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Palestinians in Lebanon say coronavirus help is too little, too late

Motorbike riders wear face masks to protect against COVID-19 in south Beirut's Shatila Palestinian refugee camp on 30 March. (Mohamed Azakir/REUTERS)

A long-awaited distribution of UN cash to help Palestinian refugees in Lebanon get through an economic crisis and COVID-19 lockdown turned into chaos and disappointment last week, as desperate people crowded at money transfer offices, with many waiting hours only to find there was no money to be had. 

Even before the pandemic deepened Lebanon’s months-long financial meltdown, many of the country’s estimated 270,000 Palestinians already lived in poverty, a situation worsened by nationwide restrictions on movement and business first instituted in mid-March. Refugees needed the cash badly, and some told The New Humanitarian they feel the botched distribution is just another in a series of missteps that show that assistance is too little, too late.

UNRWA, the UN’s agency for Palestine refugees, issued a statement on 19 May, the day after the programme’s initial rollout, admitting that “several logistical issues led to some chaos and delays in the distribution process”, leaving many refugees unable to collect their one-time payments of 112,000 Lebanese lira (around $35). In addition to organisational issues on UNRWA’s part, refugees told TNH that the transfer company did not have enough cash on hand, and that many people had showed up ahead of their allotted times, adding to the disarray.

But days later, the problems persisted.

“For a week, we’ve been coming and going for nothing, and standing in the sun,” said 82-year old Fawad Yusef, a Palestinian refugee who left self-isolation at home to join the end of a line of dozens of people outside a Beirut money transfer office on Friday afternoon. He had first queued in an even larger crowd to take a transaction number at a nearby school set up as a staging area. “Now, we’ve been here for an hour and maybe there’s nothing,” Yusef said.

Most Palestinian refugees live in 12 overcrowded camps across the country, which are governed by a patchwork of political factions. UNRWA is in charge of providing services like education and healthcare, including paying for COVID-19 testing and treatment. 

Joblessness rates have been high in the camps for years, and the financial collapse has seen Lebanon’s currency lose over 60 percent of its value since September, while a shortage of US dollars has paralysed the country’s ability to import fuel, medicine, wheat, and other essential goods. Food prices have skyrocketed, in tandem with unemployment and poverty

“All of this is something that hits refugees double or three times more than the Lebanese,” said Hoda Samra, UNRWA’s spokeswoman in Lebanon.

Not a new problem

Khaled Othman is one of the leaders of a popular committee that represents Palestinian refugees in Lebanon’s eastern Beqaa Valley. These committees are comprised of different Palestinian political groups and function like local governments.

For Othman, UNRWA’s response to COVID-19 and its impacts was subpar even before the latest hiccup with cash handouts. 

UNRWA is the “first and last entity responsible for the Palestinian refugees… but unfortunately we have seen a deterioration in its services,” he said, speaking to TNH a week after the first COVID-19 case in the Palestinian population was confirmed.

The patient, a Palestinian refugee from Syria living in Beqaa’s Jalil camp, was hospitalised but recovered; four of her family members and one neighbour who tested positive were isolated within the camp and have remained asymptomatic.

READ MORE: Testing for Palestinian refugees in Lebanon

Lebanon’s COVID-19 outbreak has so far not been as severe as many feared, among Palestinians, Syrians, and the nation as a whole, despite concerns that its camps and cities are far from ideal for effective social distancing. 

While the south Lebanon isolation centre was not complete when the first cases were discovered in Jalil, UNRWA used one of its schools there as a temporary isolation facility. As of 27 May, Lebanon has reported 1,161 cases and 26 deaths across the country, including 10 cases and no deaths in Palestinian camps.

But several months into the pandemic, Dr. Firas Abiad, who heads the government-run Rafic Hariri University Hospital in Beirut – the main public facility for Lebanon’s response to the disease – said that UNRWA and the government are still working out their testing strategy. 

This may include targeted tests in official Palestinian camps and the unofficial settlements where the country’s 1.5 million Syrian refugees live, to get a more accurate picture of how many people have the virus. But the various agencies and officials involved do not seem to be on the same page about testing in the community.

“We are talking with UNRWA and so is the Ministry of Public Health,” Abiad told TNH. “But I think there has to be a comprehensive plan.” 

The agency says that so far it has carried out 400 random tests in camps, and is now waiting for the Ministry of Health’s guidance on how to move forward. “If they decide to conduct more random tests, then we will be part of that,” Hoda Samra, UNRWA’s spokeswoman in Lebanon, told TNH. “The only area [where] we still have to do random testing is the north.” There are two refugee camps that UNRWA administers in northern Lebanon.

Reda al-Moussawi, adviser to Health Minister Hamad Hassan, said the camps “need more support, and the Lebanese government is in a bad situation too”. He added that the ministry is ready to support UNRWA, within its limited means. “They have their own centres and doctors,” al-Moussawi explained. “We sometimes send people to support them.”

Whatever the caseload, Abiad believes Lebanon has more work to do on its response to prevent a serious future outbreak in the Palestinian camps.

“I think everybody realised that we are not prepared for a major outbreak… especially with the Palestinians because the medical infrastructure [in the camps] is even behind our own,” Abiad said. “Our best policy is to stay overcautious… If the virus finds its way into this crowded population, then it is very easy for the virus to spread.”

It took nearly two months of lockdown – and two weeks after this first Palestinian case was confirmed – for UNRWA to announce the cash aid and the opening of a medical isolation centre specifically for Palestinian COVID-19 patients on the campus of a vocational school in southern Lebanon.

That was too long, Othman said, criticising the UN agency’s delays in readying the isolation unit and in providing food or monetary aid after the countrywide restrictions were announced in mid-March.

Khalil Dalal, a resident of Jalil camp who is the head of a local NGO called the SHAHD Association, said that when it came to both preventative measures and relief work, “civil society groups worked a lot more than UNRWA”, distributing food boxes, face masks, and disinfectants in the camps.

To some extent, UNRWA agrees with its critics. It acknowledges that the agency was slow to provide aid in response to COVID-19 and the resulting economic problems, but says the delay was due to a lack of funding, both in Lebanon and in all the countries it works in. 

And while many Palestinians have been hit hard by the coronavirus – the agency says unemployment in camps has shot up from 65 to 90 percent – it admits it may not be able to do much more to help.

“We would love to do [cash payments] on a monthly basis, but I don’t think it’s realistic,” said Samra. “I don’t think we will get the funds.”

Funding woes

The United States, traditionally the largest single donor to UNRWA, halted its funding to the agency in 2018. It had contributed about 30 percent of the agency’s annual budget ($1.2 billion in 2019), which goes towards services for refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, the West Bank (including East Jerusalem), and Gaza. Other donors pulled together to fill the gap for 2018, but in 2019 the agency ended the year with a $55 million shortfall.

But UNRWA has been going through a financial crisis of its own for years prior to Washington’s decision to stop giving, and was forced to implement austerity measures across the agency starting in 2015. UNRWA has repeatedly blamed its money problems on the fact that the agency, which began operations in 1950, was meant to be a temporary stop-gap until the Israel-Palestinian conflict was resolved. Every year, it has more refugees to serve, and hence more financial needs. 

A US State Department spokesperson told TNH by email that the administration’s decision to halt funding to UNRWA “has not changed”. They noted that the United States has provided $5 million to COVID-19 mitigation efforts in the West Bank via Catholic Relief Services.

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“With regard to providing COVID-19-related assistance to Palestinians in Lebanon through an implementer other than UNRWA, we will continue to assess how US assistance can best support our global response to COVID-19,” the spokesperson added.

Having already entered 2020 with a shortfall, UNRWA’s Samra said the agency has so far received less than 30 percent of the $1.4 billion it has requested for the year. On 17 March, it appealed for $14 million for its COVID-19 response, which Samra said was about half-funded.

On 8 May, UNRWA launched another appeal for $93.4 million to help pick up what’s left from March and extend its efforts into July. The requested funding would go to medical facilities, distributing protective gear, education, and cash assistance. 

‘No food to eat’

Claudio Cordone, UNRWA’s director in Lebanon, recalled an incident of a father and his children threatened with eviction because he couldn’t pay rent, and another case where a man threatened to set himself on fire at UNRWA’s offices.

“Others said they were going to come into our schools, saying they have nowhere to sleep, nothing to pay the rent, and no food to eat,” he added.

UNRWA managed to convince the man’s landlord to give him more time to pay rent, Cordone said, but their hands are tied for many other cases. 

“Palestinian refugees said they were going to come into our schools, saying they have nowhere to sleep, nothing to pay the rent, and no food to eat.”

Most Palestinians in Lebanon don’t actually get regular financial help from UNRWA, with the exception of around 62,000 people who are deemed “extremely vulnerable” and get the equivalent of $130 per year. Around 30,000 Palestinians who fled Syria’s war also benefit from cash aid: until March, households received monthly payments of 150,000 Lebanese pounds, that’s $100 at the official exchange rate, or about $37 at the current street rate. In addition, they were given 40,000 per person for food. As of last month, the amount was adjusted to 320,000 per family in general aid and 81,000 per person in food aid, to account for the currency’s devaluation. 

Palestinian refugees have been taking to the streets and asking for more support for months: in December, they urged monthly cash assistance of $200 per family.

In the end, they didn’t get anything near $200 each month – just the one time payment of 112,000 Lebanese pounds, delayed as financial institutions shut during lockdown. The payment is the equivalent of $35 at the exchange rate used by money transfer offices, which falls between the official rate and the street rate.

When they reopened last Monday and the aid distribution began, some refugees showed up ahead of their allotted time slots – the distribution was to be staggered over three weeks to prevent overcrowding – while others, like Yusef, came on time and waited for hours only to find the money was not available.

In its initial statement, UNRWA said most issues had been addressed the same day, but by then many refugees had already gone home empty-handed. It added that because payments were made on the first day after a period of lockdown, money had not been delivered to all transfer outlets, and expressed “deep regret” for the problems.

All in all, UNRWA says it knows Palestinians are suffering, but it can only do so much given its limited budget. 

“These are rightful demands – however, UNRWA has been working within limited resources to provide as much help as possible,” Samra said of the requests Palestinians in Lebanon have made for increased financial aid. “We will continue to actively fundraise, and we first-hand [know] their suffering… we are committed to supporting Palestinian refugees in whatever way possible.”

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