The Plight of Syria’s Palestinian Refugees

This article was published  by the Interdependent on February 15, 2013

“There is no comparison to this life and our life in Syria,” says Bilal, 42, shivering. “We live with seven people in one room where we don’t see the sun, the rain drips through the roof, and we feel the humidity.” Bilal and his family fled the outskirts of Yarmouk camp last November with one suitcase each, after being stuck in the middle of rebel and regime forces.

syria-refugees-1Ain el Hilweh is poor and already bursting at the seams with 54,000 residents. Another 4,000 Syrian Palestinians have recently moved here. (Photo Credit: Fernande van Tets)

The United Nations estimates that approximately 400,000 of Syria’s half a million Palestinian refugees require immediate humanitarian assistance. These refugees currently live both inside and outside the war-torn country, yet their situation appears uniquely bleak.

While most Syrian refugees can register with the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), Palestinians are the responsibility of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), which is struggling to meet the dire needs of refugees pouring into neighboring countries. 

As Palestinians, Bilal and his family were not allowed into Jordan. The family had no option but to flee to Lebanon, and they are not alone. Some 24,000 Palestinian Syrians have crossed into Lebanon since last summer, the majority of whom have spread out over various sites in the Bekaa Valley. But almost a quarter of them have come to the Palestinian camp of Ain el-Hilweh, an enormous informal camp in Lebanon where UNRWA’s resources have been limited.

Despite having no family or links to the Ain El Hilweh camp, Adnan Saleh, 38, says it was an easy choice: “They are Palestinians like me,” Saleh says. He heads one of the 38 families that have crowded into the camp’s abandoned Al-Kifah school. Most are recent arrivals following the bombing of the Yarmouk camp near Damascus two months ago; others arrived last summer after the armies’ attack on Saida Zeinab.

“Yarmouk is nothing compared to Saida Zeinab,” says Saleh. He fled during Ramadan, when his area was completely destroyed. He previously lived in a three-story house with 10 rooms; now he lives in a single room with his parents, wife and four children. Formerly the proprietor of a detergent shop, Saleh can now barely afford diapers for his 3-month-old son. “I am running out of money,” he says.

syria-refugees-4The room in this refugee camp sleeps a family of five. (Photo Credit: Fernande van Tets)

UNRWA does not have a mandate or budget to provide assistance to Syria’s Palestinians. “We give what we have available,” says Fadi Ahmed al-Saleh, the Ain el Hilweh camp services officer for UNRWA. “It depends on donors; if they provide, then we distribute.”

UNRWA has received $6.6 million—almost half of the $13.3 million funding it requested in December to cover the first six months of 2013. But assisting the refugees and coping with their increasing numbers remains “one of UNRWA’s main challenges in Lebanon,” according to UNRWA public information officer Houda Samra.

Mounting Humanitarian Issues

Currently, UNRWA is laboring to provide adequate shelter. “The people who live in Ain El Hilweh camp have very small rooms and can’t share,” says al-Saleh, echoing UNRWA’s concern. The camp houses 53,000 Palestinians on a strip of land. When 4,000 Syrian Palestinians arrived recently, over 90 percent of them had to be housed by relatives.

Many Syrian Palestinians are appalled by the conditions in the Lebanese Palestinian camp. Myriad electricity wires cross through the streets, poverty is rife, and perpetual security issues mean the camp can only be entered with clearance from Lebanon’s military intelligence. For years, Lebanese Palestinian camps have been ranked as the worst in the world. 

syria-refugees-2Adnan Saleh, 38, arrived in the summer of 2012 with his parents, wife, and four children. (Photo Credit: Fernande van Tets)

“When we first came, we were hoping to be received and helped,” says Maryam Hassan, 50, who came from Yarmouk two months ago. “But people in the camps need help themselves.”

Lebanese Palestinians also enjoy far fewer rights than their Syrian neighbors. “There is a big difference,” explains Mustapha Ahhmed, 39, who fled the Yarmouk camp two months ago. “In Syria, you can work in the government. Here in Lebanon, Palestinians are not allowed to work, so how are we to work? We have no rights.”

The lack of work is especially troubling because the influx of refugees means the cost of living is rising, with single rooms in the Ain El Hilweh camp being rented for $100-150 per month. A few months ago, they cost $70.

“Some people are taking advantage; they are increasing rent. Some people have no mercy, while they should be showing solidarity because we are all Palestinians,” says Nasser Madad, who is trying to find housing for his 29-year-old cousin Wssim Abdallah. “I have no room for him,” he adds. But Ain el Hilweh is still cheap compared to renting outside the camp, where rooms can cost up to three times as much.

Ali Tuheibish, the head of As Sabil, a local NGO that provides assistance to the Al- Kifah school’s residents, says, “UNRWA gave more aid in Syria. A lot of them are used to living in large houses, having to adapt to sharing a bathroom is especially hard.” According to Tuheibish, the school lacks capacity, especially in terms of hygiene. Residents can only do laundry every 10 days; there are only two machines for more than 150 residents.

More Aid in Sight?

Lebanon requested $380 million at the donor conference in Kuwait at the end of January. Part of these funds will be used to cover the needs of Palestinian refugees displaced from Syria, according to Derek Plumbly, UN special coordinator for Lebanon.

syria-refugees-3This baby girl was born in the camp just two months ago. (Photo Credit: Fernande van Tets)

Meanwhile, the political implications of more Palestinian refugees are looming. Lebanon’s delicate sectarian balance was disturbed by the last influx of Palestinian refugees in the 1970s. With UNRWA now estimating that there are 455,000 Palestinians in Lebanon, some ministers have warned of the risks of another influx.

Neighboring Jordan has closed its borders to Palestinians, citing concerns for the security implications of the influx. “Jordan is not obligated to pay a political price for the Syrian crisis,” government spokesperson Samih Maaytih told al-Jazeera, adding that the number of Palestinians could reach tens of thousands, something the country cannot bear. Over half the kingdom’s population is originally Palestinian; a large influx could upset the political balance with the East Bank Jordanians.

Like Palestinians in Lebanon, those who are inside Jordan have severe restrictions on their movements. One site housing Syrian Palestinians is Cybercity, a camp an hour north of Amman. Officially, Palestinians are not allowed to leave, although residents admit that it is occasionally possible to leave the camp for a few hours.

“The guards close their eyes,” says Ansef Youssef, who has been at the site for a year. Youssef enjoys such outings to supplement the limited offerings of the site’s only shop, where she spends the $34 worth of food vouchers the World Food Programme (WFP) provides her each month.

Although registered Syrians in Lebanon receive food vouchers through the WFP and UNHCR, the Syrian Palestinians in Lebanon do not. “All we ask is that we be treated like the other Syrians,” says Nidal, 37.

Meanwhile, UNRWA is straining to find money and means to accommodate new arrivals. “I have seen the difficult conditions in Ain El Hilweh. The plight of refugees arriving from Syria is truly distressing,” UN Special Coordinator Derek Plumbly said after a visit to the camp at the end of January. “UNRWA has been helping, within available resources.”

According to al-Saleh, the UNRWA camp services officer, Palestinians protest daily against their conditions by holding silent protests, marches and writing letters.

“We are double refugees,” says Nidal glumly. “It is like it is our destiny to move from one tent to another.”

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