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Poor Lebanese find life easier in Palestinian refugee camp

[Lebanon] Unemployed Lebanese man Walid al-Hayek and his family at their house in Beddawi refugee camp, Tripoli, northern Lebanon in October 2005. Poverty forced them to move from the town of Tripoli into the Palestinian refugee camp where life was cheape
Poverty forced Walid al-Hayek and his family into a refugee camp (Linda Dahdah)

Some Lebanese have become so poor they have decided to move into the crowded camps that house many of the 400,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.

There at least housing is cheaper. They can also piggy-back off free education, healthcare and drinking water provided by the United Nations for the camps’ official residents.

The lawlessness which prevails in many Palestinian refugee camps also favours those of limited means. Clandestinely connected electricity wires give them free power and lighting and the local pharmacies sell cheap black market medicine.

Beddawi refugee camp in Tripoli, a coastal town 80 km north of Beirut has seen 150 Lebanese families move into its crowded confines in recent years and more are still coming, said Khalil al-Jindawi, an official of the Palestinian Fatah movement, which helps to run the camp.

Walid al-Hayek, a 42-year-old unemployed man, said he moved into the close-packed community of 17,000 people four years ago.

“You can say that 99 percent of the Lebanese who have been residing in the camp for the past 15 years are young, unemployed and living below the poverty line,” he said.

Al-Hayek and his family moved into Beddawi from another poor suburb of Tripoli after he lost his job as an accounts clerk at the local fruit and vegetable market.

Syrians and Palestinians are taking the jobs

Now al-Hayek finds it difficult to get any work at all since the Palestinian camp dwellers and immigrants from neighbouring Syria are prepared to work for much lower wages than the Lebanese.

“The problem is that Syrians and Palestinians ask for less money, but on the other hand, they have free or subsidised healthcare and education,” he grumbled.

The UN Relief and Work Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) provides free education and healthcare for all the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. Syrians meanwhile can take advantage of schools and hospitals provided free of charge by the Syrian government just across the nearby border.

Thousands of Syrian farmers and petty traders have been attracted to work in Lebanon by the prospect of higher earnings, but al-Hayek said one consequence of this invasion had been a sharp increase in housing prices.

In the down-at-heel suburb of Bab al-Tebbaneh, where al-Hayek used to live, rents have shot up to between US $150 and $200 per month.

He said the Syrians were prepared to pay this much because they often live crowded together with two or three families sharing the same flat.

But in Beddawi refugee camp, al-Hayek noted, you could still get a small apartment for between $60 and $80 per month.

His wife Claudia is Palestinian so their children are allowed to go to the UNRWA-run schools in the camp for free.

“We are not able to benefit from any other assistance since my husband is Lebanese, but still, this is better than nothing since otherwise we would have to keep our children at home,” she said.

Manal Abu Leqmeh, a 27-year-old Lebanese woman living in Beddawi, said her six-year-old son was not entitled to free education at refugee schools in the camp, so he was still in kindergarten, even though he was now old enough to be in primary school.

Leqmeh said she moved into the refugee camp with her carpenter husband soon after they got married in 1998, because life there was so much cheaper than in the town of Tripoli.

Her husband has regular work, earning $60 a week, so they are relatively well off, but in Beddawi, his meagre wage go a lot further.

Lawless but cheap

Al-Hayek listed the advantages of life in the refugee camp.

“Everything here is cheaper,” he said. “Even pharmacies are cheaper since their rents are cheap, and of course we also benefit from the lack of order and control, since we have medicine trafficking and free electricity....we just paid for having our wires connected, That is how it goes.”

The Tripoli municipal authorities do not provide any services in the camp, which is effectively run by Palestinian political factions.

Schooling, medical care, drinking water and other facilities are all provided by UNRWA, the UN agency which looks after four million Palestinians in the Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

One UNRWA official, who asked not to be named, said the agency was aware that some Lebanese were living alongside Palestinian refugees in Beddawi, but it was not worried by the phenomenon.

“We are aware of the presence of Lebanese families in the camp and don’t mind their presence considering they don’t fall under our responsibility,” he said.

“That means we don’t need to spend money on them, although we allow them to benefit from general facilities like drinking water and basic infirmary care,” he added.

The phenomenon appears to be particularly marked in Tripoli’s Beddawi camp.

Ahmad Halimi, who works in Shatila refugee camp in Beirut with Popular Aid for Relief and Development, an NGO that helps displaced people, said he was not aware of a marked influx of Lebanese into any of the other 11 Palestinian refugee settlements in Lebanon.

He suggested that Beddawi had attracted more Lebanese residents because it was less crowded than many of the other camps.

Seeking help

There are now so many Lebanese living in Beddawi that they have formed their own resident’s association to lobby the local authorities to help them.

This Beddawi Camp Lebanese League sought help from former education minister Samir Jisr, who is a member of parliament for Tripoli.

Jisr told IRIN he was aware of their extreme poverty and said that new housing projects were on their way. But the politician pointed out that Lebanon was still in a recovery phase after its 1975-1990 civil war.

“You cannot expect perfect organization in a country which has just emerged from a war....things won’t change in a few days. It takes time,” Jisr said.

Meanwhile, frustration within Beddawi camp is growing on both sides.

Some Palestinian residents, like Fadi al-Halhoul who is on kidney dialysis, see the Lebanese incomers as freeloaders who are benefiting from resources meant for Palestinian refugees.

“Already, there is not enough aid for the Palestinians. How can they help the Lebanese too,” said al-Haloul, whose transport allowance was recently withdrawn.

The Lebanese camp dwellers meanwhile have their own grievances.

They see many Palestinians getting educated and moving up in the world, often emigrating to other countries where they get well paid jobs, while they themselves are condemned to remain unemployed, rotting in the same slum.

“The Palestinian expatriates come back every summer, buy fancy cars and build nice flats, whereas our conditions are just deteriorating. It is sometimes very frustrating,” said Khor Arour, a Beddawi Camp Lebanese League activist.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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