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By: Sophia Akram
The explosion that hit the port of Beirut in August 2020 devastated Lebanon’s capital, compounding the effects of the economic crisis made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic.
This new blow has pushed more than half the population below the poverty line, and for Palestinians in the country, it adds to a set of vulnerabilities unique to this community.
The explosion on 4 August 2020 originated from a portside warehouse storing explosive chemicals left to fester for years. It resulted in 188 people’s deaths, 6,000 injured, and several missing, while 47,000 apartments and 300,000 people were also affected by the blast. In all, the damage exceeded $15 billion.
Well-known neighbourhoods, such as Gemmayzeh, Karantina, Mar Mikhail, Jeitawi, Saint Nicolas, Zokak al-Blatt, and the city’s downtown area were hit badly while vital infrastructure in the form of hospitals, schools, and health amenities was also damaged.
Many have blamed the explosion on government neglect when mismanagement and corruption have already punctuated calls for reform and ignited mass protests amid financial crises born out of one of the highest debt-to-gross domestic product in the world. It was a situation that was dire even before the global coronavirus pandemic.
The impact of the blast has been major spikes in poverty, with ESCWA reporting that now more than half the population lives below the poverty line compared to a third in 2019. Food is an acute problem as 80 to 85 percent of it comes from imports. Now, there is only one functioning port with a third of Beirut’s capacity, while one of its largest grain silos was also destroyed.
The impact has only been exacerbated for vulnerable populations like women and children, the elderly, LGBTQ, and refugee communities. Some of the refugees have already escaped traumatic experiences, such as the war in Syria. Even Palestinian refugees who have lived in Lebanon for years have been disproportionately impacted by the blast, economic crisis, and COVID-19 restrictions due to their existing precarity.
Almost half a million refugees are registered with the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, in Lebanon. Forty-five percent of them live across the 12 camps in the country noted for poor living and socio-economic conditions, partly due to the government’s relegation of Palestinian refugees to a temporary presence in Lebanon.
A 2015 survey has found that 65 percent of Palestinians live below the poverty line, with unemployment reaching 56 percent for this subset.
Palestinians in Lebanon also lack certain rights, such as being barred from working in certain professions or from owning property. Being stateless, they also lack the rights that some other foreigners have in Lebanon.
Palestinian refugees from Syria (PRS) who have come to Lebanon also experience the added trauma of being displaced twice. Around 29,000 PRS are receiving UNRWA assistance, including cash handouts. The 2015 survey also found around 90 percent of PRS live in poverty.
While the blast did not physically impact the camps, the multilayered crisis has made even more vulnerable its access to food and access to cash distributions.
Analysts have determined that these trends affecting Palestinian refugees in Lebanon have increased since 2015.
Since the blast, many workers in Lebanon were laid off while non-Lebanese staff have been expelled, particularly Palestinian workers, in sectors like agriculture and construction.
It adds to the immiserating effect of the weakened Lebanese pound and the challenge of receiving remittances from overseas family members.
UNRWA services have also declined amid diminishing aid despite the greater need for its services — it now operates at a shortfall.
The impact of Lebanon’s multilayered crisis has fallen on top of UNRWA’s own funding crisis since the US stopped its funding commitments to the agency.
As a result, it has halted some of its services, deepening the plight of Palestinian refugees who rely on UNRWA’s education, food, and healthcare provisions, among other functions. Reports also indicate more social and psychological disorders among Palestinian youth in the camps, making them vulnerable to recruitment by extremist groups.
“The major social impact is the repercussions from increased poverty”, says Sawsan Masri, country director of Taawon-Lebanon, a welfare charity focused on supporting Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.
“Food insecurity, school dropout, unemployment or precarious employment, lack of social protection, violence and crime, and the prevalence of risky behaviors including drugs and negative coping mechanisms are all symptoms and consequences that we are witnessing of further deprivation”.
There have also been reports of further displacement from Lebanon on boats destined for Europe, which may include Palestinians aboard.
Jaber Suleiman, the author of the briefing by Al-Shabaka, told Fanack Chronicle that many factors affect why Palestinian in Lebanon want to emigrate.
“It’s mainly because of the discrimination [in Lebanon]. We can also add to this uncertainty about the future. The deadlocked peace process… there are many political and socioeconomic factors that enhance young people to emigrate”, he says, “so we have new displacement costs”.
Where PRS are concerned, the Lebanese government had already steered its gaze towards repatriation, now with greater pressures, scapegoating the refugee population could again come into view as the government’s response.
Stepping into the breach of official response and a dearth of funding, various Palestinian groups have increased aid to help with healthcare, education, and cash assistance, including the Palestinian Authority and Palestine Liberation Organisation. However, civil society has played the most significant role, according to Al-Shabaka, serving the most vulnerable.
Various Civil Defense teams, for instance, installed measures to stop the spread of infection at the entrances of the camps.
There were also fundraising efforts such as selling keffiyeh inspired masks and rescue efforts after the blast.
UNRWA has also raised emergency funds through flash appeals amounting to around $25 million over the spring and summer to address immediate needs.
Healthcare needs are being tackled by a joint health committee involving UN agencies, the PLO, the Palestinian Red Crescent Society, Doctors Without Borders, and several local civil society organisations.
Just as the response in Lebanon has been a medley of efforts between community, government, and civil society, Palestinian refugees in Lebanon have also received a jigsaw response.
To help the community shoulder the crisis, Al-Shabaka says short-term emergency appeals are still needed to ensure immediate needs are addressed with donors including Palestinian refugees in emergency response plans for Lebanon.
Medium-term economic and social safety nets are also required to help protect Palestinian rights in Lebanon. At the same time, the group also calls on Lebanese governments to adopt a “responsible and transparent policy towards Palestinian refugees”.
“In recent years, Lebanon has considered the Palestinian refugee outside their realm of support or concern and left it entirely to UNRWA and the civil society active in the camps”, Masri tells Fanack.
A number of bodies are entrusted with Palestinian refugee issues, she adds, including the Lebanese Palestinian Dialogue Committee. Although, their role is focused mainly on advocacy and raising the Palestinian voice within the government.
“One would assume not much will change particularly under those conditions that Lebanon is going through”, she says.
“The best means to safeguard the needs of Palestinians is through granting them equal civil rights — similar to the Lebanese and similar to their counterparts in Syria”, says Masri, “in addition to depoliticizing their humanitarian, social and developmental needs”.