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Palestinian refugees from Syria face a mountain of challenges in Lebanon

January 24, 2014 at 4:49 am

Palestinian refugees from Syria (PRS) are arguably the most vulnerable sub-population affected by the Syrian crisis. Having been uprooted twice from their homes, those now in Lebanon face a myriad of additional challenges.

They have fewer legal protections than other communities, few employment opportunities and largely reside in the poorest host communities throughout the country. While they are covered under the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), it is severely underfunded.

“Minority groups are so far under-served by the international response to the crisis,” a recent report by the American Near East Refugee Aid (ANERA) noted. It added, “The international response to their particular needs has been markedly less than for the general Syrian refugee population. UNRWA is chronically underfunded and ill-equipped to manage such a large and rapid influx of Palestinian refugees.”

The Working Group for Palestinians in Syria echoed similar concerns last week, pointing out that Palestinians leaving Syria faced “the worst treatment”.

Of the estimated 45,000 PRS in Lebanon, about 6,500 live in Ein el-Hilweh refugee camp in the southern city of Saida, according to Chris Gunness, a spokesman for UNRWA.

The camp, which is home to about 47,500 refugees and the largest in Lebanon, is severely overcrowded and lacks some of the most basic human needs. “They are confronted with limited access to shelter and employment, limited access to local health centres, lack of income and increased cost of living,” Gunness said.

“The already overpopulated Palestine refugee camps in Lebanon are now feeling the strain on their limited infrastructure,” he added.

As ANERA’s report further noted: “They (PRS) also have been surprised to discover that their Palestinian identity has become an influential factor in determining access to proper safety, shelter and work.”

And such an issue rings true in Ein el-Hilweh, where deplorable living conditions, combined with the lack of employment, are creating tensions between different communities.

“These people from Syria are coming to a new environment, they are unable to adapt. They have no privacy and they can’t be independent,” Reida Ismail, a psychologist who works with vulnerable youth in the camp, said.

“Being hosted by other families is making it worse, because these families are already facing stress and pressure.”

Huda Uthman, a field officer for Development Without Borders, echoed her concerns. “They have to live with relatives. They can’t afford to live on the outside. They have to depend on other organisations to help them because the UNHCR does not operate here,” she said.

She added that many have been forced to squeeze into existing collective shelters and tents, where families share one room with up to three families.

In the dense tent community, makeshift huts barely stand upright, while sewerage drips down the side of the only toilet.

Another ANERA report further noted that refugees were finding it hard to adapt to their new environment because they were “startled by the sharp contrast in living standards from what they had enjoyed in Syria.”

Syria has historically provided some of the best treatment to Palestinians of any Arab host country, the report said. They have the same rights and responsibilities as Syrian citizens apart from voting rights and nationality. They have access to education and health care and have the right to vote.

On arrival in Lebanon, Palestinians from Syria must purchase a 7-day “transit” visa that costs $17. The visa can be converted into a three-month short-term visa, a protection officer at UNRWA said. It can be renewed for up to one year. However, in recent months there have been several reports of PRS being turned away at the border.

In addition to crowded and impoverished living conditions, PRS are finding very few legal protections and employment opportunities. Palestinians in Lebanon are banned from working in the public sector and in many professional fields. This is creating tension among those in the refugee camps as they compete for same few jobs.

A Palestinian refugee from Syria, who would not give her name for security reasons, said she felt discriminated against in Ein el-Hilweh.

“No one will support us. We feel there is discrimination here,” she said.

“In the beginning everyone would come and support us. The Palestinians thought we took all the support away from there. All the people started to feel they didn’t like us. They think we’re taking all their jobs. One job Palestinians would do for 20,000 LL, the Syrians would do it for half because they’re desperate.”

Roula El Masri, gender equality programme coordinator at ABAAD Resource Centre for Gender Equality, said the dynamic in the camps had changed because of the arrival of PRS.

“Young Palestinians refugees from Syria are being subjected to harassment because of the dynamic in the camp,” she said.

“The host families are blaming them for all the problems. The refugees are the victims. They are being blamed for rising prices and fewer jobs.”

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.