BEIRUT: Abu Shahed fled Syria three years ago to escape conscription into Bashar Assad’s depleted army. When he arrived in Lebanon with his family, they took refuge in the Shatila refugee camp on the outskirts of Beirut. “When we came to Lebanon, the [Palestinian] camps were the only places we could afford to live,” Abu Shahed told The Daily Star, as he wiped sweat off his forehead with his arm.
First built to shelter 3,000 Palestinians expelled from their homeland during the creation of Israel, Shatila has become a suburban ghetto, and a home, for over 20,000 of the city’s most marginalized people. Inaccessible to Lebanese authorities since the 1969 Cairo agreement, it’s here where fighters of the Kataeb Party massacred thousands of unarmed Palestinians on Sept. 16, 1982.
That night, occupying Israeli troops allowed the militants in without any obstruction.
The tragedy, now known as the Sabra and Shatila massacre, has come to be one of the many symbols of Palestinian suffering. And though the 1975-90 Civil War ended 25 years ago, death in the Shatila camp continues unabated.
As loose electric wires dangle aimlessly in the air, garbage and disease permeate Shatila’s broken infrastructure. To make matters worse, camp factions vying for control often leave inhabitants exposed to spontaneous cycles of violence.
At the break of this year, Shatila became the place where some Syrians would hide in.
Struggling to cope with 1.2 million refugees, the Lebanese government issued new visa renewal regulations in January.
The regulations require each Syrian above 15 years of age to pay $200, show a valid ID card and sign a “housing pledge,” that confirms where they live. The new protocol also separates Syrians into two categories: Those registered with UNHCR must sign a pledge “not to work,” while those who aren’t must find a Lebanese sponsor.
Unable to fulfill new requirements to renew their legal status, thousands of Syrians like Abu Shahed continue to languish in Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon to evade the authorities.
Abu Eid, a 17-year-old Syrian from the southwestern city of Deraa, says that he had little choice but to settle for work in Shatila after his visa expired in June.
“I was offered a job outside of Shatila where they pay was twice as much,” said a boy with fair skin and a faint moustache who calls himself Abu Eid. “But my family was too afraid that the police would catch me if I traveled there each day.” The same reasons are preventing many other Syrians from leaving the Palestinian refugee camps of Burj al-Barajneh and Ain al-Hilweh.
Lack of legal status has also restricted many from accessing aid and health services. Because Palestinian camps are under the mandate of UNRWA – a relief agency solely designed to assist Palestinian refugees – Syrians must risk leaving the camp to collect aid from UNHCR.
“When UNHCR notifies us to come and collect aid, we send our mother,” Abu Eid said. “It’s safer than sending a man because we will be harassed at the checkpoints.”
A report released by the Norwegian Refugee Council confirmed that refugee women are perceived as less of a security threat than men. According to NRC’s findings, only 5 percent of Syrians who were arrested by Lebanese authorities were women.
Fearing arrest and deportation, the camps have remained a haven, and a prison, for the Syrian men of the household.
Adel, a 31-year-old man with short stubble and a ragged shirt, says that his brother was caught outside of the camp and deported to Syria. He’s now being forced to fight in a war that he tried to escape.
“We first fled the war because the regime was bombing us and the opposition was looting,” Adel told The Daily Star, while sitting on the floor of his dark room in Shatila. “I’m afraid for my brother. He never completed his military service, but they [police] didn’t care.”
In November 2014, Human Rights Watch documented the deportation of Syrian national Mahmoud Abdul-Rahman Hamdan to Syria, despite his fear of detention and torture by the Syrian authorities.
Earlier this year, HRW also reported the disappearance of two Syrian nationals after they were transferred by authorities to General Security – the primary institution regulating the stay of foreigners in the country.
However, General Security has refused to comment on what happened to the men.
While Lebanon is not a member of the United Nations 1951 refugee convention, they are a party to the protocol against torture. Rights groups say that the latter, in tandem with customary international law, bounds authorities to the principal of non-refoulement – a principle prohibiting the return of anyone to a country where they could be killed or experience a violation of their human rights.
But Syrians languishing in the camps say they wouldn’t trust the authorities even if they had legal status. Destitute and vulnerable, many have considered fleeing Lebanon altogether. “We are fed up with being stuck in this camp,” said Adel, as he banged the back of his head lightly on the wall.
“But when we saw the photo of Aylan Kurdi, I promised my family that I’ll never trust a smuggler with our children.” Three-year-old Aylan’s body was photographed lying in the sand in Bodrum, Turkey after he drowned in a boat accident while his family tried to reach Greece – an image that helped to focus international attention on the plight of Syrian refugees.