By Elaine Pasquini, reprinted from the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, January 2022.
In 1948, some 110,000 Palestinians fled to Lebanon after being violently forced from their homes by Jewish militants seeking to create the State of Israel. With Israel still refusing to allow these displaced individuals to return home, they remain trapped in Lebanon’s poverty-ridden refugee camps.
On Jan. 25, the Balfour Project, a UK-based organization which stands for peace, justice and equal rights in Israel and Palestine, held a webinar with two members of Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP) to discuss the plight of Palestinians in Lebanon.
“Today, there are around 450,000 Palestinian refugees registered in Lebanon with UNRWA [the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East], living in 12 official camps,” noted Rohan Talbot, the London-based advocacy and campaign manager for MAP.
“The history of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon is marked by repeated tragedy, conflict, discrimination and marginalization,” he said. Under Lebanese law, Palestinian refugees are classified as “foreigners” and face severe institutionalized discrimination and exclusion from many key aspects of social, political and economic life. This designation prevents them from accessing many public services and from owning or inheriting property or moving around freely, among other restrictions. They are barred from working in 39 key professions, Talbot noted, such as law, engineering and most health care jobs.
“This situation resigns most Palestinian refugees to very insecure and poorly paid labor, high rates of poverty and unemployment—with severe implications for their humanitarian welfare and their right to health,” Talbot lamented.
Despite being in Lebanon for over 70 years, more than half of Palestinian refugees continue to live in dire overcrowded conditions in the camps with substandard housing, Wafa Dakwar, program manager in Beirut for MAP and a Palestinian refugee herself, explained. “The buildings are old and risk collapse at any time, with inadequate infrastructure, poor water quality and non-existent waste management,” she said. In addition, there are no safe places for the many children in the camps to play.
Evidence suggests that functional disability among Palestinian refugees is twice as high as that for the Lebanese population, Dakwar reported. Communicable diseases are also common among refugees due to the poor housing conditions and lack of proper sanitation in the camps. “This is especially desperate with the COVID-19 crisis where physical distancing and isolation are almost impossible in this context,” she noted.
Mental health is also an issue. A 2015 study by the American University of Beirut revealed that over half of the Palestinian refugees surveyed reported poor mental health, Dakwar said.
Lebanon’s severe economic crisis over the last two years has led to rising prices, spiraling inflation, soaring unemployment rates, infrequent electrical services, food insecurity and fuel shortages across the country. These issues make life even more difficult for refugees, Dakwar noted. “The most vulnerable communities, including Palestinian refugees, are at risk of further marginalization in the absence of an effective protection scheme,” she said.
MAP is supporting the Palestine Red Crescent Society hospitals by providing them with the medical supplies and personal protective equipment they need to provide hospital care for the most vulnerable. The group also provides food parcels for pregnant women, the elderly and the poorest families, Dakwar said.
For this crisis to ultimately be solved, the right of Palestinians to return to the lands they were forced from during the 1948 Nakba must be acknowledged, Talbot stressed. “The right of return is a legal right, not just for Palestinians, but for all refugees,” he said. “This issue is not going away.”