In the past two years, Palestinian refugees in Lebanon have been migrating at significantly higher rates in search of better work opportunities and a better standard of living.
Lebanon’s economic situation tightens its grasp on citizens and foreigners alike, said Abdelnaser Elayi, project manager at the inter-ministerial Lebanese-Palestinian Dialogue Committee.
“Before 2020, we would usually see about 6,000 to 8,000 Palestinians leave the country without returning, per year," Mr Elayi told The National
“Now, those figures are closer to 10,000 to 12,000. That is an increase by at least 30 per cent.”
Lebanon has 12 Palestinian refugee camps housing about 207,000 people in all.
While the devastating economic situation is the main driver for this movement, Mr Elayi says, the trend is roughly equal among Lebanese nationals.
A December decision allowing employers to hire Palestinians locally, widening the scope of jobs they could take, had a marginal impact on departures, Mr Elayi said.
“Palestinians are still unable to take on unionised jobs like lawyers or doctors.”
“So those who have the means, education and qualifications to travel abroad for work, have continued to do so with little to no impact on migration rates.”
The Lebanese lira has tumbled since the August 2020 Beirut port blast and coronavirus outbreak, hitting new lows on the parallel market. The country is in the midst of its worst financial crisis in 30 years and UN estimates say eight out of 10 people live in poverty.
Yahia Subaih, 55, is one of those looking for a way out of Lebanon, but he doubts he can afford it.
He walks for four kilometres from his home in the Burj Barajneh refugee camp to the capital, Beirut, 10 days a month but is still unable to make ends meet.
“Since 2020, the economic situation has gotten much, much, much worse,” he said. His employer reduced Mr Subaih’s work days to save on petrol, he said.
Mr Subaih barely earns $60 a month, nowhere close to the $200 he needs to feed and house his family of three. He says he relies on the generosity of others to get by.
“Most families in Lebanon feel they should have at least one member living abroad, sending them money in US Dollars, in order for them to survive,” Mr Elayi said.
As a result, he says Lebanese and refugees from Syria and Palestine find illegal ways to seek their fortunes elsewhere.
”I heard of people taking illegal routes to go abroad and make a living, but it costs $8,000 per person at least to secure a path,” Mr Subaih said.
He said Germany, Britain, the US, Canada and the Arabian Gulf are the most popular destinations for Palestinian migrants from Lebanon, in that order.
”It’s very difficult to get a visa from an embassy when you don’t have the qualifications necessary,” Mr Subaih said.
Illegal travel has become more prolific since 2020, among people seeking to leave Lebanon, Hoda Samra, a spokeswoman for the UN refugee agency, Unrwa, told The National.
”Those who don’t have finances take the illegal routes, which aren’t even cheap. But it puts them at the risk of exploitation by traffickers,” she said.
More than 1,570 people have taken that route from Lebanon from January to November in 2020, the UN estimates.
One thing remains the same, Mr Elayi says.
“The same feeling of hopelessness and uncertainty of the future, is what has been driving people to migrate from Lebanon before 2020 until today. But now, that feeling is exacerbated.”
For people like Mr Subaih who do not belong to the dwindling middle classes, neither legal or illegal migration is an option.
”I don’t know how we are surviving. There’s no hope for people like us.”