Rising tensions among Palestinian refugees in Lebanon

Friday 10/07/2015
Palestinian militants at the refugee camp of Ain Al-Helweh

BEIRUT - Twice refugees in a life­time, the Palestinians of Syria who fled to Lebanon are not welcomed any­more among their compa­triots who live in dire conditions in 12 Palestinian refugee camps across the country.

Thousands of families from the war-battered refugee camp of Yar­mouk near Damascus have been sharing limited space in Lebanon’s overcrowded camps and competing over reduced assistance provided by the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), some for more than four years. Their overstay resulted in stirring recriminations by local refugees and tensions with the new­comers.

Shatila camp, whose name is as­sociated with the 1982 massacre of Palestinian refugees by Israeli-backed Christian militias at the height of the Lebanese civil war, is an example of the growing intoler­ance of the “hosts” towards their overstaying “guests”.

Originally built as a temporary shelter to house up to 3,000 people in a southern suburb of Beirut, the camp is now believed to be home to as many as 23,000, including 9,800 refugees from Syria who have regis­tered with UNRWA.

Mahmoud Abbas, long-time Sha­tila resident and founder of the Children’s Youth Centre, explains how this animosity was brought to life and the effects it is having on residents of the camp.

“Of course pressure is there, due to the fact that approximately 800 to 900 families are added to the population of Shatila, which is al­ready an overcrowded camp,” Ab­bas said.

“If we consider that the average size of a family is five persons, we are talking about thousands of peo­ple. You can imagine the demands and burden it has on an exhausted infrastructure and limited accom­modation capacities.”

Since the start of the Syrian crisis in 2011, a large number of Palestin­ians sought refuge in Lebanon and settled in existing refugee camps. While the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has provided massive support for Syrian refu­gees, the task of providing aid to Palestinian refugees from Syria lies almost solely on UNRWA.

UNRWA’s mounting deficit and chronic underfunding have created gaps in the assistance and native camp residents often blame the in­flux of refugees from Syria for ex­asperating already poor conditions. Consequently, a culture of “us ver­sus them” has surfaced in some of the camps.

Initially, new refugees were host­ed graciously despite tiny living quarters and electricity and water shortages. However, it soon became apparent that they would not be re­turning to their homes in the near future, Abbas said, adding, “This quickly changed the dynamic from one of friendship to one of competi­tion.”

Omar Shahine, who fled violence in Yarmouk in late 2013, acknowl­edges the growing animosity and tension among Shatila’s old and new residents.

“When we first came here, we were supported by all because no one knew that we would be stay­ing that long. Now we are making things worse for each other,” Shahi­ne said. “They stopped caring for us and are not even concerned that we have nowhere to go. They just want us to get out.”

The father of six said both the Lebanese and Palestinians of Leba­non were angry because the Syrian refugees are cheaper labour. “We work for less because we need the money more,” he said.

UNRWA was initially able to pro­vide cash assistance to Palestinian refugees of Syria in the form of food allowances valued at $30 per per­son and housing allowances of $100 per family, both distributed on a monthly basis. However, the agency has since been forced to make cuts in the programme and now distrib­utes $27 per person for food allow­ance.

With difficultly finding work or other sustainable ways of generat­ing income, residents of the camp, both old and new, are left scram­bling for whatever assistance and services UNRWA can hand out.

A senior official at UNRWA, speak­ing on the condition of anonymity, said: “The agency is facing one of the most frightening deficits of its history, hundreds of millions deep.”

“The fluctuating exchange rate of the euro alone made us lose millions of US dollars, as most of the dona­tions are received in euro, added to the fact that donors have a number of other urgent humanitarian cri­ses to deal with such as the recent earthquake in Nepal and, of course, the Syrian civil war,” the UN official said. “We are struggling and the ref­ugees are struggling even more and they are getting angry.”

The Palestinian refugees of Leba­non are becoming increasingly vocal against UNRWA, accusing it of shift­ing funds to Palestinian refugees from Syria and aiding them at their expense. For instance, the residents of the Nahr al-Bared camp in north­ern Lebanon blame the refugees of Syria for delays in reconstruction of homes destroyed during the 2007 war between the Lebanese Army and Palestinian militants.

Anger is seeping into the camp communities and, as Abbas ex­plains, is prevalent among children attending after-school activities at his youth centres in Shatila and Nahr al-Bared.

“Children are the reflection of adults but without the added ‘sugar coating’ that comes along with age,” Abbas noted.

He said the centre conducted a survey of children aged 13-18 on what they think of life in the camp. “We received several answers but one which many agreed on is this: The camp was a better place before the refugees from Syria came in,” he said.

With little hope of alleviating such consequential strains in the near future, Abbas said he fears the rift is bound to grow in an already volatile society.