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‘No Room for Refugees’ in Lebanon, but Plenty for Political Elites

Following the deadly violence in the Palestinian refugee camp Ain al-Hilweh in Lebanon, Belen Fernandez examines Lebanese policies toward refugees, both Syrian and Palestinian, and asks whether the mantra “there is no more space for refugees” is actually true.

Written by Belen Fernandez Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Smoke rises within the clashes at Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp in Lebanon's southern port city of Sidon on February 28, 2017.Ratib Al Safadi/Anadolu Agency

Recent clashes in Ain al-Hilweh, Lebanon’s most populous Palestinian refugee camp, saw residents fleeing for safety as explosions and gunfire reverberated throughout the surrounding city of Sidon.

The fighting pitted Fatah and other Palestinian groups against militants affiliated with extremist Bilal Badr. At least 10 people were killed and dozens wounded, while several buildings were left in ruins.

Lebanese political leaders were quick to condemn the violence. Lebanon’s seemingly perennial parliament speaker Nabih Berri warned that the only beneficiary of the clashes was the state of Israel. (One wonders, then, who benefited when a militia headed by Berri himself laid siege to Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon for several years in the 1980s.)

Yet it is a crisis partly of the Lebanese leadership’s own making. Such bloody showdowns between rival factions wouldn’t be happening if places like Ain al-Hilweh didn’t exist in the first place.

Palestinian refugees fled to Lebanon amid the widespread violence and plunder that attended the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. Now numbering more than half a million in Lebanon, Palestinian refugees are denied citizenship and basic rights, banned from a fluctuating number of professions, prohibited from owning property and often dehumanized in Lebanese society. Many reside in squalid and overcrowded camps – Ain al-Hilweh being the largest.

There is little room for Palestinians to assert their rights or dignity within Lebanon’s sectarian political system, which apportions power among 18 recognized sects based on a census conducted in 1932, after which there has been no subsequent population tally. The number of Lebanese presently in Lebanon is estimated to be around 4 million.

The office of president is reserved for a Christian, prime minister for a Sunni, and parliament speaker for a Shi’a, regardless of the evolving demographic facts on the ground or preferences of the country’s citizens. Were Palestinians permitted citizenship – a mere seven decades after their initial arrival to the country – the addition of some 0.5 million Sunni voters to the equation would disrupt the so-called sectarian balance.

United in the effort to maintain their stranglehold on power, Lebanon’s ruling elite thus busy themselves stoking sectarian divisions and directing popular discontent away from systemic injustice and onto assorted “others,” including Palestinian – and now Syrian – refugees.

The war in neighboring Syria has seen an influx of more than 1.5 million Syrian refugees to Lebanon. They experience a different sort of precariousness than Palestinians as official refugee camps for Syrians have been categorically prohibited. When I visited some of the informal tented settlements for Syrians in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley in late 2015, residents described a transition from life-threatening hardship in Syria to less-life-threatening hardship in Lebanon.

Obstacles to their daily existence in Lebanon included dust storms, torrential rain, snow and extreme temperatures – none of which the refugees or their makeshift homes were equipped to deal with – as well as the hazards that come with being regularly vilified by sectors of the Lebanese political establishment.

In addition to punitive and ever-changing visa restrictions, refugees have had to contend with curfews specifically for Syrians, physical and verbal abuse, military raids and increasing eviction orders on the camps.

Anti-Syrian rhetoric in Lebanon has ranged from the extreme – all Syrians are potential terrorists – to the more ostensibly practical: Lebanon is a small, struggling country that simply has no more space or resources to expend on refugees.

There’s no denying that resources and public services are in short supply in Lebanon and that additional people create additional strain on an already decrepit infrastructure. Beirut Report editor Habib Battah said in an email that it’s crucial to consider “the perspective of poor and working class Lebanese who are feeling the brunt” of the population increase, since “it is the poor that will compete with refugees and pay the burden of strained resources.”

In assessing the “no space for refugees” mantra, however, one can’t help but notice that there is apparently still somehow plenty of space up for grabs by Lebanon’s finest – its politicians, of course – and similarly prosperous folks.

The gargantuan Beirut residence of the aforementioned Nabih Berri, for example, enjoys a generous security perimeter regularly blocking off swathes of public space. Other leaders have their own fiefdoms and attendant buffer zones.

Beirut-based researcher Jana Yasmin Nakhal noted in an email some other uses of space in the Lebanese capital, such as ubiquitous new high-rise apartment complexes that “cater to the absolute elite.” Many of the new apartments are uninhabited. So much for a lack of room.

“From a real-estate perspective,” Nakhal explained, “refugees are highly unproductive” to landlords. They’re not the only ones – a new rent law is “expected to expel thousands of Beirut’s working class and seniors” unable to comply with an astronomical surge in rental fees, Nakhal said.

One of the most formidable strains on resources is the massive corruption. Among the beneficiaries are the sectarian warlord-politicians who effectively divided national resources between themselves at the end of the civil war in 1990 in a lucrative mis-governing arrangement that persists to this day.

According to Battah, one way to address the vastly disproportionate number of Syrian refugees hosted by Lebanon would be to have the nations supporting the war in Syria contribute financially to a rehabilitation of Lebanese institutions. To date they have shown as little interest in doing so as Lebanese politicians have in providing a dignified life for Palestinian and Syrian refugees in the country.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

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