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Palestinians in Lebanon: ‘The world has forgotten us’

COVID pandemic, economic crisis, few rights: Things are getting harder and harder for displaced Palestinians in Lebanon. One reason is the chronic underfinancing of the UN agency responsible for them.

“Here in the camp, people don’t stick that strictly to the coronavirus measures,” says Kholoud Hussein as she shrugs her shoulders. “There are just as many people out in our streets as there always are.”

Kholoud Hussein has lived her whole life in the Palestinian refugee camp Burj Barajneh in the south of the Lebanese capital, Beirut. She works as an English translator and a project coordinator in a local women’s organization. Until fairly recently, she had to go to the Haifa Hospital several days a week to translate for a team of doctors from the Japanese Red Cross, but since the start of the pandemic, the doctors haven’t been coming anymore. Now she works at home, translating studies and surveys.

More to worry about than COVID

The Haifa Hospital is located right in the heart of the camp. Kholoud is in close contact with the staff there. “They tell me that they often have problems persuading the relatives of patients that they have to wear a mask when entering the hospital,” she says. Kholoud always wears her mask, she says, because she doesn’t want to be responsible for infecting anyone else.

A lot of local organizations distribute free masks in the camp, she says. But according to Kholoud, not everyone here is convinced that they are of any use. What is more, she says, most people in the refugee camp have existential problems that far overshadow any worries about being infected by the coronavirus.

A large proportion of the residents relies on food donations from organizations, with even milk now being a luxury item, Kholoud says. Her sister always liked making rice pudding, she adds, but that is no longer possible. The Lebanese economy was already in big trouble even before the pandemic. The Lebanese pound went down massively in value. And the devastating explosion in Beirut’s port in August 2020 was the final straw.

“I get only 50% of my pay,” she says. Her husband, her son and her stepson have all lost their jobs amid the economic crisis in Lebanon. Her daughter is still working. “The two of us feed the family,” she says.

Financial problems at the UNRWA

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) is responsible for the Palestinian refugees in the 12 official camps in Lebanon. This is because Lebanon does not accept any costs for the Palestinians.

But the UN organization frequently becomes a pawn of political interests, as happened, for example, when former US President Donald Trump withdrew financing from the agency and made a dent in its finances to the tune of $300 million (€255 million) — his successor, Joe Biden, has announced he will commence payments again. The main criticism leveled at the UNRWA is that by looking after 5.7 million Palestinians in the region, it creates incentives for them not to integrate in other Arab countries so that they remain permanent refugees instead.

The background to this argument is the Palestinians’ right of return enshrined in the UN Resolution 194, which is one of the big issues in the quest for a resolution to the Middle East conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. While Israel declared its independence on May 14, 1948, for Palestinians, May 15 of that year marked the start of their flight and forced displacement to today’s Palestinian territories and bordering countries, including Lebanon. However, what was initially considered to be a temporary solution for the Palestinians has now become a home for several generations. The UNRWA needs more than a billion US dollars each year to keep up its regular, emergency and lifesaving services.

Erosion of rights

The Palestinians in Lebanon have never been recognized by a Lebanese government as having equal rights. This is partly because the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was involved in fighting in the Lebanese Civil War, something that angered various political groups in the country. In Lebanon, Palestinian refugees pass on their refugee status to their children. They are not allowed to work in academic professions and are worse-paid than Lebanese with the same qualifications.

The Lebanese side has always officially justified this exclusion with the argument that a complete integration of the refugees in Lebanon would make it harder for them to return home. So while the US, for example, would like to see the Palestinian refugees settle permanently in the country, Lebanon does not want them to.

The Burj Barajneh camp was originally meant to house 3,500 people. But the UNRWA has officially registered 20,000 Palestinians in the camp, and, with the arrival of more refugees from war-torn Syria, the actual number of residents is believed to be twice as high as that.

No room for quarantine

The lanes in the camp are narrow. Residents often cynically say that not even a coffin can get through them. Wherever you go, a tangle of telephone wires and uncovered electrical cables hangs above your head — residents regularly die from electrocution when it rains.

“Here in the camp, and in the houses, too, you can’t really keep any distance,” says Kholoud Hussein. Sometimes, as many as seven people share two rooms.

Coronavirus tests

Medical care is mostly provided by the UN aid agency. One day a week, the UNRWA, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and the southern Lebanese Al Hamshari Hospital each carry out tests in the camp, which means there is testing on three to four days out of seven. “That is quite well organized now,” says Kholoud, recalling that it was not always that way: Particularly during the first days of the pandemic, she says, people had to pay a lot of money for tests in Lebanese hospitals — money that wasn’t there.

The coronavirus committee in the camp, which consists of NGOs and the Palestinian Red Cross, says that there were around 670 people in the camp infected by the coronavirus in February and March. But the unofficial number is likely to be higher, as not everyone takes a test.

Anyone who becomes severely ill with COVID-19 is taken to the Al Hamshari Hospital. It is located near the city of Sidon, about 45 minutes’ drive to the south of Beirut. Kholoud has often worked as an interpreter there as well. A COVID ward has been set up at the hospital, partly paid for with money from Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development. Patients are transported there by ambulances.

The UNRWA has also set up a quarantine center with 96 places for those people who have milder cases of the disease and are unable to isolate because of cramped living conditions. This so-called Medical Isolation Center is in Siblin.

One of the people who went into quarantine there is Rayan Sokkar. She was infected by the coronavirus and was worried about passing it on to her family.

This young Palestinian journalist was born and grew up in the Shatila refugee camp but now lives outside it. “We were examined three times a day — mostly, they measured the oxygen level in our blood and our blood pressure or listened to our lungs with a stethoscope. We were well looked after.”

The coronavirus pandemic has put more financial pressure on the UNRWA. That is why its director, Philippe Lazzarini, does not tire of appealing to the international community for financial support. “Unprecedented levels of despair with growing hunger & anger,” he recently tweeted, adding that money was needed for food, the COVID response and “dignified shelters.”

Kholoud Hussein has almost given up hope on this score. “The world has forgotten us,” she says. She doesn’t expect much more from the international community. But at least she has a small reason to be pleased: She has already had her first coronavirus vaccination.

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