Shrinking shelters

The silent distress of Palestinians in Lebanon

Lebanon's economic crisis threatens to dismantle the refuge that the country's Palestinian population has spent decades building. Because they are far from public view, many Lebanese presume that Palestinian refugees are well taken care of by bodies like UNRWA, the UN's designated agency, and a host of other local and international organizations. Such assumptions fuel resentment among Lebanese who are themselves struggling, abandoned by their state and with no aid agency of their own to turn to. Looking closer, however, Palestinians have not dodged the crisis; in this national free-fall, populations who were already vulnerable have only fallen faster.

Palestinian refugees, who have historically enjoyed only limited access to Lebanon's public services, have long had to piece together solutions for their most pressing needs. UNRWA takes the lead role in critical sectors such as education, healthcare, social services, and even infrastructure improvement projects. It runs a network of schools in and outside the camps, along with primary healthcare clinics. But this crucial provider struggles with chronic funding gaps, and is therefore structurally unable to plan over the long term. In November 2021, the agency even had to delay salaries of its staff, after it ran out of cash.

Gaps in UNRWA's services tend to be filled by a huge array of charities and NGOs which predate the current crisis. These organizations tailor their work to specific needs, such as helping those with disabilities access specialized healthcare and social services. But they too depend on donors, whose short funding cycles are made even more unpredictable by ever-shifting priorities. A mental health advisor, whose own work fell victim to the ebbs and flows of funding, observed: "When the Syrian refugee crisis hit, NGOs mushroomed to offer psychosocial support to all refugees, including Palestinians. Many that were doing well back then have run out of funding by now."

Palestinians end up falling back on more intimate forms of solidarity, banking on family, friends, and neighbors to meet some of their basic needs. The camps' social density facilitates such horizontal support. "If someone is seriously ill, people help out," explained a resident of Beddawi camp, on the outskirts of Tripoli. "Everyone chips in, and within a day, they have raised the money required." But such resourcefulness is overstretched to begin with, as it has always had to make up for the gaps and malfunctions of the larger providers.

In fact, this apparent resilience was only ever possible because of Lebanon's failed economic model. Until recently, the state underwrote most services through subsidies and by artificially maintaining the high value of the Lebanese pound. Everyone, including Palestinians, enjoyed inflated purchasing power and below-the-market prices on medicine and fuel. Cheap fuel, in turn, kept the cost of private water distribution and power generators down. When subsidies became no longer tenable, medical costs and utility bills began to skyrocket--at the same time as people's savings and income were gutted.

Even UNRWA benefited from the subsidized economy, as it meant they could afford to refer patients to private hospitals, instead of investing in upgrading their own clinics. Now, UNRWA can afford less than before, while Palestinians themselves are increasingly unable to cover their share of the hospital bills, which are mounting up. A similar dynamic applies to UNRWA infrastructure: In August 2021, the agency rationed water pumping into Bourj el-Barajneh and Shatila camps because of diesel shortages, leaving residents to seek costly and hazardous alternatives.

NGO work is equally affected by the current context. On the one hand, the sharp increase in needs among non-Palestinians pushes organizations to be more selective in who and what they support. On the other, these initiatives have been forced to scale back on various fronts: Volunteers cannot afford to commute and can donate less of their time; full-time staff paid in Lebanese pounds have seen their salaries plummet along with the value of the currency; and management may be forced to cut costs by reducing their overheads or scaling back their workforce.

At the bottom of the chain, many Palestinians who could previously contribute to local solidarity networks thanks to the salaries that they earned in the Lebanese economy, are now struggling just to get by themselves. Back in 2017, only a third of adult Palestinian refugees were employed at all, over 90% of whom worked informally (per the Population and Housing Census conducted by the Lebanese Palestinian Dialogue Committee). Now, the few breadwinners that do exist in the community are particularly vulnerable to dismissal and exploitation.

Overbuilt refugee camps constitute an unhealthy environment at the best of times, offering poor living conditions that are deteriorating fast. Even when they had the means to patch things up, residents endured limited sunlight, polluted air, sewage leaks, and high humidity levels--all of which present serious health risks. In a vicious trap, chronic illnesses financially drain households through medical bills, leaving fewer resources for things like schooling. Students in the camps also lost out more than others during the covid pandemic because of constricted home spaces, unreliable electricity and internet, and a lack of basic resources like textbooks, not to mention laptops.

Today's crisis only deepens the systemic aspect of the Palestinians' predicament, while generating problems further down the line. Those students losing out on their education are part of a long-term erosion that was clear even at the outset of the economic crash: In 2019, only 43% of UNRWA students passed the national Brevet exam, compared to a national average of 74%. This increases the risk of students dropping out, and further locks Palestinians in low-paid or precarious jobs. As a result, they are less able to sustain themselves, let alone contribute to their community.

As the whole country seeks attention, Lebanon's crisis will inevitably both detract from and deepen the plight of Palestinians. Sadly, even if dedicated support structures, such as UNRWA, receive the same levels of funding as before, they will achieve less. This is because the cost of virtually everything in Lebanon has increased dramatically, due to a combination of ending subsidies and price gouging. What's more, the specificity of the Palestinian predicament is now up against steep competition, as all corners of Lebanese society are in urgent need of assistance.

It is therefore tempting for Lebanese to either ignore the suffering of refugees, or hold them responsible for a crisis that has inflicted so much. Politicians have been eager to play to such instincts, promising that expelling refugees will somehow improve the lives of those who remain. But in reality, Palestinian refugees only face a more extreme version of the exact same problem that bedevils Lebanese too: the provision of basic services in a way that is highly fragmented, inefficient, and costly to all.

Vulnerable populations may now compete over dwindling resources. Or they may agree instead on a shared diagnosis: that scapegoating foreigners is one of the more pernicious ways that the system can offer so little to refugees and Lebanese alike.

30 May 2022

Lynn Abukhadra is a fellow with Synaps.

Illustration credits: "The Execution of a City" by Yazan Abu Salameh, gratefully reproduced with permission of the artist.