Monday, July 7, 2014

Palestinian refugees: From fire to frying pan

[Originally posted at The Economist]

THE tiny alleyways of Burj al-Barajneh, the most densely populated of the Lebanese capital’s three Palestinian refugee camps, offer scant relief from a scalding midsummer sun. Only moments after your correspondent enters the labyrinth of passages a young woman falls silently to the dusty cement ground, fainting from a combination of heat and over ten hours of Ramadan fasting. “It’s like Ghassan Kanafani’s ‘Men in the Sun’”, says Abu Bilal, your corrrespondent's companion, referring to the classic 1962 novella about a group of Palestinian migrants roasted alive in a tanker truck while trying to smuggle themselves across the Arabian desert.

Abu Ahmad knows about emigration. At 77, the Haifa native has experienced three exiles—from Palestine to Lebanon in 1948; then to Syria at the 1975 outbreak of Lebanon’s civil war; and back to Lebanon this year courtesy of Syria’s war. Dabbing the sweat off his forehead in his air-conditionless apartment in the heart of the camp, he recalls how he nearly didn’t make it. Lebanese authorities were refusing him entry at the border, in keeping with an undeclared but widely documented new policy of effectively denying refuge to any additional Palestinians from Syria. Only when the infirm Abu Ahmad himself fainted in front of the border guards did they let him through, citing an exception for medical emergencies.

Abu Ahmad is one of the lucky ones. Abu Bilal says his siblings are still stuck in Damascus under threat of bombardment, having tried and been prevented from joining him in Lebanon, even though one is married to a Syrian. It’s an all-too-common story among Palestinians today. An Amnesty International report published this month documents what it called the “shocking cases” of pregnant women and even children being separated from their families as a result of the policy, which it described as “blatantly discriminatory” and in contravention of Lebanon’s obligations under international law. The Lebanese government declined to respond to the rights group’s requests for comment.

Though Palestinians make up only some 50,000 of the 1.12m registered refugees from Syria in Lebanon, their comparatively weak legal status renders them the softest target for a Lebanese government now officially committed to limiting its refugee population, says Abu Bilal. “Syrians benefit from legal agreements permitting free travel to and from Lebanon but we are stateless, we have nothing like this," he says.

Lebanon’s policy change comes as the Syrian government is tightening its 19-month-long siege of Syria’s largest Palestinian camp, Yarmouk, on the outskirts of Damascus. After reports of over 100 deaths by starvation in the camp led to limited provisions of humanitarian aid earlier this year, the UN says it has not been able to get food in since May. Residents contacted by Skype say the days of resorting to eating leaves and animal feed may be returning.

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