BEIRUT: A failure to deliver much-needed services to refugees in Palestinian camps across Lebanon will leave a vacuum that could be filled by extremist groups, the spokesperson for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency said Wednesday.
“In a time of rising extremism in the Middle East, we have to be mindful of the fact that the vacuum that’s left by the degradation of UNRWA facilities will be filled by other people,” UNRWA spokesperson Christopher Gunness told The Daily Star in an interview. “Look at what happened in Yarmouk.”
The Palestinian camp of Yarmouk in the suburbs of Damascus was overrun by ISIS and other jihadi groups April 1, plunging the already embattled camp into a severe crisis. UNRWA has not been able to access the camp since the takeover.
Extremist groups, such as ISIS and the Al-Qaeda-affiliate the Nusra Front, reportedly have a presence in many Palestinian camps across Lebanon. Camps such as Ain al-Hilweh in the southern city of Sidon have long been safe havens for extremists wishing to escape the Lebanese state.
Gunness stressed that UNRWA is not responsible for the security of the camps in Lebanon, but expressed concern about the impact its deterioration would have on the agency’s work.
“Look what happened in Nahr al-Bared. We clearly don’t want a situation like that happening in any of the refugee camps because a bad security situation affects our service delivery,” he said, in reference to the north Lebanon camp that was leveled during clashes in 2007 between the Army and terrorist factions.
In Ain al-Hilweh a joint security force has been formed comprising several different Palestinian factions, including Islamist ones affiliated with Al-Qaeda, to address growing security concerns.
Gunness said that he had been calling on donors to find a political solution to the problems seen in camps in Lebanon as well as in the troubled Yarmouk camp.
UNRWA was recently able to deliver aid to 3,000 residents of the camp that fled to the neighboring Yalda, Babila and Beit Sahm, and other areas. Upon reaching the refugees, UNRWA found that 20 percent of the children under 5 suffered from acute malnutrition.
“To me, that’s really the unacceptable situation,” Gunness lamented. “As a matter of political choice in a way, we are subjecting children under the age of 5 to severe malnutrition.”
Yarmouk has long been considered a humanitarian disaster. The camp been under siege by the Syrian regime since 2013 and aid organizations have had extreme difficulty accessing the camp. It once boasted 160,000 residents but 90 percent of those have fled – many to Lebanon – since the onset of the Syrian civil war.
The invasion of ISIS – which is now thought to have withdrawn from the camp – and the Nusra Front has further complicated the delivery of aid.
Gunness stressed that the only way to ensure safe passage for UNRWA and other aid agencies into the camp is through serious political dialogue between the U.N. and Arab League joint envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura and all the factions operating in the camp.
He bemoaned the heavy cost that UNRWA has also had to pay for the political inaction.
“We are an unarmed humanitarian organization and we have lost 14 members of staff since this war started,” Gunness said. “[And] we’ve carried on. For us, there has to be secure access and that means agreement from all parties. Unfortunately, we’ve not been able to get agreement from all parties.”
Speaking on Lebanon, Gunness said that the reconstruction of Nahr al-Bared – where many homes were destroyed in the battles – will reach the halfway point in September.
The only thing stopping the completion of the reconstruction is funding, he added. The total cost of the reconstruction project is $345 million and UNRWA is still lacking $142 million in funds.
Gunness said that UNRWA’s new Lebanon director Matthias Schmale has highlighted the completion of Nahr al-Bared’s reconstruction in his future vision. “UNRWA’s ability to rebuild other shattered Palestinian communities is being judged by the response to Nahr al-Bared, and that’s a message that the donors really need to hear,” he said, comparing it to the reconstruction of Gaza and Yarmouk.
Lack of funding is a persistent problem for UNRWA across its operations. Gunness somberly noted the effect the war in Syria has had on the organizations work: “What we’re seeing is years of investment by the donor community being forced backward and that’s a very regrettable situation to be in if you’re a human development organization.”