A wall mural in Burj Barajneh refugee camp, Beirut. Picture by Stephen McCloskey, all rights reserved.The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) plays a critical front-line role in providing key services and support to 5.3 million Palestinian refugees living in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. These services include: primary health centres, schools, women’s centres, vocational and training centres, and community rehabilitation centres. It also provides jobs, cash support and food aid to refugees consigned since the ethnic cleansing of Palestine during the Nakba (Catastrophe) of 1948 to a life of poverty and marginalisation.
UNRWA has recently been subjected to severe cuts from the Trump administration which normally provides one-third of its total annual budget of $1.2 billion. So dire have been the implications of these cuts that UNRWA managed to open its 711 schools for 526,000 students on September only by leveraging additional finance of $238 million from donors. The agency has said that it still needs to secure an additional $217 million to ensure that the schools remain open for the rest of the academic year.
Refugee crisis in Lebanon
UNRWA’s precarious funding stream is particularly troubling for the Palestinian refugees of Lebanon given the added pressure on UN services created by the influx of refugees from the conflict in Syria. Since the start of the Syrian war in 2011, 6.6 million Syrians have been internally displaced and 5.6 million more have sought refuge outside their country. An overwhelming majority of Syria’s refugees are hosted by other countries in the Middle-East, most notably Turkey (3.5 million and 63 percent) and Lebanon (976,002 and 17.4 percent). Among the refugees forced to flee Syria are Palestinians which an American University of Beirut (AUB) report estimated to number 40,000 in 2015, many of whom have taken refuge in UNRWA camps in Lebanon. According to the UN there are 504,000 registered Palestinian refugees living in 12 camps in Lebanon but only between 260,000 and 280,000 remain in-country. While there has been no official census carried out to confirm these numbers, the UN can monitor the number of refugees through take-up of its services. The difference in the number of registered refugees and users is likely to result from migration during and after the upheaval of the Lebanese civil war.
Palestine Refugees from Syria (PRS) are often competing with Palestine Refugees from Lebanon (PRL) for employment, mostly in low-paid, manual jobs which perpetuate poverty. The AUB report found unemployment levels at 23.2 percent for PRL and 52.5 percent for PRS which makes it ‘challenging for many families to afford basic needs and to access services in times of need such as hospitalization and specialist care’. The report also worryingly flagged that PRS are ‘almost completely reliant on UNRWA to cover their health needs’ reflecting a concerning level of dependence among PRS on the UN, NGOs and other international agencies working in Lebanon. The plight of these refugees tends to be forgotten or ignored by the media which focuses instead on the Occupied Territories of the Gaza Strip, West Bank and East Jerusalem
Marginal status in Lebanon
Even before the surge in refugee arrivals from Syria, Palestinians have been living a marginal existence in Lebanon where the majority of refugees and their descendants have not been naturalised despite fleeing to the country in 1948. According to UNHCR, Palestinians are denied access to 36 professions including medicine, farming, fishery and public transportation. They are also prohibited from owning property which denies them a foothold in Lebanese society and the opportunity to improve the lives of future generations.
In terms of employment, UNHCR found that Palestinians receive lower salaries than Lebanese nationals in the same occupations suggesting discrimination in the workplace and exploitation by employers of the high unemployment rate among refugees. With Palestinians subjected to a perpetual ‘foreigner’ status in Lebanon despite their lengthy residency, a 2010 AUB survey of Palestinian refugees found that just 37 percent of the working-age population was employed and just 6 percent of the labour force in university training. The same survey reported that two-thirds of the Palestinian refugee population was poor (living on less than $6 a day), one-third had a chronic illness and four percent had a ‘functional disability’.
High levels of unemployment in a socially deprived environment has resulted in severe mental health problems with the AUB survey finding that 21 percent of respondents had experienced ‘depression, anxiety or distress’. It found that if UNRWA was not present in Lebanon, overall poverty among refugees would increase by 14 percent and extreme poverty would increase threefold, findings which have added resonance given the severe cuts to UNRWA’s budget recently announced by the Trump administration.
UNRWA has 32,350 pupils registered in its 69 schools in Lebanon although these numbers may have been swollen by refugees from Syria. The exclusion of Palestinians from most professional occupations and high levels of unemployment among refugees can reduce expectations among young people from pursuing a full-time education. Palestinian children are denied access to Lebanese public schools and their families are unlikely to have the finance to send them to private schools and universities. This results in just a trickle of Palestinian youngsters making it to third level education.
Cuts to UNRWA’s budget
According to UNRWA, ‘Lebanon has the highest percentage of Palestine refugees living in abject poverty’ among the five regions in which it works which makes Washington’s cut of $300m (£228m) from the UN agency’s budget deeply alarming. This cut has already forced UNRWA to axe 250 jobs in the West Bank and Gaza and, represents an ‘existential threat’ to the future of the agency which is operating with a deficit of $256 million.
US disengagement from UNRWA followed the decision of the Trump administration to move the United States (US) embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem thereby reversing a longstanding US commitment to have the status of the contested Holy City agreed as part of a negotiated Middle-East settlement. By recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, President Trump seemingly dashed Palestinian aspirations for recognition of East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state. Trump said this move was ‘a long overdue step to advance the peace process’, but this view was overwhelmingly rejected by the United Nations General Assembly when it voted 128-9 in favour of a resolution condemning Washington’s policy shift.
The Palestinian Authority has since broken off diplomatic relations with Washington and, by way of riposte, President Trump, in one of his legendary bad-tempered tweets, said ‘we pay the Palestinians HUNDRED OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS a year and get no appreciation or respect’. The disrespectful Palestinians were subsequently made to suffer through UNRWA cuts but what is really afoot here?
The ‘deal of the century’
President Trump’s son-in-law and advisor, Jared Kushner, has been engaged in shuttle diplomacy around the Middle-East trying to sell the ‘deal of the century’ which is an economic development plan for Gaza and the West Bank. In return for forfeiting their right to return and abandoning their refugee status, Palestinians are being asked to accept what Robert Fisk describes as ‘cash for peace instead of a land for peace’ deal. At a stroke, the ‘deal of the century’ would remove the need for UNRWA as there would be no more Palestinian refugees, now benefiting from economic incentives from Washington and its regional neighbours such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
It seems a grave miscalculation to presume that Palestinians who have suffered for generations the life of the refugee would trade their right to return and claim to a Palestinian state with a capital in East Jerusalem, for ‘economic regeneration’. It seems doubtful, too, that there would be much enthusiasm for such a deal among Washington’s allies with Saad El Gammal, head of the Egyptian parliament's Arab Affairs Committee suggesting that ‘Most of the Arab world – including Egypt and Saudi Arabia – have rejected the U.S.-proposed Deal of the Century’.
In the context of the ‘deal of the century’, it is difficult to view the cuts to UNRWA as anything more than the cynical use of aid for political ends. This was made clear when Foreign Policy magazine released e-mails which showed that Jared Kushner ‘had pressed Jordan to strip its more than 2 million registered Palestinians of their refugee status so that UNRWA would no longer need to operate in the Middle Eastern country’. What is particularly scabrous about this endeavour to downsize UNRWA is the fact that the five million Palestinians under its care are being put at risk of even graver humanitarian suffering.
Lebanon needs support
As a small state with a delicate political balance and unfinished business from a long civil war, Lebanon has been overwhelmed by the influx of over one million refugees from Syria. It should be commended for accepting such a large number of refugees which comprise one quarter of its population and makes a mockery of the Syrian refugee intakes by many wealthier European states with a greater capacity to be more generous.
Lebanon should be supported to a greater level by multilateral bodies to help manage its refugee population, many of whom have been subjected to trauma and human rights abuses during the Syrian conflict. However, Lebanon could itself be more supportive of the Palestinian refugee community resident in the country since 1948 by offering them full citizenship and removing barriers to over 30 professions which deny them full integration into Lebanese society.
By refusing Palestinians permission to own property they are denied a foothold in society and a legacy for their children. Palestinians make a significant economic contribution to the Lebanese economy despite their economic disadvantages and this needs to be reciprocated with greater equality and dignity for Palestinians living in Lebanon. This is urgently needed in the area of education so that Palestinians have greater access to all levels of the education system, particularly third level where they currently hold a tiny minority of places. The recently announced US cuts to the UN Mission for Palestinian refugees places this vulnerable population at even greater risk of humanitarian suffering and social marginalisation. By lifting the barriers to their social and economic integration, Lebanon can assist the Palestinian community to greater agency, independence and equality.
It is imperative, too, that European Union member states and regional actors in the Middle-East step up to the plate and fill the funding gap left by the US government’s withdrawal from UNRWA. This agency separates Palestinian refugees from complete penury and destitution, particularly in the troubled post-conflict state of Lebanon.