After fleeing the western Syrian city of Homs as bombs and shells pounded their neighborhood, Umm Ali and her 10-strong family arrived in Beirut’s Shatila refugee camp and shared a single room.
Speaking to Syria Deeply, she recalled her confusion upon arriving in Beirut. “When I arrived here from Homs, I had no idea where to go,” she told Syria Deeply. “My son had worked and lived here before with some friends, so he brought us here.”
Home to some 20,000 people, Shatila is one of the 12 camps that together house nearly half a million Palestinian refugees who were exiled from their homeland during the 1948 establishment of Israel.
Known for the 1982 Israeli-Lebanese massacre that killed thousands of Palestinians in Shatila and Sabra, the former is now absorbing thousands of the 45,000-plus Palestinians who have fled Syria for Lebanon throughout the last four years of bloodshed. Already plagued by unemployment and poverty, Shatila’s resources are being spread thin as few economic opportunities are available due Lebanon’s strict limitations on what jobs Palestinians can work.
Like most of the camp’s residents, Umm Ali and other newcomers live in cramped single-room apartments with few windows, high humidity and sporadic electricity. And like Umm Ali, most fled bomb raids only to find themselves in wretched conditions in these refugee camps.
“There are too many of them,” Leila, a 35-year-old Lebanese woman, told Syria Deeply. “If they were to vote, they would be able to decide who the president is.”
Umm Ali’s 37-year-old daughter Raifa describes their room as “a prison cell” that has “no room to move.” Although the rent is higher outside the refugee camps, the $300 a month rent is challenging for Palestinian refugees when they have so few opportunities for work. To make matters worse, United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) had to cut a $100 monthly stipend to Palestinian refugees from Syria this summer due to funding shortages.
Speaking to Syria Deeply, UNRWA spokesperson Chris Gunness explains that the agency’s inability to continue paying the rental stipend “is driving some of them and their families on to the streets and into a very uncertain future. The donor community needs to understand that this is a very worrying development at a time when extremist groups are in full recruitment mode.”
Earlier this year, the Lebanon’s borders were closed to Palestinian refugees, while Jordan had been refusing entry to Palestinians from Syria early on during the civil war.
“The Lebanese government is bearing an incomparable burden with the Syrian refugees crossing its borders, but blocking Palestinians from Syria is mishandling the situation,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director of Human Rights Watch. “Palestinians are among the most vulnerable people in the Syria conflict and, like Syrian nationals, are at risk of both generalized violence and targeted attacks.”
Lebanon and Jordan have each forced hundreds of Palestinian refugees from Syria back into the war-ravaged country, as recently reported by the Daily Beast.
Because the Palestinians from Syria who do make it to Lebanon are unable to obtain residency documents from the Lebanese government, many are scared to venture far outside the camp’s borders, fearing arrest and potential deportation.
The Sabra and Shatila camps are not the only places where Palestinian refugees in Lebanon find themselves in humiliating and challenging conditions. In Ain al-Hilweh, some 10,000 Palestinians from Syria have joined the 70,000-plus camp residents, according to camp officials.
That camp was recently consumed by factional fighting that lasted a week and displaced 3,000 people, mostly Palestinian refugees who had recently arrived from Syria, according to sources from the nearby Sidon Municipality. During that fight, the Palestinian Fatah party faced off with Salafist groups. Among them was Jund al-Sham, a hardline organization that has ties to Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian wing of al-Qaida.
By the time a lasting ceasefire was reached, at least six people were killed and upwards of 70 had been injured.
Like people across Syria, some 260,000 Palestinian refugees in the country have endured internal displacement, according to the U.N. Once having numbered around 560,000 people, some 480,000 Palestinians remain in Syria.
“The main issue is that Palestinians [in Syria] are still not protected by anyone,” Wesam Sabaaneh, youth director for the Syria-based Jafra Foundation recently told Syria Deeply.
Top photo: Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, including those who came from Syria, are barred from dozens of professions. (Associated Press/Bilal Hussein)