Meet the refugees the world says are not allowed to be refugees

On tiny plastic chairs in a school room in the Palestinian refugee camp Burj al-Barajneh, on the outskirts of the Lebanese capital Beirut, Amal Ammar recounts the day she left her home in Damascus, across the border in Syria.

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This could be a classroom anywhere, the walls are painted bright colours and the shouts of children playing can be heard outside, but Amal’s story is anything but ordinary. “I wasn’t at home but still, it was on our street, most of my neighbours died,” she says. “We listened to the school being bombed, the children became so scared.”

A gap in international refugee law means that second wave Palestinian refugees are treated as stateless persons rather than refugees and the distinction is important.

Amal is Palestinian Syrian. She grew up in Yarmouk, a Palestinian camp on the outskirts of Damascus before fleeing to Lebanon with her husband and three children in 2012. Among the horror of war and mass displacement in the current Syria crisis, Palestinian refugees from Syria (PRS) are one of the most vulnerable and forgotten groups. A gap in international refugee law means that second wave Palestinian refugees are treated as stateless persons rather than refugees and the distinction is important.

PRS are unable to register with the UNHCR and therefore have little hope of resettlement. In Australia’s intake of 12,000 Syrians, PRS will miss out because of their dubious status under international law. Instead of being registered with the UNHCR, PRS fall under the United Nations Relief and Work Agency (UNRWA), set up in 1949 to provide direct relief and work programs for Palestinian refugees following the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict. In Lebanon, PRS mostly live in the overcrowded and poverty stricken Palestinian camps.

Director of Aspire, an organisation trying to bring PRS to Australia, is Yousef Alreemawi. He started the organisation eight years ago when Palestinians from Iraq were faced with a similar situation. Yousef is now in discussions with the Federal Government to grant PRS refugee protection in Australia. “This project has so much value to me personally and to them of course on a collective level,” he says. Yousef has family members from Yarmouk who are now stranded in Lebanon and Egypt without hope for their future.

Yousef says many families have come to a point of frustration and are risking their lives on boats to get to Europe. He says his cousin Samer would have done the same if it wasn’t for him. Yousef hopes the Federal government’s focus on minorities will include the Palestinians. “There is another minority, we are a minority,” he says.

Tensions are rising in the camps and Palestinian refugees from Lebanon (PRL), many of whom have spent there whole lives in these camps, are consequently suffering. Spokesperson for UNRWA Zizette Darkazzaly, says they are struggling to provide even the basic needs for PRS and radicalisation has become an imminent risk. “The rise of extremism mixed with extreme poverty is not a good mix,” she says. 

 “These camps are overcrowded, the health situation is not good, the environment is not good, violence is there, protection issues are always there.”

Not only have PRS places increased pressure on jobs, housing and education, Darkazzaly says the psychological impact of another wave of Palestinian refugees shouldn’t be underestimated. “Instead of seeing light at the end of the tunnel they see a tunnel at the end of the light,” she says. “Instead of seeing a way out, they see another plight.” 

UNICEF’s Palestinian coordinator Nazih Yacoub, grew up in a Palestinian camp in the north of Lebanon. He says before the current Syria crisis, the conditions in the camps were already bad and the recent influx of refugees has only exacerbated the existing problems. “These camps are overcrowded, the health situation is not good, the environment is not good, violence is there, protection issues are always there,” he says.

Life in the ‘Tower of towers’

Burj al-Barajneh, where Amal and others now live, translates into “the tower of towers”. The camp has increasingly taken on the literal form of its name and as the population grows upwards so do the tiny, windowless apartments. Before the Syrian crisis, the one-square kilometre of the camp held a population of around 20,000 Palestinians. In four years, the number has surged to an estimated 35,000.

Darkazzaly says apartments now house two or more families and a rental blackmarket has emerged, pushing up housing prices. “You have PRS renting garages or tiny rooms, more than one family and paying rent,” she says.

Amal’s apartment lies deep within the labyrinth. She says life in the camp is extremely hard. “The water we drink is salty, the electricity is always cutting out, there are many difficulties,” she says. “And we don’t have any sun in our house.”

“So you have a whole generation of Palestinians that’s going to be born now without any certificate that proves their existence, any official one.”

Ufran Sufi lives in the apartment directly above Amal. She fled Syria a year ago with her husband and two children. Her family is unable to afford visa renewals and her husband works illegally, from one day to the next. Ufran’s family has been reliant on UNRWA’s rent assistance since arriving in Lebanon. In June this year UNRWA cut the rent assistance that went to 95% of PRS in Lebanon because of a lack of funding. Without the extra money Ufran says they will try to pay rent but food and clothing will be hard. “It’s on God,” she says.

Ufran’s visa situation is not unusual. Due to high costs and harsh restrictions many PRS are unable to renew their visas. The legal status of PRS in Lebanon has led to what Darkazzaly describes as a “cycle of detention”. She says movement is restricted because without a valid visa PRS are arrested at checkpoints. “Some (people) are confined to the camps, they don’t go out… because they’re afraid,” she says. This also limits a PRS’ ability to work.

Ufran is pregnant and her unborn child will be among a generation of invisible Palestinians. Without visas, Darkazzaly says, PRS can’t undertake any civil registration; deaths, marriages or divorces. “While the deaths and marriages are important what are most worrying is the births,” she says. “So you have a whole generation of Palestinians that’s going to be born now without any certificate that proves their existence, any official one.”

Sixty years in limbo with no sign of a future

A 20-minute taxi ride from Burj al-Barajneh lies the Grand Serail, an impressive palatial building dating from the Ottoman era, now home to the Prime Minister’s office and the Lebanese Palestinian Dialogue Committee (LPDC). At the centre of the courtyard stands a limestone and marble fountain, the clean, expansive space starkly contrasts the crowded, grimy camp. LPDC’s Chairman Hassan Mneimneh, says the PRS have more problems and suffer more than any other group of refugees in Lebanon. “If you visited the (Palestinian) camps 30 years ago and visited them again today, you would see that nothing has changed,” he says. “Poverty and misery, the worst form of misery.”

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That poverty takes its toll and cracks in Palestinian unity are starting to show. Graffiti fills the streets of the camp from competing Palestinian political factions. Tensions are rising between PRS, PRL and Syrian refugees, the latter who are coming to live in the camps because of the lower costs. Yacoub says PRS are good business people and are taking the limited jobs that are available in the camps. Work is restricted because Palestinians in Lebanon are banned from working in many professions, including as doctors and nurses. To legally build inside the camps is also difficult. 

He says the only solution is a political one. ”Eventually the solution is to return to Palestine.”

These strict constraints have been designed to discourage Palestinians from remaining in the country. But Yacoub says the Palestinians have been in Lebanon for 60 years and they’re not going anywhere. “One of the solutions is to review the way the Government treats Palestinians,” he says. “Give us our rights and maybe conditions will improve.”

Mneimneh says the support provided to Palestinians is only just enough to keep them alive, but is insufficient to attain a good life. He says the only solution is a political one. ”Eventually the solution is to return to Palestine,” he says.

                             

Darkazzaly echoes these sentiments and says the plights of Palestinians will only continue. “This new wave of refugees proves to the world that there needs to be a just solution,” she says.  

Political deadlock on the issue of Palestine is leaving people like Amal and Ufran in extreme poverty. With sad resignation, Amal says she hopes someday her children might have a life outside the confines of the camp.

“That’s it, I feel sorrow for my children and all the children for what they have had to live through,” she says.