BEIRUT: The courtyard of the U.N.-run Yarmouk primary school in Burj al-Barajneh was packed, not with students blithely running in between classes, but with newly arrived Palestinian refugees from Syria coming to claim cash distributions doled out by the U.N. Relief and Works Agency. One by one, the refugees entered the school complex, their blue identification cards in hand, making their way to a cashier, who dispensed distributions ranging from LL200,000 to LL300,000, depending on family size.
“The people came in large numbers all at once, it was chaotic,” said Mohammad Khaled, UNRWA’s chief officer for all camps in and around the Beirut area.
“Despite widespread announcements that we would be dispensing for five days, about 1,500 showed up in just one morning,” he said.
The cash distributions are part of UNRWA’s emergency relief plan in light of the higher than anticipated numbers of Palestinian refugees fleeing to Lebanon from Syria, more than half of whom make their way to camps. The arrival of more than 30,000 refugees in the already structurally ill-equipped camps has prompted the agency to appeal for donor aid to meet the refugees’ essential needs.
The number of Palestinian refugees from Syria in Lebanon reached 61,500 this month, of whom women and children make up the majority. By December, their numbers are expected to reach 80,000.
UNRWA’s response plan is designed according to a comprehensive assessment carried out by American Near East Refugee Aid, which identified the specific needs of the Palestinian refugees to structure relief response.
“We were a development agency but now we are sort of swinging back to become a relief agency, because there’s no choice,” said ANERA’s president, Bill Corcoran.
With the report, Corcoran said ANERA aimed to paint a real picture of the plight of Palestinian refugees from Syria: “We wanted to make it more apparent to the West, because I don’t really think they understood it.”
Palestinian refugees from Syria are considered to be doubly vulnerable compared to Syrians because they have fewer legal protections and hardly any opportunities to find legal employment, and are housed with some of the poorest host communities in Lebanon, in refugee camps.
The international response to the particular needs of Palestinian refugees has been markedly less robust compared to that of the general Syrian refugee population.
Palestinians, who are refugees twice over, are under UNRWA’s mandate, not that of the UNHCR. The former agency is too chronically underfunded to channel the large and quick succession of refugees into its existing infrastructure of schools, health clinics and social services, which were already overcrowded and poorly equipped.
“UNRWA this year, just in their regular budget, has a $70 million deficit, and that’s not even counting this particular crisis situation,” explained Corcoran. “So they are really stretched to their limits, and as a result I would say that the average Palestinian with UNRWA is generally getting less support than the average Syrian with UNHCR.”
A recent appeal for $45 million in donor aid to the agency is expected to assuage some financial pressures.
All of the Palestinian refugees The Daily Star spoke to said the general standard of living in Syria was much better, as they were able to work. Because many Syrians have decades-long experience of coming to Lebanon as migrant workers, they have the legal framework and informal social networks to find employment, unlike Palestinians.
Also, many Palestinians were shocked to learn they had lost their purchasing power after converting the little savings they brought with them to Lebanese pounds. The prices, many said, were egregiously high compared to those in Syria, where they could feed the entire family three meals in one day with just $10.
“Many have said they never felt discriminated against in Syria, either,” explained ANERA’s country director Samar al-Yassir. “They always felt as though they were on equal terms with the population because they had access to all the facilities and they were not denied any services. Here they feel discriminated against and it’s very disturbing for them.”
Given the bleak set of circumstances, the cost of food coupled with locating adequate housing with functioning utilities remained at the forefront of the refugees needs, and represents the bulk of their expenses.
“The problem with food is that you need it every day and you need it three times a day. So it’s an ongoing need and to date not one organization was able to sustain a regular distribution of food, including ANERA,” Yassir said.
Most refugees live in overcrowded conditions, with about one third living in substandard housing such as shelters with open vents, schools, shacks, rooftop chambers, shops and places of worship. About half of the households hosting Palestinian refugees from Syria are inhabited by more than 10 people.
Khaled confirmed to The Daily Star that measures were underway to address the housing shortages, with the Internal Security Forces having approved a request to renovate 30 new shelters for refugee families.
About 20 percent of Palestinian refugee households are led by females, who are at a financial disadvantage because the limited employment opportunities available to those displaced are more pronounced for women.
N.M., a mother of five who wished to be identified only by her initials, said she did not want to flee to Lebanon from the Husseinieh camp near Damascus without her husband.
“My husband has been missing since December,” she said, “They [the Syrian army] took him away at the checkpoint of the camp when we were preparing our papers to leave, I haven’t heard from him since,” she said in her one-room apartment furnished modestly with just two foam mattresses. The walls of the room were bare, and the sole window faced another cement wall, not letting in any natural light, forcing N.M. to light a candle midday.
Choosing to flee with her children anyway, N.M. went to her mother-in-law’s house in Shatila before finding a rented room, where running water is not potable and a single incandescent light bulb is all there is for the brief hours when electricity is provided.
Although UNRWA provides her with about LL400,000 once every two months, it is not enough to cover her rent, which amounts to LL600,000. Managing to make ends meet last month by selling one of her donated mattresses, she said she needs a sustainable plan for the future.
“I just need assistance covering my rent,” she said.“That’s what I’m hoping for.”