Four generations of Palestinian refugees, descendants of the 750,000 Palestinians ethnically cleansed from their land in 1948, are spread across the global diaspora. More than half a million live in Lebanon, making up around 10 per cent of the total population. Just over half live in UN-run refugee camps and informal "gatherings". Their situation and living conditions are dire. All twelve official camps in Lebanon suffer from a lack of proper infrastructure, overcrowding, poverty, and unemployment. Imagine life without electricity, clean water, medical services, or fuel.
According to the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), Lebanon has the highest percentage of Palestine refugees who are in abject poverty. They are challenged by various restrictions imposed by the host country, where they face social exclusion, are regarded as foreigners, and are effectively excluded from most civil and socio-economic rights, including jobs, even though most were born and raised in Lebanon.
Urgent call to support #PalestineRefugees in #Lebanon thru @UNRWA. Unprecedented level of despair with growing hunger& anger. Food & Covid response & dignified shelters on top of the most urgent needs. pic.twitter.com/KcLb98os0e
— Philippe Lazzarini (@UNLazzarini) March 31, 2021
Things are getting harder for the Palestinians in the country; their difficulties are compounded by the Covid-19 pandemic, the country's economic crisis, and the collapse of the Lebanese Lira. According to Yukie Mokuo of the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), "The World Bank has described what is happening in Lebanon as possibly one of the top three economic collapses seen since the mid-19th Century." In a report by UNICEF last year, it was pointed out that 49 per cent of Palestinian refugee families have a monthly income of less than $25. Moreover, 89 per cent of the refugees cannot meet their basic food and non-food needs such as fuel, electricity, and clean water. For the first time, hunger is knocking on the doors of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.
Power cuts mean that the Palestinian refugee camps lack electricity for up to 22 hours a day. Two of Lebanon's main power plants have stopped working completely, and this has also had an effect on water supplies, as pumping stations cannot operate without electricity. Coupled with the hot weather and water shortages, electricity shortages often lead to disease.
As the number of Covid-19 infections continues to rise, the suffering of Palestinian refugees is getting worse. Hospitals in Lebanon already face an array of challenges stemming from the country's economic crisis; most don't have enough electricity to run essential medical equipment. The healthcare sector also has a serious shortage of medical supplies. A mass vaccination drive was cancelled because of power cuts in most areas. If this is the reality for Lebanese citizens, what about the Palestinian refugees who already have to cope with many serious long-term problems?
According to Dr Hassan Mneimneh, the chair of the Lebanese-Palestinian Dialogue Committee, the situation of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon has deteriorated because Lebanon didn't sign the International Convention on the Rights of Refugees. "Lebanon has refused to give the Palestinian refugees their human rights from the beginning," he explained, "such as the right to work, the right to education, and the rights to healthcare and to own property." Some political groups in the country raise fears about the refugees settling in Lebanon. "The reality has shown for 72 years that the Palestinian refugees do not want to live in Lebanon forever — they want to return to their land, after all — and the Lebanese Constitution will not allow the permanent resettlement of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon."
Education is also an issue for the refugees. Mneimneh is a former minister of education. UNRWA schools have been suspended for two years now, he explained. "This poses a great threat to the future of any student who loses two years of their education." For the past month, he has been in touch with UNRWA to demand the re-opening of the schools. He has also sent a request for a coronavirus vaccination campaign for all educational staff. Online lessons, he insisted, are useless, especially in the environment of the refugee camps, where there is no electricity, no fuel, no computers, and few electronic devices.
Dr Walid Al-Ahmed, the Head of the Health Department of the People's Committee at Mar Elias Camp, is angry and disappointed about the performance of UNRWA. He holds the agency responsible for the deterioration of the condition of the Palestinian refugees as it has not presented any contingency plan to deal with the crisis.
In 2018, of course, then US President Donald Trump withdrew funding from UNRWA and made a dent in its finances to the tune of $300 million per annum. This meant that budgets and services for refugees were cut. Although UNRWA has provided $40 to families with children under the age of 18 as a response to the economic crisis in Lebanon, Al-Ahmed describes the move as "useless" because there are many families with no such children. "This is an unfair decision, as a large percentage of Palestinian refugees are elderly and suffer from chronic diseases. UNRWA has thus deprived thousands of Palestinian families of benefiting from this project."
We suspended funding to UNRWA, which is riddled with waste, fraud & concerns of support to terrorism. UNRWA is not a refugee agency; it's estimated <200,000 Arabs displaced in 1948 are still alive and most others are not refugees by any rational criteria. https://t.co/SdyigJPHiH
— Secretary Pompeo (@SecPompeo) January 14, 2021
The head of Aman Association in Burj El Barajneh camp apologised to me for responding late to my interview request. Thaer Dabdoub had no electricity in the camp for several hours, where he lives. He not only witnesses but also shares the real suffering of the refugees there. He explained that people in Burj Al-Barajneh stand on their own without any help from the Lebanese government or UNRWA. "They left us alone without any help," he pointed out. People are now depending on individual humanitarian initiatives. Those behind the initiatives are trying to secure basic foodstuffs, medicines, and oxygen tubes for Covid-19 patients. "Despite our best efforts," he said, "these individual initiatives are not enough to meet the needs of the overcrowded camp."
Lebanon has suffered a severe economic crisis for the past 18 months; the Palestinian refugees have suffered for decades. The failing economy has left half the population living in poverty and deteriorating living conditions. As the host country struggles to get out of its predicament, the Palestinian refugees can see no light at the end of a very long and dark tunnel. How much more can they bear?
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.