A Palestinian exodus from the Middle East to Europe is being predicted as tensions between refugees in Lebanon reach breaking point. Nearly two million Syrians have fled their war torn country for neighbouring Lebanon with many moving in to the already overcrowded UN camps built for Palestinian refugees.
The Palestinians, barred from dozens of jobs, professions and executive positions in Lebanon beyond the camp boundaries, have eked out a hand-to-mouth existence for decades while relying on the kindness of charities, welfare institutions and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, known simply as UNRWA.
Simmering frustrations in the narrow streets of the camps are palpable. There is widespread talk among the Palestinian youth that the only answer to their problems lies in the hazardous journey to Europe which has already cost the lives of many refugees from other lands.
Jamal Ali told me that he has given his blessing to both his sons as they prepare to make the journey across the Mediterranean Sea. It has taken many months to help fund his boys and it will still cost much more to pay the extortionate fees of up to $20,000 demanded by people smugglers.
Ali and his wife Haneen, who also have two daughters, were born in the run down Jal Al-Bahr refugee camp on the coast north of Tyre and have spent their married life there. The camp is not an official UNRWA site, but one of the many refugee “gatherings” around Lebanon; as a result, the conditions are often much worse than officially-registered camps.
The little work that Ali and his family had has now gone as Syrian refugees, they claim, are offering their services for half of what Palestinians were earning. “What am I supposed to say to my sons?” Ali asked. “Am I to tell them to keep on hoping when clearly things are getting worse?” His eldest son is 23 years-old and would like to get married. “I can’t even get permission to build an extra room so that he can take a wife,” he complained.
Since the arrival of the Syrians, the Palestinian refugees feel that what little hope they had has been lost. “They’ve taken our jobs and although UNRWA is supposed to be for Palestinians only, the Syrians are benefitting from the services and moving in to the camps. The situation is impossible.” He doesn’t know how he can tell his son that he has to stay in Lebanon.
The tiny family home (a shelter — even the UN doesn’t call them houses) is on the beach in the impoverished camp which was set up after the Palestinian Nakba in 1948. In winter, the sea often overwhelms and floods the homes perched on the water’s edge; with no barriers to protect fragile properties like theirs, the sea is to be feared. Today, though, as he stands with his wife and youngest daughter on the beach, Jamal Ali reckons that the Mediterranean could bring renewed hope for his family.
“Yes, it is a dangerous journey to make but what future do my sons have here? No work, no prospect of a wife or family – nothing. They have nothing. If they succeed to get to Europe and settle then they can bring everyone along later.” Ali says that his sons are planning to head for Germany where their cousin, who used a smuggling route through Turkey to Europe several years ago, is now established, has papers and is married and working in a restaurant. “All the youth in the camps are talking about going to Europe but even me and my wife and daughters would follow. There is nothing to keep us here. They see the Syrians heading for Europe and they think they’ll do the same.”
However, he insists that the desire to return to Palestine will never diminish. Although he’s never set foot in his native country he says that his late father Ali and mother Khabsa raised him on stories of their village in Terchia, which has been occupied by Israel since 1948.
“They used to tell me that it is the most beautiful land and I pass on the stories to my children. We all feel that very soon we will go back. Palestine is in my heart, it is in the heart of every refugee and no matter where we are we will return one day and I feel that day is coming soon.” He paused as he told me this. “So even if my sons and the other Palestinian youth go to Europe to make better lives for themselves, when the time comes they will return to Palestine. It is everyone’s dream.”
His views were endorsed by Shaikh Hassan Issa at the nearby Zu Al-Nourain Mosque. The shaikh is also a Palestinian whose family originates from Akka (Acre), just 40 kilometres away. “We believe very soon we will return and it is a message our fathers have told us and we have told our sons and they will pass that message on to their sons and their son’s sons,” he stressed.
While both Syrian and Palestinian refugees have been warned against making the perilous journey to Europe, the tensions in the camps across Lebanon have produced fertile ground for smugglers. In the Beqaa Valley, Huda Al-Masri told me earlier this week that her family would make the journey to get to Turkey if they had the money. “But the smugglers are asking for between five and twenty thousand dollars and we do not have it.”
The mother of eight fled from the Yarmouk Refugee Camp on the outskirts of Damascus; her family had an established small iron company there. She has a fatalistic view of the trail to Europe which highlights the desperation that the refugees feel. “I know that it is a dangerous trip and that people, including their children, are dying,” she said, “but at least in death they are finally no longer suffering.”
Meanwhile, as the tensions continue to rise with reports of rival Palestinian and Syrian youth clashing frequently, the situation has been exacerbated by cuts in the assistance available from UNRWA. The UN agency suspended monthly cash assistance for housing to Palestine refugees from Syria (PRS) living in Lebanon and further cuts have also had an impact on the original Palestinian refugees across Lebanon’s 12 UN-registered camps.
The Women’s Community Centre in Al-Buss refugee camp in Tyre has tried to tackle the tensions head on by inviting women from the Syrian and Palestinian communities to come together in a safe environment where they can talk frankly about their situation every week. This is just one of the initiatives supported by the British charity Interpal, allowing the women the opportunity to develop projects which will help and empower each other. Both the Syrians and Palestinians desperately need help and support from the international community but when the likes of UNRWA withdraw funding the consequences can be disastrous.
Families who’ve fled wars and persecution, whether in Palestine or Syria, need security, employment and the prospect of a better future. Withdrawing funding has put two groups of impoverished and desperate people on a dangerous collision course as they compete for aid, security and jobs.
In the meantime, young Palestinian men are planning an exodus to Europe despite the exorbitant fees being demanded by ruthless smugglers. There is a high price to pay in order to get to Europe; some will pay with their life.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.