Every morning, residents of Ain al-Halwah, Lebanon’s largest Palestinian refugee camp, scour the scattered leaflets advertising jobs for painters and menial laborers.
Their ranks include both Palestinian refugees recently arrived from Syria and those who have lived in Lebanon for decades. As the number of Palestinian refugees from Syria swells, competition for the few odd jobs available to Palestinians in Lebanon intensifies, undercutting already abysmal wages, driving up housing costs, and aggravating tensions in the camp.
The burden on residents already living in dire poverty is straining Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee camps like never before. Vulnerable and resource-strapped themselves, Palestinians in Lebanon simply can’t absorb the unprecedented number of refugees arriving to their camps.
The Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) estimates the number of Palestinian refugees from Syria may reach 100,000 by the end of 2013 – a 20 percent increase to the number of Palestinians in Lebanon overall, which totaled about 450,000 before the Syrian war began. According to Fathi Abu al-Ardat, the representative of both Fatah and the PLO in Lebanon, the camps can only handle 35,000 refugees this year. It already hosts double that number and 6,000 Palestinians are arriving monthly.
The Palestinian community in Lebanon has made it through numerous conflicts, and camp residents have grown accustomed to hosting the newer waves of displaced Palestinians.
But only 7 percent of Palestinian refugees from Syria have regular income, and almost all of them are living with host families whose employment prospects are equally dismal because Palestinians in Lebanon are banned from working in the public sector and in many professional fields, says Yasser Daoud, executive director of the child advocacy nonprofit Naba’a, which works in eight Palestinian refugee camps, including Ain al-Halwah.
The number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon now exceeds 1 million, according to Lebanese officials. Some 65,000 of them are Syrians of Palestinian origin, who are often only welcome or able to find housing in the camps that have housed Palestinians in Lebanon since they arrived following the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.
Syria had 486,000 Palestinian refugees of its own before the war. They began fleeing in large numbers in July 2012, when fighting first broke out in the Damascus suburbs where several large camps are located. Most Palestinians arriving from Syria settle in one of Lebanon’s 12 Palestinian refugee camps.
The sheer number of arrivals has created an untenable situation, Daoud says. On July 17, Mr. Ardat, the PLO representative, warned that the influx of refugees into the Palestinian camps in Lebanon could lead to clashes inside the camps or the exploitation of vulnerable refugees by sectarian militias in need of fighters.
His fears were exacerbated last month when Palestinian gunmen from the outskirts of Ain al-Halwah joined militants loyal to the radical Sunni cleric Ahmed al-Assir in a battle with the Lebanese military that left 18 soldiers dead.
“The issue is not just worrying, it is dangerous,” Ardat says.
'Stay out' policies
Palestinians arriving from Syria must grapple with the same discrimination as their 1948 predecessors.
In Syria they had many of the same rights as citizens. This is not the case in Lebanon, where refugees rely primarily on the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), which administers the camps and provides assistance, protection, and advocacy for registered Palestinian refugees.
Palestinians in Lebanon are barred from owning property or entering several desirable occupations. This forces residents of the camps of both Lebanese and Syrian origin to compete for menial jobs in the informal economy. Poor Palestinians from Syria are undercutting the already abysmal wages of their Lebanese counterparts.
The Lebanese government maintains that the Palestinian refugee presence in the country is temporary, even though many of them have been there since 1948. The rules for the new arrivals are consistent with that "stay out" policy. To enter Lebanon, Palestinians from Syria must first collect a $5 form from the interior ministry in Damascus, which can be prohibitively expensive for the poorest refugees, explains Catherine Richards, Field Project Officer for UNRWA.
“This means that if you’re Syrian, and, God forbid, your house is burned down and you want to run, you can,” Ms. Richards explains. “But if you’re Palestinian, you have to first go to Damascus, go to the Ministry of Interior to pick up this coupon, and only then are you able to leave Syria.”
Upon arrival at the Lebanese border, Syrian nationals are granted free six-month visas with one renewal, effectively granting them legal residency for one year. But Palestinians must purchase a five-day visa that costs $17 and can't be extended more than 10 days, although UNRWA says that recent lobbying has prompted the government to waive this fee, at least temporarily.
After that, they must purchase renewable three-month visas for up to a year for $33 each. After one year, both the Syrian and Palestinian refugees must pay $200 for a renewable six-month visa.
Despite the many challenges their arrival poses, Richards notes that there are no reports of Palestinians either being sent back or arrested for failing to maintain the frequent visa renewals required to maintain legal status.
But stories abound of refugees, particularly Palestinians, being refused entry elsewhere – at Syria’s border with Jordan.
“It’s clear that the number of refugees is having an impact [in Lebanon], but they’re still letting them in,” she says. “Sometimes, we need to also acknowledge the positives, the small victories.”
New vs. old
And in in some ways, Palestinian refugees from Syria have access to more benefits than their Syrian national counterparts. Palestinian children can attend UNRWA schools, which follow Syria’s Arabic-language curriculum. In Lebanon, lectures are in French and English, preventing Syrian children from entering school at their appropriate grade level, Richards explains.
Additionally, cash grants and other services from UNRWA tend to be higher and more comprehensive than those from UNHCR, the refugee agency responsible for Syrian nationals displaced by the conflict. Since the start of the war, UNRWA has provided four cash grants to Palestinians from Syria, totaling a few hundred dollars per family.
The grants are not available to the Palestinians who have been living in Lebanon for decades. Watching these handouts being distributed further divides neighbors, Daoud says.
“They’re the ones hosting the new refugees from Syria,” he notes. “They’re thinking: ‘We’re getting nothing while that other family is getting support from the international community.’ Some people don’t complain about that, but others ask, ‘What about us?’”