The United Nations announced recently that 71,000 Palestinians have now fled Syria for the comparative safety of Lebanon. The vast majority of these second-time refugees have taken shelter in the already-impoverished Palestinian refugee camps of Lebanon, where their arrival is, without surprise, having a huge political and humanitarian impact.
To fully understand the significance of this mass migration, we need to consider the dire conditions in these often-forgotten camps, which shelter most of the approximately 450,000 Palestinians registered in Lebanon. The 12 official camps encapsulate the impossible situation of the Palestinians in Lebanon, where they comprise about 10 percent of the population but are deprived of basic civil and legal rights.
The vast majority of Palestinians in Lebanon are stateless and therefore lack the protection of any government, meaning that they cannot claim the same entitlements as other foreigners. Palestinian refugees are barred from working in more than 20 professions and are not allowed to own property. They are deprived of access to public health and educational facilities.
While the UN agency for Palestine refugees, UNRWA, provides education for Palestinian refugee children through its camp schools, these are usually under-resourced, overcrowded and operating on a double-shift system.
There is very high unemployment in the camps, as an estimated 63 percent of the working age population is jobless (“Palestinian refugees in Lebanon,” American Near East Refugee Aid, June 2012 [PDF]). Many are left in poverty, dependent on aid and services from UNRWA. When they need medical attention, they must pay to use Lebanese hospitals and often cannot afford the required treatment.
The physical geography of the camps reflects this grim reality. They are notoriously unsafe, impoverished and neglected. Anyone walking through must avoid puddles of sewage and dangling electrical cables to negotiate their way through pathways so narrow they sometimes require groups to walk in single file.
The Lebanese government has no formal jurisdiction in the camps, meaning that their municipal functions are carried out by semi-official popular committees, who collect financial contributions in return for services. The committees’ effectiveness is hindered by their lack of resources and internal political divisions, with inter-factional disputes common (“Nurturing instability: Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee camps,” International Crisis Group, 19 February 2009 [PDF]).
Most of all, the camps are typified by overcrowding. As Palestinians are not allowed to expand their shelters outwards, they have dealt with the rapid population growth in the camps by building upwards, usually constructing precarious floors on top of each other.
The result is an extreme population density in very cramped conditions. In Burj al-Barajne camp in Beirut, nearly 20,000 Palestinian refugees live in one square kilometer. Ein al-Hilwe, the largest Palestinian camp in Lebanon, has an even greater population density, with an almost unbelievable 80,000 people inhabiting 1.25 square kilometers of land.
Ten in a room
The camps are now absorbing an additional 71,000 people, with little or no extra provisions to accommodate the increased need. As I observed on a recent visit to Lebanon, the Palestinian community has shown incredible altruism in opening up their homes to host those arriving from Syria.
But, of course, the community has nowhere near sufficient resources to provide what is needed. As a result, there are cases of more than ten persons living in one room, and of refugees sleeping on the streets and using public taps to wash.
Those fleeing Syria have left most of their belongings behind and are almost entirely dependent on aid and goodwill. Only 7 percent have been able to find employment in Lebanon, which is usually casual, short-term and very low-paid, according to UNRWA. Many are also traumatized by the experience and effects of war.
The American charity ANERA estimates that 96 percent of Palestinian refugees from Syria who fled to Lebanon have been directly exposed to violence, and 21 percent have lost a family member or close friend to the conflict (“Palestinian Refugees from Syria in Lebanon: A Needs Assessment,” March 2013). The ordeal of exile is worsened by the fact that Syria has historically provided some of the best conditions for Palestinians anywhere in the region, with no restrictions on their rights and equal social status with Syrian citizens.
Adapting to life under Lebanon’s explicitly discriminatory system has been an additional burden for those already living through a second displacement.
Unsurprisingly, this escalating refugee crisis has placed a huge strain on the resources of those humanitarian organizations serving the Palestinian camps in Lebanon. Their role is particularly vital given the Lebanese government’s absence from these spaces. Aid agencies now face the dilemma of how to effectively assist Palestinians arriving from Syria without neglecting the needs of the existing community in Lebanon.
As the closest thing that many Palestinians have to a government, UNRWA is implementing emergency relief programs for refugees fleeing Syria for Lebanon and Jordan. The agency has launched an urgent appeal asking for $65 million to cover the costs of this work, but has so far only received $25 million (“In Lebanon, UN officials get first-hand look at plight of Palestinian refugees from Syria,” 15 July 2013).
Once again, the Palestinians’ statelessness lies at the heart of the problem — with no government to represent or advocate for them, they are reliant on the goodwill of other states, for whom they are rarely the priority, or on UNRWA, which has been running on a deficit for the last three decades. As the agency is almost entirely dependent on contributions from donor states, it cannot provide the robust representation so sorely needed.
This crisis is ultimately central to the Palestinian struggle. The flight of Palestinian refugees from Syria can be best understood within the wider context of ongoing Palestinian exile, displacement and insecurity.
The dire consequences of the Syrian war have highlighted the Palestinians’ vulnerable position and underlined the precariousness that characterizes their situation across the region. The Palestinians of Syria and Lebanon will only realize all their rights when Palestine itself is truly free.
Anne Irfan holds a masters degree in Middle Eastern history and currently works for the nongovernmental organization Medical Aid for Palestinians.