Sitting in the middle of a small living room with members of his close and extended family around him, Adnan’s expression and body language convey the confusion and dismay he feels without the need for translation. He is one of thousands of Palestinian refugees who have fled their homes in Syria to seek safety in neighbouring Lebanon, only to find that there is little or no relief for them here. Now, hosted by his cousin’s family in a cramped one bedroom flat, shared by fifteen people, they have no idea how and when any assistance may be offered to them.
Lebanon already plays host to an estimated 250-300,000 Palestinian refugees in overcrowded camps or unofficial gatherings, basically urban slums. A legacy of the creation of Israel in 1948, the refugees in Lebanon are denied basic social and economic rights in the country. Now a fresh influx of Palestinians are seeking refuge here; this time across the Syrian border. As the conflict there has escalated Palestinians have been killed in Yarmouk (including staff from the UN agency UNRWA), Dera’a, al Sbeineh and last year the Latakia camp was attacked, causing thousands of Palestinians to flee. Over recent weeks the Lebanese border has seen Palestinians join the record number of Syrians fleeing the violence. Syrian refugees face many challenges and are not welcomed by everyone here in Lebanon, however Palestinians face additional woes and open discrimination, leaving many in real danger of falling through the gaps in services.
The first issue faced by those fleeing to Lebanon is the fact that the country is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention. As a result, it does not offer formal legal protection to refugees. Those arriving are therefore classified as visitors; they remain only if the state allows them entry and only for as long as the state will tolerate them. Due to close historical and economic ties between Syria and Lebanon, Syrian nationals are allowed six month visit permits on entry, using their passport or National ID Card. The latest information provided by the Lebanese General Security is that Palestinians are allowed a one-week entry permit at the border for 25,000 LL (around £10), which they can extend for a month, after which they are supposed to leave or face fines for overstaying. A one-month amnesty was announced on September 17 for Palestinians from Syria by the Lebanese authorities; allowing those who had overstayed to leave the country without facing a fine or criminal proceedings. The fact that people escaping the violence and destruction in their own country can be given an ultimatum of returning home or face being treated as criminals, demonstrates just how fragile their status in the country is.
A quirk of international law
Having arrived in Lebanon, displaced Palestinians are also treated differently from their Syrian counterparts by United Nations humanitarian agencies on grounds of nationality. This differential treatment stems from a quirk of international law. The 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees, which is implemented by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), expressly excluded, “persons who are at present receiving from organs or agencies of the United Nations other than the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees protection or assistance”: in this case, Palestine refugees. Since 1949 they have received assistance from the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), whose current mandate is to “provide relief, human development and protection services to Palestine refugees”.
Along with a network of international and local NGOs, the UNHCR in Lebanon is offering shelter, protection, educational & recreational activities along with other vital items and services to 82,700 displaced Syrians in the country. When the organisation revised its regional response plan at the end of September it had received $141.5m of support from a requested $193.2. It now estimates that it will need an additional $295m to respond to the ongoing crisis. With over 60 years experience of working in different conflict situations across the world, UNHCR is an organisation geared up for dealing with refugee populations, their needs and the challenges associated with working in emergency relief.
UNRWA has been working in five fields in the Middle East for the same amount of time as the UNHCR and has experience working in conflict situations, especially in Gaza and during the Lebanese Civil War. However, it is primarily set up to offer regular, fixed services such as schools and health centres, to a relatively stable and geographically fixed population; in Lebanon Palestinian refugees are not even granted permission to buy properties outside the camps. UNRWA has been able to provide displaced Palestinians from Syria with the same access to primary health care as those residing in Lebanon through its clinics, and supports their emergency healthcare costs. However, the bulk of refugees began arriving in July and their number is now estimated to be well over 5,000. As a result, UNRWA and other service providers are struggling to meet their basic needs.
For families such as Adnan’s, where members of four families are sharing one room in already overcrowded refugee camps of Lebanon, shelter is a primary concern. It is not just a question of space; with no privacy the women of the family feel unable to relax and remove their veils night or day. Overcrowding is a major health concern while the camp infrastructures were unable to provide for the existing population’s needs. Neither electricity nor water supplies are regular or reliable; electricity in Bourj al Barajneh camp in Beirut is only available intermittently for 4 to 8 hours every day. Many of these families have been living in such conditions since July and with a net increase in displaced Palestinians each week, the overcrowding is only getting worse.
Given that people are largely unaware of the distinction between the two agencies, when they think of the Syrian crisis they will tend to support the UNHCR, not necessarily UNRWA. This has meant that UNRWA’s call for $54m to implement a regional response has so far only received $6.83m. In the Lebanon field, UNRWA has developed an $8.26m plan to cater for 10,000 displaced Palestinians over six months. So far it has not received any additional money for this plan, while having to accommodate thousands more displaced people. UNRWA faces a continual budgetary shortfall, estimated at $63m in 2010 – 2011, meaning it is not financially or organisationally geared up to respond to an influx of refugees or large displaced populations.
Distributions of non-food items are starting to trickle through to the displaced but winter is just around the corner. In the coming weeks the snow will start falling in the Bekaa valley, home to over 300 displaced Palestinian families; over 1,000 men, women and children. Shelter is a dire need, as many are staying with host families; becoming an increasing burden on the local population where 66% live below the poverty line, with 6.7% living in extreme poverty.
The UK has recently announced several rounds of additional support for Syrian refugees in Syria, Jordan and Turkey, totalling £30.5m to date. It is right that people whose lives have been decimated by the ongoing conflict receive as much assistance as we can give them. Yet Palestinian refugees from Syria, escaping the same violence, destruction and dangers and seeking the same protection, relief and refuge as their Syrian counterparts, are being excluded on grounds of nationality.
When asked about the assistance they have received since arriving in mid-July Adnan tells of one food parcel during Ramadan and two mattresses. With a wry, almost disbelieving smile he contrasts his situation now with those of Lebanese refugees fleeing to Syria during the Israeli attacks of 2006. “People opened their homes, even to strangers” he recalls, “I remember petrol stations offering free gas to cars that were shuttling people from the border to safety.” The lack of a similar spirit here in Lebanon has shocked and upset him.
Does Adnan regret the night his family decided to leave his war torn neighbourhood to seek refuge in Lebanon? He doesn’t raise his eyes from the ground in front of him: “Yes.”
Names have been changed to protect the identity of those involved.
The views in this article are the author's own and do not reflect those of any person or organisation with whom he is affiliated.
More information about MAP’s work is available on the website. UNRWA’s latest humanitarian update (24/09/2012). Up to date information and reports about the Syrian refugee crisis can be found through the UNHCR’s portal here.