BEIRUT: The war in Syria has compounded what was already an emergency situation for Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, UNRWA’s top official in the country said Tuesday.
Veteran diplomat Ann Dismorr took up the position of director of UNRWA affairs last October, when only a few thousand Palestinian refugees had fled Syria for Lebanon. Since then, as violence hit the area in and around Damascus and broke into Yarmouk – Syria’s largest camp – the number of Palestinians crossing the border has soared.
As of a few weeks ago, UNRWA had recorded some 20,000 Syrian-Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. As it rolls out a cash distribution program this week, Dismorr says more accurate figures will become available, and “it could be around 24,000.”
“We are facing a humanitarian emergency,” Dismorr states unequivocally. Although the agency has dealt with crises before – in 2007 nearly all of Nahr al-Bared’s residents were uprooted when the Lebanese Army laid siege to the northern camp to root out militants from the Islamist group Fatah al-Islam – Dismorr notes that this displacement is different largely because of uncertainty.
“We don’t know if some [Palestinians from Syria] will [go] back, or how long they will be coming for,” she says, noting that she still considers Nahr al-Bared an emergency situation, given that thousands of people have still not been able to return home.
“Nahr al-Bared is something we really need to carry on focusing on. So in that sense, we have two emergencies to deal with,” she says.
According to Dismorr, 22 percent of those displaced from the camp will return in May, but $165 million is still needed to complete reconstruction. The former Swedish ambassador to Lebanon sees a link between solutions for the two crises.
“I’m hoping that if we can only step up the reconstruction in Nahr al-Bared, that will ease the congestion and the overcrowdedness in Beddawi,” a nearby refugee camp.
Lack of space is not only a challenge in Beddawi, and given the influx of more refugees to camps desperately short on space, the UNRWA head names accommodation as the most pressing problem.
She says the agency has searched for any buildings that are “underused, since there [are] barely any unused buildings in the camps.” The agency is renovating some structures – even equipping storage spaces with toilets and showers – so that they can house families.
But many Palestinian refugees from Syria complain that the agency is unresponsive to their plight, and that they are finding it difficult to access its services. One way UNRWA is countering these accusations is through occasional cash handouts, such as the one it is now carrying out at 13 locations across the country.
All recorded families are eligible for $130, plus $20 per person. These handouts are intended for housing and clothing, and they will also enable UNRWA to update its newly digitized lists of Syrian-Palestinians in Lebanon.
Although some refugees have reported difficulties enrolling with UNRWA here, Dismorr says those who left Syria without papers can be confirmed with UNRWA Syria “within a day.”
The cash distributions are also an opportunity to reach out to those refugees who have not made it to UNRWA or have other concerns. UNRWA has created small cards with numbers to call, urging newly arrived Palestinians to contact UNRWA so they can receive its help, and Dismorr says General Security agents will now be distributing them at the border. These cards and other information pamphlets are also being handed out in communities and with aid.
UNRWA also gave out cash aid in in late December, but Dismorr says “we can’t call [the distributions] regular because then we would just assume that the funding would be there, and we can never assume that ... We really have to keep the emergency alert up all the time.”
Funding is a persistent problem for UNRWA, and after a December appeal the agency received $6 million. “We need several more million [dollars], but the problem is that before Christmas we estimated the number [of Palestinian refugees from Syria] to be 20,000,” Dismorr says, suggesting that the numbers will likely have to be adjusted upward.
“But it is very important in one way or another to support the [Palestinian] Syrian refugees because most of them arrive with nothing,” she says.
“The little savings they have will be spent very quickly because the overwhelming majority don’t have a job or are restricted” by Lebanon’s laws on the type of employment Palestinians can seek.
The differences in life in prewar Syria and Lebanon now are stark: As a Palestinian in Syria, “you have an integrated job market, you can own your house, you can be a civil servant ... there are different conditions ... and a different cost of living.”
Most refugees in Lebanon, Dismorr says, are now relying on the kindness of families and friends.