Coronavirus in the Middle East
"Pandemic of poverty" for Palestinian refugees in Lebanon

Social and economic upheaval in Lebanon in 2020 has deepened and magnified the poverty of Palestinian refugees. The country's "forgotten" Palestinians are bereft of international support and almost totally dependent on UNRWA. Lifting the restrictions on their economic status would help. By Stephen McCloskey

As Lebanon goes for another full lockdown to contain the rapid spread of coronavirus, which has so far resulted in 116,476 cases and 900 deaths, Palestinian refugees are left to ruefully reflect on how they can possibly maintain physical distancing in densely populated and highly impoverished camps. As Philip Alston, the outgoing UN Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, has suggested, the wholly disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on poor people and marginalised communities is inescapable.

This has particularly been the case for Palestinians living in 12 refugee camps in Lebanon where coronavirus has deepened and magnified the social and economic malaise that has accompanied 72 years of refugee status. Now, this pandemic of poverty is being exacerbated by the wider social and economic upheaval impacting Lebanon itself.

The impact of Syria’s war on Lebanon

Over 470,000 Palestinian Refugees Lebanon (PRL) are registered with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA); the UN mission established to provide for the welfare of Palestinian refugees following the ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948. In the absence of a census, UNRWA estimates on the basis of take-up of its services, that 180,000 Palestinian refugees are residing in-country.

The lack of precision in regard to numbers is in large part owing to the Palestinian Refugees Syria (PRS) who fled to Lebanon after the start of the war in Syria in 2011. Sixty percent of PRS (262,000) have been displaced at least once by the war, 4,000 have been killed and 50,000 are estimated to have left the country.

An estimated 29,000 of the PRS have taken refuge in the 12 camps in Lebanon which has increased competition for employment and helped to suppress wages. Before the pandemic, the unemployment rate for PRL was 23% and 52% for PRS; these figures are likely to rise owing to the economic contraction that accompanies lockdown.

Palestinian refugees in Yarmouk refugee camp, Syria, following its destruction by IS: many subsequently relocated to Lebanon (photo: picture-alliance/AP)
Trapped in permanent foreigner status in Lebanon: Palestinian refugees are effectively excluded from most civil and socio-economic rights. In June 2019, the Lebanese Ministry of Labour enforced existing legislation requiring all foreigners, including PRL and PRS, to obtain work permits. According to the UN refugee agency, "obtaining a work permit reportedly involves a lengthy administrative process, for which the refugees depend on the goodwill of their employers"

Palestinians are excluded from 36 occupations in Lebanon (including medicine, farming and fisheries) which confines them to low-paying, low-skilled occupations in the informal sector. Eighty six percent of PRL don’t have contracts with employers which means they are often "subject to harsh, exploitive and insecure working conditions". Fifty three percent of PRS are paid on a daily basis and nearly all (97%) have nothing more than verbal agreements with employers.

During periods of lockdown caused by COVID-19, Palestinians are likely to lose their income without any compensation from the state or their employers. To help mitigate the impact of coronavirus on Palestinian refugees, UNRWA has committed to provide "one round of cash assistance of US$ 40 per person, covering 50% of the minimum basic food requirements". However, this is unlikely to represent the kind of sustained support needed to weather the pandemic.

In September 2020, UNRWA launched an emergency COVID-19 funding appeal calling on donors to contribute the $94.6m it estimated was needed to provide healthcare, hospitalisation, education services, food and cash assistance to the 5.6m Palestinians under their care across all their fields of operation, including Lebanon.

By 9 November, however, UNRWA’s financial crisis had worsened to the point that it appealed for emergency finance of $70m to pay the salaries of its 28,000 employees to the end of 2020. The main source of this funding crisis was the withdrawal of United States' support for the agency by the Trump administration in 2018, which amounts to approximately one third of its $1.1bn annual operating budget.

More on this topic