Lebanon struggles between two different waves of refugees

Syrian refugee women sit on mats talking at an unofficial camp for refugees in the village of Bar Elias in the Bekaa Valley in central Lebanon (AFP PHOTO / JOSEPH EID)
Syrian refugee women sit on mats talking at an unofficial camp for refugees in the village of Bar Elias in the Bekaa Valley in central Lebanon (AFP PHOTO / JOSEPH EID)

‘The isolation, exclusion and dispossession” of refugees “represent a time-bomb for the Middle East”, said senior United Nations official Pierre Krähenbühl last year. One can be forgiven for assuming he was referring to Syrians, given the scale of their displacement and the attention their conflict is receiving. However, he was referring to the region’s oldest refugee crisis, that of the Palestinians, both in the Israeli-occupied territories and in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon.

There are not as many Palestinian refugees as Syrian (though there are far too many of both), but the former’s position is today arguably far more tenuous, for two main reasons. Firstly, the displacement of Syrians is high on the international agenda, not just because of its sheer scale, but due to the large numbers of those heading to Europe, as well as western fears and fearmongering about their infiltration by ISIL.

As such, the intensity of international diplomatic efforts to resolve the Syrian conflict are largely driven by the desire to alleviate the resulting refugee crisis, not least because unlike Palestinian refugees, the problem has spilt over beyond the Middle East and into the West.

The plight of Palestinian refugees has continued for several decades, is limited to the Arab world, and has not been used by ISIL as a recruitment tool or an arena in which to gain influence. As such, Palestinian refugees have been all but forgotten by the international community, like most tragedies that have gone on long enough with no end in sight.

The Syrian refugee crisis, on the other hand, is a hot domestic topic for western countries, with the ability to directly influence elections and politics amid rising xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment. In short, the Syrian refugee crisis is a much wider and greater concern internationally than that of Palestinian refugees.

Long-term, Syrians are much more likely to be able to return home than Palestinians. The latter’s homeland is occupied and colonised by a foreign power that has no intention of realising a Palestinian state, taking in Palestinian refugees, or even accepting responsibility for their displacement.

Lebanon hosts some 1.1 million Syrian refugees, the second-largest number after Turkey, which hosts 2.7 million. However, this month’s 24th anniversary of the Sabra and Shatila massacre provides a sombre reminder of Lebanon’s other refugee population of over 450,000 Palestinians, their dispossession dating back 68 years to 1948.

In 1982, the Lebanese Christian Phalange militia butchered up to 3,500 men, women and children in the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila, under Israeli military supervision.

A commission chaired by Sean MacBride, the assistant to the UN secretary general and president of the General Assembly at the time, concluded that Israel, as the camps’ occupying power, bore responsibility for the violence. The commission also concluded that the massacre was a form of genocide.

Just days before the 24th anniversary of the massacre, and with no decline in Israel’s military and territorial appetite, the United States saw fit to agree a military aid package for Israel worth $38 billion (Dh140 bn) over the next 10 years, the largest such deal in American history.

According to the European Commission, Lebanon has “the highest per-capita concentration of refugees worldwide, where one person out of four is a refugee”. It also bears the biggest burden in relation to its geographic size.

Its two largest refugee populations – Syrian and Palestinian – are not totally distinct from one another. Tens of thousands of those who have fled Syria to Lebanon are Palestinian – effectively refugees twice over – even though, according to Human Rights Watch, they are officially barred from entering Lebanon.

The plight of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon is far worse than those in other Arab countries, something I have seen personally. They are “subject to discriminatory laws and regulations that deny them the right to inherit property or access free public education and prevent them from working in 20 professions”, Amnesty International said in its report “Lebanon 2015/2016”.

Lebanon’s treatment of them compared to Syrian refugees differs in some fundamental ways, the starkest being the issue of camps. Beirut’s policy is to keep Palestinians in camps, while refusing to have them set up for Syrians. This poses benefits and pitfalls for both displaced communities.

Palestinians benefit because the UN and other aid organisations can more easily register them and provide them with much-needed goods and services (though increasingly chronic underfunding has led to protests against the UN in the camps).

However, this makes it easier for Lebanese authorities to keep them hemmed in, in deplorable conditions, with no prospect for work outside the camps (or inside them), and no permission for their expansion despite their burgeoning populations. To the Lebanese, these people are out of sight, out of mind.

Syrians, on the other hand, are everywhere, because there are no camps for them. Despite their ubiquity, they are also faceless, but in a different way to their Palestinian counterparts. They live an underground, scattered, black-market existence, making them more open to direct abuse and exploitation by the authorities, employers, landlords, criminals and the public.

It also makes it much harder for the UN and other aid organisations to provide for Syrian refugees in Lebanon, almost three-quarters of whom reportedly fall below the poverty line and rely on aid to survive. Complicating matters further in this regard is the suspension by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees of registration of Syrians since May 2015, at the Lebanese government’s request.

There is much to criticise about the treatment of Palestinian and Syrian refugees in Lebanon, particularly amid the increasing restrictions they face. However, one must more strongly condemn the international community’s failure to give this small, struggling country adequate help in shouldering a burden it did not create.

Those behind the displacement – Israel in the case of the Palestinians, and the Syrian regime and foreign parties in the case of Syrians – must bear primary responsibility, and be subjected to the most pressure to right these monumental wrongs. These refugees cannot, and should not, remain displaced indefinitely, not for their sake or for that of their host countries in the region.

It is right to highlight the plight of refugees in Lebanon and call for improvement in their circumstances. However, one cannot overlook the unimaginable scale of the burden it is shouldering, and the effect it is having on an already polarised society and polity, and a weak economy.

Having said that, one sentence stuck with me from my visit to Lebanon’s Rashidieh refugee camp, from an elderly Palestinian: “They don’t have to take away our dignity for us to want to return home.” These words ring as true for Syrians as they do for Palestinians.

Sharif Nashashibi is a journalist and analyst on Arab affairs

Published: September 29, 2016 04:00 AM

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