Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Palestinian refugees from Syria shortchanged on aid

[Originally posted at NOW]

Beddawi's narrow streets are packed with playing children (NOW/Alex Rowell)

In a makeshift office in the heart of the Beddawi Palestinian refugee camp, furnished only with worn sofas and an almost antique desktop computer, Muhammad Hussein takes deep drags of a cigarette to steady his emotions as he talks.

“The feeling cannot be described. We see Syrians being treated like human beings while we are being humiliated. We are reminded that wherever we go, we are Palestinians, and our dignity is being stepped on.”

Hussein is one of an estimated 20,000 Palestinian refugees to have fled the warfare in neighboring Syria and made for one of Lebanon’s camps – in this case Beddawi, a 1-square-kilometre concrete and steel maze on the northeastern outskirts of Tripoli. Unlike Syrian refugees, who receive aid from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Palestinians are handled by the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), whose self-described “limited response” to the influx has left the new arrivals increasingly resentful. Last Monday, residents led by the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) demonstrated outside the camp’s UNRWA office to protest what they see as unjust discrimination vis-à-vis their Syrian counterparts.

In Beddawi’s DFLP headquarters – where NOW interviewed Hussein – party official Atef Khalil explained the ordeal facing incoming Palestinian refugees. It begins the moment they reach the Masnaa border crossing, where Lebanese General Security charges a 25,000LL ($17) entrance fee per head. Hussein, a Safad native who lived in Damascus’ Yarmouk camp until fleeing in December, showed NOW his entrance card with a stamp confirming his payment of the charge. Thereafter, General Security will demand 50,000LL ($33) from him every three months. Syrians, by contrast, may enter Lebanon free of charge.

When they get to Beddawi, new arrivals then face an extraordinary shortage of housing. Six years ago, the camp hosted some 15,000 refugees. That number doubled almost overnight during the 2007 conflict in the nearby Nahr al-Bared camp, and stands today at over 40,000 by Khalil’s estimate, including some 800 families recently arrived from Syria. Every refugee NOW spoke to in the camp named housing as their number-one concern, followed closely by food provisions and medical assistance. One family home comprised 40 people squeezed into just three main rooms.

To be sure, UNRWA has offered new arrivals various forms of aid, as part of its Regional Syria Humanitarian Response Plan. Once in December, says Khalil, they handed out $40 in cash and a $25 supermarket coupon to each refugee. He adds they have also arranged for some children’s education, repaired an old building in the Ain al-Hilweh camp and provided heating equipment to those refugees in the Beqaa Valley.

A recent UNRWA report details more fully the components of its response plan, stating it has so far provided new Palestinian refugees in Lebanon with non-food items such as mattresses and blankets, emergency health care, emergency education, and protection against arrests and forced return to Syria. Furthermore, UNRWA spokeswoman Hoda Samra told NOW that on one occasion in November, they distributed $50 winter clothing vouchers to refugees in the Beqaa.

However, the report also notes that, “Unfortunately, UNRWA has not yet been able to provide food or cash assistance, which has raised sensitivity among the [refugees] who feel discriminated against compared to provisions being made to Syrian refugees.” (UNHCR provides registered Syrian refugees with a monthly 45,000LL [$30] supermarket coupon in addition to non-food items – aid Syrians, in turn, say is insufficient.) UNRWA has pledged to appeal for $13 million between January and June 2013 to address these shortcomings, with around $8 million earmarked for cash assistance.

The key reason for the discrepancy between UNHCR’s provisions to Syrians and UNRWA’s to Palestinians, according to Samra, is financial. “We raised an $8 million appeal in September that was not well-funded,” she told NOW. “And then we had to revise the appeal in December to $13 million, out of which we so far have about 50 percent. This means we’ve been unable to provide half of the services that we intend to.”

To make matters worse, the $13 million appeal was designed to cater for 20,000 new refugees. On a visit to Lebanon last week, UNRWA Secretary General Filippo Grandi said that number had already been reached, with more than 200 arriving every day. This means UNRWA’s current budget, which is already underfunded by half, would be insufficient to meet refugees’ needs even if it were fully provided.

“Unfortunately, that’s true, and we’ll have to revise accordingly,” said Samra. “When we budgeted for 20,000 new refugees, there were only about 10,000 in the country. Unfortunately, we reached the 20,000 figure very quickly. So now we will first have to receive what we appealed for, and then appeal for more.”

Both Samra and Khalil are hopeful that Wednesday’s international donor conference on the Syrian crisis in Kuwait will yield a funding windfall. Various nations have pledged a total of $1.2 billion to help refugees across the region, $18 million of which Samra says could go to UNRWA in Lebanon.

Unless and until these funds reach the refugees themselves, however, the mood in the camps seems likely to deteriorate further.

Amani Hamad contributed reporting.

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