BURJ AL-BARAJNEH, Lebanon: Resentment competes with empathy in Lebanon’s Palestinian camps, where, despite their shared history, tensions are rising between recently displaced Palestinians from Syria and established residents.
“I don’t feel like I know my camp any longer. It used to be my small homeland, but now it’s been taken over by Syrians,” says Kholoud Hussein, a resident of the Burj al-Barajneh camp south of Beirut who runs a small center for disabled children.
She says that security in the camp has worsened, prompting her and her family to avoid going out at night, something they never feared before.
Adham Hammad, a Syrian Palestinian refugee from Damascus, says he would be happy to return to Syria if the situation allowed, but after a year living in Burj al-Barajneh, he barely has any money left, he says.
“We suffer in the camps, and we face a new crisis here, since our money is slipping away and rent is expensive,” he says, adding that the cheapest rent he could find was $300 a month – three times the amount they receive in housing aid from the U.N.
He says he does not know what to expect in the future, but clings to the hope of return to the only home he has ever known.
“I’m not optimistic about going back to Syria,” he says. “I might go to Europe, but it’s difficult.”
Some of those who have attempted to leave resorted to illegal methods and were punished for it. Earlier this week, Lebanon came under fire from UNRWA, the U.N. agency responsible for Palestinian refugees, and international rights groups for deporting at least 40 Syrians, including Palestinians, to Syria for allegedly attempting to travel from Beirut’s airport with forged documents.
Lebanon also denied reports that restrictions had been placed on Syrian Palestinians entering the country. The country is currently hosting over a million Syrian refugees, including some 54,000 Palestinians, most of whom have settled in existing camps.
Ahmad Mustafa, head of the Syrian Palestinian Organization, which is active in camps throughout Lebanon, acknowledges the shifts occurring across the country, which include increasing competition among Palestinians for space and resources.
“The situation is bad – mostly because the camps are now so heavily populated,” he says, adding that an additional 5,000 to 7,000 Palestinians from Syria have moved into Burj al-Barajneh, which he estimates is at double capacity.
The additional burden creates friction with host communities.
Mustafa points out that Palestinians coming from Syria typically accept lower salaries, boosting competition for jobs and creating resentment among the original residents, who, in turn, overcharge new arrivals for rent and other necessities.
“[Lebanese] Palestinians find it reasonable to take advantage of the Syrian [Palestinians] coming here, since they took away funds and jobs from the Palestinians [in Lebanon] when they came,” Mustafa says.
The increased demand for housing is also creating a construction boom in the camps, he adds.
“We have been forced to build everywhere where there was space, so all gardens and playgrounds have now been built on. The graveyard is the only place where our children can play, and it is almost full,” Mustafa says.
In a recent briefing, UNRWA warned that over-population was negatively affecting water supplies, infrastructure, sewage management, education, employment and cost of living, which takes a toll on all Palestinians living in the camps.
Ann Dismorr, Lebanon director of UNWRA, denies that less aid is flowing to Lebanese Palestinians who lived in the camps for decades.
“I think [these concerns] show that, although we do a lot, there is never going to be enough help,” Dismorr says.
She says that the response of Palestinians in Lebanon to those coming from Syria has been both generous and exploitative, echoing Mustafa’s concerns about rent fixing.
“At one side, you have seen a large hospitality movement, although people are poor and have limited resources,” she says. “But at the same time, we do hear stories about exploitation of the refugees in the camps.”
“For me, it really is a reminder that we should not forget the Palestinian refugees from Lebanon in the process of helping Syrians.”
Although the situation is difficult, she insists schooling and primary health care needs are being dealt with in the best way possible.
“What I find of really increasing concern is the number of refugees who have been here for more than one year and now have no visa,” Ann Dismorr says. “And if you don’t have a valid visa in some of the camps, you can’t enter them, so out of the fear of getting caught by the Army without a visa, they stay in the camps.”
Dismorr says she has met refugees who barely leave their homes and remain in the smaller camps with no jobs and with no hope of getting out.
“They are barely getting through. Many of them are borrowing money, many are staying with relatives and friends, and many have family left in Syria. Many have huge concerns, and still their main concern is when they can go back,” Dismorr says.
Fadi, who declined to give his last name, tends his small grocery store in Burj al-Barajneh, but business is slow, and he is eager to discuss the camps’ many problems.
“Things have changed a lot with the Syrians coming here to the camps. The people who already lived here can’t find jobs and can hardly afford buying from my shop,” he says.
“I wanted to find another job. But what should I do? What jobs are out there now?”