Palestinians escape Syria’s frying pan into Lebanon’s fire

Originally published on Sep 5th 2012 for The Daily Star, Beirut, Lebanon

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SHATILA, Lebanon: A few hours after their arrival in Lebanon, Nayef and his family were already crowding outside the entryway to their new building, seeking some space.

Their doorway had no door, there was no electricity, and the six relatives would be sharing two rooms with four others. Having exchanged the Homs Palestinian refugee camp for Beirut’s Shatila that day, Nayef was juggling his youngest son and a cigarette, he and his wife Rima surprisingly calm after a trip he reported had only “some danger.”

More than 3,000 Palestinian refugees from Syria have approached Lebanon’s branch of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency since the Syrian conflict began some 17 months ago, and according to UNRWA the number “has been steadily rising.”

But while they escape a warzone by crossing the border, many refugees have found Lebanese legal restrictions mean they cannot work and are confined to overcrowded refugee camps.

Most Syrian-Palestinians who have sought out UNRWA are in Sidon, but at last count there were 85 families in Shatila, where conditions are dire. On the day Nayef moved in with his brother, volunteers were painting brightly colored murals on a camp wall. Around the corner was a waist-high rubbish heap and the crumbling building where Nayef and Rima would sleep was a far cry from the flowers and blue skies depicted in the beautification project.

According to UNRWA, most new refugees are bunking with family members, but some – like Nayef’s upstairs neighbor Mahmoud – are renting.

After fleeing Syria a year ago, Mahmoud and his wife Amni found refuge in two rooms which are nearly empty; they were robbed some time ago. Like all of those quoted, they did not want their real names published.

In Syria, they lived in a rented house in Baba Amr, funded by Mahmoud’s job at an oil company. When the city fell under siege, they took their three children back to the Homs camp, but work became scarce and they were surrounded by checkpoints.

Mahmoud expected to find Lebanon hospitable, especially given the safe haven Syrians offered Lebanese during the summer 2006 war with Israel.

“The opposite is happening,” he said. His rent has doubled, the cost of living in Lebanon is high, and he can only find sporadic work in the camp.

And he can’t leave to seek employment, for fear of arrest. When Syrian-Palestinians enter Lebanon, they receive a seven-day “transit” visa. Palestinians may apply to renew this visa at General Security, for LL50,000 per month per person.

Not only can this cost be prohibitive, but many refugees are unaware of the renewal option.

“As a Syrian-Palestinian, I’m not allowed to travel freely,” Mahmoud explained. “If the authorities catch me, they’ll take me to prison … I’m scared to go out.”

Another refugee, Nazmi, who has been in Lebanon for 10 months, said he once worked as a driver but now is stuck in Shatila, fearful after his brother was arrested for overstaying his visa.

UNRWA said it is “advocating for a change in the procedure,” but even if Syrian-Palestinians are able to leave the camps, they will still face a legal system that severely restricts the lives of Palestinian refugees.

Supporters of the Syrian regime have long touted its relatively good treatment of Palestinian refugees as one of its credentials as the anti-Israel “axis of resistance” alongside Hezbollah and Iran. Nazmi called the Syrian camps “heaven on earth” in comparison to Shatila.

Whereas in Syria Palestinians can work freely, in Lebanon they need difficult-to-acquire work permits and are barred outright from many professions.

But the Syrian camps, with their drinkable tap water and electricity, are now engulfed in the Syrian conflict and death tolls there are mounting.

“A small kid leaving school was shot in the head [in the Homs camp,” Nazmi said, still shocked. “A kid leaving school. You can’t go to school or do anything anymore. You have to keep your kids close and sit at home, afraid that a bomb will fall on you.”

Fighting in Damascus engulfed the Yarmouk camp in the Syrian capital’s suburbs last month, prompting a flood of new refugees.

The Higher Relief Committee, which aids Syrian refugees, does not assist Palestinians. Instead, UNRWA has this role and a spokesperson said that refugees “need to get in touch with UNRWA offices or staff to let UNRWA know of their temporary contact details while in Lebanon. There are several different forms of assistance available to Palestinians from Syria from UNRWA and from a variety of other organizations who are engaged in the ongoing response to the displaced.”

But UNRWA says it needs more money, and Syrian-Palestinians criticize their help as either not sufficient or non-existent.

Mahmoud complained that he had been unable to register his daughter in an UNRWA school without the proper papers, a complaint UNRWA replied to by saying that the agency must be able to verify that individuals “are Palestinian refugees from Syria, because if they cannot prove this they could be anyone, not eligible for UNRWA services.”

The same goes for medical care, and some refugees are clearly falling between the bureaucratic cracks. Mahmoud’s pregnant wife Amani doesn’t have enough to eat and he reported receiving a box of aid from a charity that contained worm-infested lentils.

“They say these are a gift to the Syrian-Palestinians … what our parents used to say about having to leave Palestine, it is happening again,” he insisted, visibly agitated. “Nothing has changed, except the tents.”

He has even considered returning to Syria. “It’s better than here. I have more freedom in Syria than I do here.”

New arrivals Nayef and Rima were less optimistic about the possibility of return, although they agreed that their old home had been far superior to Shatila. They know they will be unable to leave Shatila for the foreseeable future, but said the Homs camp had become a deadlier sort of enclosure.

“It’s like a prison, we were scared to go out,” Nayef said. “Snipers fire at whoever leaves,” Rima chimed in, nodding when Nayef added, “If a person leaves the camp there, they assume they are going to die.”