Stay or go: Palestinians in Lebanon plunged into poverty

Palestinian refugee Nasser Tabarani rearranges vegetables on display for sale under a portrait of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, at the Bourj al-Barajneh in Beirut (Bilal Hussein - AP)

Bassem Mroue

AP  /  October 21, 2022

BEIRUT – Nasser Tabarani, a Palestinian refugee living in Lebanon, has tried twice to migrate by sea to a better life in Europe but was detained by troops both times and brought back to shore. He’d do it all over again, he said, since life has become unlivable for most Palestinians in crisis-hit Lebanon.

The 60-year-old father of seven said he borrowed a total of $7,000 to try and leave Lebanon and now has debts he can’t pay back.

“My children are still young. Their future is gone,” Tabarani said from behind his vegetable stand in one of the crowded alleys of Beirut’s Bourj al-Barajneh refugee camp. “”My family and most families have been destroyed. We cannot live in Lebanon anymore.”

Lebanon’s unprecedented economic meltdown has not only devastated the Lebanese but has also hard-hit Palestinian refugees who have lived in this tiny Mideast country for generations, since the formation of Israel in 1948 — as well as those who had fled similar camps in Syria, escaping the civil war that erupted there in 2011.

The Palestinians have been plunged deep into poverty, many struggling to eke out the barest existence on less than $2 a day, the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees said on Friday. Others risk their lives in search of a better future abroad, attempting dangerous crossings of the Mediterranean Sea.

UNRWA said poverty has reached 93% among about 210,000 Palestinians in Lebanon’s 12 refugee camps and in overcrowded living conditions outside the camps. According to UNRWA, 180,000 are Palestinians who have lived in Lebanon for decades and their families, while about 30,000 arrived from Syria since the war broke out next door.

There are tens of thousands of others who have not been registered by UNRWA but are believed to be living in Lebanon.

The agency appealed for $13 million in aid so it can provide much-needed assistance — money that would go directly to Palestinian families and also cash that would enable UNRWA to continue running primary health care services and keep agency-run schools open to the end of the year.

“The refugees have hit rock bottom in Lebanon,” said Hoda Samra, UNRWA’s public information officer in Lebanon. She described the situation as a catastrophe.

“People are on the brink of despair and they have nothing to lose anymore,” Samra added.

Last month, a boat carrying scores of Lebanese, Syrian and Palestinian migrants sank off Syria’s coast, killing more than 100, including 25 Palestinians. The numbers of Palestinians trying to leave Lebanon have increased since October 2019, after the eruption of the economic crisis, rooted in decades of corruption and mismanagement.

Since then, the Lebanese pound has lost more than 90% of its value while tens of thousands of people have lost their jobs, sharply increasing the numbers of unemployed. Crime rate has also been on the rise — with some people forced to steal in order to buy food.

Palestinian refugees have long faced discrimination in Lebanon where they are banned from 39 professions, including in the areas of medicine, dentistry, pharmacy and law, according to UNRWA.

Samra said though UNRWA does not have the exact figures for Palestinians trying to leave Lebanon by sea, the numbers have been rising.

“This in itself, again, illustrates the level of hopelessness and despair,” she told The Associated Press. “No one, no one, would accept to throw himself and his family in the sea if they had other options.”

UNRWA said the average cost of the food basket has increased six-fold in the last year in Lebanon, one of the highest increases in the world. Medicines are increasingly unavailable on the market and families are unable to afford them since government subsidies have been lifted over the past year.

“We were getting by but now we are underground,” said Tabarani, the vegetable vendor, comparing his life to before the meltdown. Before the crisis, he made about $35 a day and now he makes just a small fraction of that. These days, his family can only afford two meals a day instead of three. They haven’t had red meat in months.

Despite the deepening crisis, Lebanon’s political class — which has ruled since the end of the 1975-90 civil war — has resisted reforms demanded by the international community that could help secure billions of dollars in loans and investments.

“The time to act is now,” UNRWA’s statement said. “We must … help pull people back from the brink.”