There are over 450,000 registered Palestinian refugees in Lebanon over 50 percent of whom live in one of the twelve official camps managed by the
All these groups have a different legal status which determines their rights and access to assistance. This paper focuses on Palestinians who arrived in Lebanon as a result of the 1948 conflict and their descendants and live in official camps. It examines their socio-economic conditions and rights; Lebanese attitudes towards the Palestinians; and analyses how the presence in the camps of Palestinians from Syria has affected Palestinians in Lebanon.
UNRWA: the Palestinian Refugee Agency
UNRWA supports Palestinians and their descendants in Jordan, Lebanon, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and Syria who became refugees as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict. The Agency has operated in Lebanon since 1951 and focuses on providing healthcare, education and welfare to the most vulnerable. It provides schools, clinics and community centres and is responsible for services in the official camps such as maintenance of the roads and sewers, refuse collection and water supply. UNRWA’s mandate is renewed every three years and it is dependent on voluntary contributions to fund its operations. Since its creation it has lurched from one crisis to another and has been operating austerity measures and implementing crisis response programmes for decades. In Lebanon alone it has experienced two civil wars, the second of which lasted 15 years, the 1996 Israeli aerial bombing of Lebanon known as Grapes of Wrath, the 2006 Hizbollah-Israeli war, the 2007 destruction of Nahr al-Barid refugee camp and now the arrival of tens of thousands of Palestinians from Syria. Consequently, programme and budget planning are difficult and relief and humanitarian response efforts divert funding from interventions that might have longer-term impacts. The origins of the official refugee camps in Lebanon vary: some were established informally by individuals gathering friends and family together, some by religious groups and others by the Red Cross. By 1956, of the numerous camps, 17 were considered official and UNRWA assumed management of these. With the passage of time and the civil war, camps have been closed, destroyed and abandoned. By the end of the civil war in 1990 only 12 official camps remained which UNRWA has continued to support.
The Refugee-Host Population
UNRWA figures for January 2015 state that there were 452,669 Palestinians in Lebanon, although, in reality, the number is likely to be lower.
The size of the Lebanese population is equally unclear. In 2015, the United Nations estimated that there were almost five million Lebanese in Lebanon.
Palestinians account for approximately eight percent of the population in Lebanon.
Life in the Camps
The camps are densely populated and those that developed spontaneously are a maze of narrow streets and doorways. Large families crowd into one or two rooms. Those with resources build upwards adding new floors to their houses to accommodate their growing numbers. The multi-storey buildings block light to the streets below and create high levels of humidity because the air cannot circulate. The Government has refused to provide additional land for the camps or to allow those destroyed or partially destroyed during the war to be rebuilt. Consequently, the footprint that the camps occupy is smaller in 2016 than when the Palestinians arrived in Lebanon seven decades earlier and had a total estimated population of 100,000.
Palestinians who move to illegal settlements or build on the outskirts of the official camps are vulnerable to eviction. Other Palestinians live outside the camps in private accommodation. However, as it is illegal for them to own property a trusted friend or family member with Lebanese or other citizenship must purchase and register the property on their behalf. Should the relationship deteriorate, Palestinians who have purchased their own home risk losing their investment.
Palestinians who have no other options remain in the camps, which are becoming increasingly over-crowded and the inadequate infrastructure increasingly over-stretched and in need of repair. The sewerage systems regularly overflow covering the streets in a stinking black sludge. The water pipes leak and do not carry potable water although many are forced to drink it because they cannot afford drinking water. The electricity is supplied through a dangerous tangle of wires criss-crossing the camps and intertwined with the leaking pipes carrying water. Funding cuts mean that UNRWA cannot provide adequate healthcare and education and is increasingly asking Palestinians to contribute financially towards these services. Palestinians are unable to access state education and health services although these are generally of poor quality. UNRWA services are still considered to be better than those provided by the state although Palestinians complain that UNRWA health and education services are not as good as they used to be. UNRWA services are subsidized by numerous national and international non-governmental organizations and faith-based organizations.
The restriction on the right to work probably has the biggest impact on the lives of Palestinians in Lebanon. They are barred from most professions which limits employment opportunities to the camps where the number of clients is small and there is little money, or to working illegally which means accepting a lower wage than a Lebanese doing the same job and having no rights in the workplace. Despite the lack of work opportunities, many families try to invest in their children’s education by encouraging them to attend UNRWA schools, seeking scholarships or making sacrifices to fund private school and universities places. The camps are full of well-educated Palestinians with medical, engineering and legal degrees but little opportunity to put their knowledge and skills into practice. Consequently Palestinians struggle to improve their situation because they have few legitimate means of generating an income. The poverty and lack of purpose have a profound negative effect on mental and physical health and are considered to be contributing factors to various social problems such as substance abuse and domestic violence.
Palestinian Refugees from Syria
According to UNRWA, around 53,000 registered Palestinian refugees in Syria have sought refuge in Lebanon.
Faced with charges for healthcare and education, Palestinians from Syria struggle to cover the cost as they were able to access free state services in Syria. They cannot understand how the Palestinians in Lebanon have survived and boast about how good life was in Syria. Conversely, the Palestinians in Lebanon are scathing of the expectations of those from Syria and of how little they appreciated what they had. Still coming to terms with the situation, Palestinians from Syria are rejecting the badly paid work that those from Lebanon accept in the belief that there must be better opportunities, generating yet more criticism from the Palestinians in Lebanon.
Palestinians in Lebanon: the future
The Palestinians from Syria are an added burden to camp life and stretch the assistance available for Palestinians in Lebanon even more thinly. There is no reason to expect that conditions for Palestinians in Lebanon will improve, even when those from Syria leave. Since the Palestinians arrived in Lebanon their situation has been deteriorating. The