

Meanwhile, COVID-19 vaccinations of Palestinian refugees have proceeded at a slow pace. The rate of vaccination among Palestinian refugees is less than those among Syrian and other refugees in Lebanon. By early January, less than a third of the total number of registered refugees received one dose of the vaccine and around one quarter have received a second dose. Just some 5,000 have received a third dose.

UNRWA’s primary and secondary school education has also suffered. Although UNRWA’s schools opened for the academic year, fear of infection has limited enrollment. Online schooling from home is not an option due to a lack of smart devices, Internet access and electricity. The percentage of students dropping out of school has increased the past two years as basic school supplies and transportation are no longer affordable. Some school-age children have been forced to find work as day laborers to help their families.

There is no solution in sight for Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. UNRWA’s emergency appeal is unlikely to alleviate the situation. Due to the increase in the number of refugees globally, UNRWA is now competing with other UN organizations as well as non-governmental organizations for funding. Supporting UNRWA and maintaining even the basic living standards of Palestinian refugees is no longer a priority for the international community.

And the agency is under constant pressure from the United States and Israel to reduce its services further, if not disband altogether.

Caught in the middle, as they have been since the 1948 Nakba, are the Palestinian refugees. Unable to return to their homes in Palestine or be treated with dignity and equality in Lebanon, they are at the mercy of the invisible threat of the COVID pandemic and economic and political forces beyond their control.

Dalal Yassine is a non-resident fellow at the Jerusalem Fund/Palestine Center in Washington DC. Twitter: @Dalal_yassine. The views in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The Jerusalem Fund and Palestine Center.