Palestine: The Forgotten Refugees

This article has been written as a supplement to the 2016 St Andrews Foreign Affairs Conference, whose focus this year is on Migration & Displaced Peoples. Through this article, we hope to delve deeper into the diverse and far-reaching effects of conflict and the freedom of movement in areas such as state interaction, internal politics, societies, and economies.

In the south of Lebanon, situated on the coast just 12 miles from the Lebanese-Israeli border, sits the ancient city of Tyre. It is a thriving place where Lebanese tourists flock every summer to enjoy the heat in a relaxed environment far removed from Beirut. However, just a little further inland from the beautiful boardwalk and bustling restaurants that line the shore, you will find three refugee camps with over 60,000 Palestinian refugees. This population has existed since 1948 following the establishment of the state of Israel and what is known to Palestinians as the Nakba, the catastrophe.

Image Courtesy of Tijen Erol © 2010, some rights reserved.
Image Courtesy of Tijen Erol © 2010, some rights reserved.

This summer, I had the immense privilege of living and working with the people of the Burj el-Shemali Palestinian refugee camp just 2 miles east of Tyre. The camp was established in 1948, initially to provide temporary tented shelter. It has since grown into what could only be described as a concrete jungle. Due to intense overcrowding, cinder block high rises loom as far as the eye can see, proudly displaying the damage they still bear from the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war. In between buildings, in the few metres of space left for people, mopeds, and the occasional car to squeeze through, there are reams and reams of exposed electrical wires, crisscrossing the sky in every direction. The camp houses around 25,000 registered refugees but has just four schools and one health centre.

What was perhaps most shocking was the feeling of permanency about the camp. It had concrete structures, rows of stores, bakeries, mechanic’s garages, and barbers. I had naively imagined little more than a city of tents, but I was met with an infrastructure built up over almost seventy years, and meant to last.

A home that I visited one afternoon echoed the poor conditions and feelings of uncertainty in which many families across the camp survive. I met a lady and her five children who, along with her husband, inhabited one floor of a building on the outskirts of the camp. They had arrived at the camp from Syria in 2012, fleeing the beginning of the civil war. Their home consisted of three rooms, one of which they slept in together during the summer’s blistering heat, and the other where they slept in the winter when it becomes unbearably cold. Another room housed both the kitchen and the bathroom. The lady and her husband were too ill to work; she herself was suffering from cancer and her husband had debilitating blood clots in his legs. They had been unable to pay their rent or electricity bills for the past several months, relying on the compassion of their landlord and neighbours.

I was in the camp as part of a program to provide four weeks of intensive English language teaching open to any child interested. In Lebanon, all children, nationals and refugees alike, must pass the Brevet exam in order to proceed to secondary education. However, the exam is conducted in English, an area in which Palestinian students are sorely lacking in exposure and knowledge. The teaching program conducted every summer aims to provide English language education alongside extracurricular activities to provide the children of the camp with some respite from long days with little to do. Education is vitally important to every child in the world, but especially Palestinian refugees. It gives them hope and dignity above all else. One refugee told me that ‘it is with education, and not fighting, that we will win the war.’

The situation is no less dire for Palestine refugees all over Lebanon. The country is home to almost half a million Palestinians, over 50 per cent of which are living in refugee camps that are parallel images of Burj el-Shemali. Amnesty International estimate that Lebanon hosts 232 refugees per ever 1000 of its inhabitants. For all these refugees, there are just 69 schools, 27 primary health centres, and one rehabilitation centre. Each of the camps has its own set of uniquely depressing problems; Rashidieh, also in Tyre, still has an open sewage system. Shatila and Burj Barajneh, situated on the outskirts of Beirut, are intensely overcrowded and suffering from bad environmental health. The worst of all is Nahr el-Bared camp, near Tripoli, placed under siege and destroyed in 2007 by the Lebanese armed forces, yet home to over 27,000 displaced Palestinians. Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are not allowed to feel any sense of stability; they live in constant fear of renewed fighting between Hezbollah and Israel, with antipathy from Lebanese citizens angered over the strain on their economy, and with general anguish from the second class citizenship they are allowed.

Problems for Palestinians in Lebanon go far beyond their housing situation. Human Rights Watch deemed them to be living in ‘appalling social and economic conditions.’ If Palestinians are able to overcome the substantial blocks to learning and receive a university education, they are faced with even more discrimination. Over 70 professions in Lebanon are barred to Palestinians, including teaching, law, medicine and engineering. I was told stories in the camp of Palestinian doctors working in the camps for free, having to buy extortionately priced prescription pads on the black market and being forced to hide or act as patients when Lebanese officials enter the camp. Additionally, it seems self explanatory that education is so lacking in the camps when Palestinians are not allowed to teach their own children. Most men and women in the camps are forced to work as painters, mechanics, builders, hairdressers, or cleaners. These services are so oversupplied that the camps are bursting with unemployed young men and women with no opportunities.

In the West, it is easy to immediately associate refugees with the impact that they have on us. This summer has seen us bombarded by the media with stories of refugees desperate to reach the shores of Europe and a better life. Throughout my time in Lebanon I was constantly reminded that refugees do not want to be refugees; they do not want to be torn from their land and forced to subside on somebody else terrain, economy, health care or education system.

With the intractable Syrian refugee crisis currently unfolding, I find that the Palestine refugees are largely forgotten about in the minds of most people. We must all remember that these are a people who have been deprived, by Israel and the international community, of a just and peaceful solution for 67 years.

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