Palestinians fleeing Syria must be protected too

Marta Petagna

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A refugee population with little hope for return to their homeland. Crowded, unsanitary refugee camps, where residents struggle to access basic services and healthcare. UN agencies facing a lack of adequate support from international donors and struggling to cope with the needs of the many hundreds of thousands of displaced people.

Yet these are not the stories of Syrians, this was the picture for Palestinians living in Lebanon five years ago, before the war in Syria had even begun. Today Lebanon is host to 45,000 additional Palestinians who have fled the brutal conflict next door only to find misery and despair in this supposed place of greater safety. What is more whilst the international community struggle to cope with the humanitarian fallout from the Syrian refugee crisis, Palestinian refugees have been largely forgotten.

An estimated 560,000 Palestinian refugees in Syria have been among the worst-affected communities in the war. The Palestinian camp of Yarmouk – located in the outskirts of Damascus and once a thriving neighbourhood – has suffered from attacks - from Syrian army and militant forces alike and has been continuously besieged since 2013.

The U.N. secretary-general said last year that the camp was “the deepest circle of hell” in Syria. However the Palestinian people are no strangers to catastrophe. Syria’s conflict has killed over 3,000, and caused many to become multiply-displaced: 280,000 inside Syria and 110,000 abroad. Those Palestinian refugees who have arrived in Lebanon have found themselves in truly tragic circumstances, lost among a flow of over a million Syrians also fleeing the war.

Palestinians have found themselves falling through the cracks of international humanitarian support. They are unable to access health and educational services provided by UNHCR, and instead almost all are reliant on what an already-stretched UNRWA can offer. Employment opportunities are scarce, and cuts in international support in 2015 forced UNRWA to suspend the cash support it had provided to Palestinian refugees from Syria to help them pay for accommodation.

Health poverty has also devastated many families. UNRWA is unable to pay for treatment for war-related injuries, so those harmed during in the violence in have in some cases gone into severe debt to get treatment, especially given the exceptionally high cost of healthcare in Lebanon.

Until recently, the Lebanese government required $200 per person to renew visas to stay in the country, effectively trapping many in the camps. In the northern camp of Nahr el Bared, my team recently encountered a man unable to join his wife to attend the birth of his first child at a hospital outside of the camp. Without resources to pay for the visa renewal, being caught outside the camp would mean risking deportation back to Syria’s war.

Though this restriction has recently been relaxed, fear and suspicion pervades the communities, and few are willing to take such a grave risk.

‘Anywhere must be better’

“Anywhere must be better than here” one family in Ein el Helweh camp recently told my colleagues. Perhaps this pervasive belief is the reason many Palestinian refugees from Syria have attempted the perilous journey to seek safety across the Mediterranean Sea. Among the bodies washing up on Europe’s shores are Palestinians, desperate for an opportunity to provide for their children, to escape indescribable hardship.

Countries like the UK have been generous in extending their humanitarian aid in the wake of Syria’s war, but more must be done to ensure that Palestinians – all too often forgotten or neglected – have equal access to this support.

Marta Petagna

While the world tries to respond to Syria’s humanitarian crisis, Palestinians risk falling through the cracks altogether. UNRWA’s core and emergency budgets both operate at severe shortfalls due to a lack of support from international donors.

Furthermore, though Syrians are eligible for resettlement in safe countries through UNHCR, Palestinians are not. Ultimately, the right of return for Palestinian refugees is inalienable, and realisation of this right would provide safe refuge for those fleeing the conflict. Until such a time as this is possible, however, the international community should make every effort that the most vulnerable Palestinians are permitted safe permanent or temporary resettlement.

Civil society organisations in Lebanon have demonstrated remarkable fortitude in responding to the needs of Palestinians at this moment of unprecedented need. MAP and UNICEF cooperate with a network of local Palestinian NGOs to provide essential psychosocial care across the country for children - who have survived the horrors of war.

In partnership with UNRWA, we are able to alleviate the cost burden for Palestinian refugees from Syria requiring tertiary care treatment for life-threatening conditions such as cancer and heart disease. Our own team of midwives provide pre- and post-natal care to pregnant women in the camps -, and neonatal care to their babies. But true change in the conditions of these communities can only come with concerted political action.

Countries like the UK have been generous in extending their humanitarian aid in the wake of Syria’s war, but more must be done to ensure that Palestinians – all too often forgotten or neglected – have equal access to this support. The international community have a responsibility to ensure the courage and resilience of Palestinians until now has not been in vain. Failing to do so would be to condemn the Palestinian people to catastrophe once again.
Marta Petagna the Director of Programmes in Lebanon for Medical Aid for Palestinians.

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