Crossing the border at Masna‘, al-‘Abboudiyya or Mashari‘ al-Qa‘a, Syrian refugees entering Lebanon face an immediate choice: Stay in the tented settlements in the north and the Bekaa Valley or make their way to coastal cities such as Beirut and Sidon. Their experiences will vary greatly depending on the choice they make. The tented settlements are exposed to the elements, lack privacy and have virtually no job opportunities, but are accessible to aid providers. By contrast, refugees from Syria often have family connections in the coastal cities. Though Beirut and Sidon are expensive and crowded, there are more varied accommodations, schooling options and limited chances for employment. Via decisions such as these, the million-plus refugees who have fled to Lebanon since the Syrian uprising began in 2011 are remaking the human geography of their host country.

The refugee influx is especially visible in Beirut’s Palestinian refugee camps, themselves more than 60 years old. Some of the new residents are Syrian nationals while others are Palestinians who were forced to leave refugee camps in Syria such as Yarmouk. In Shatila, a 250-acre district in southern Beirut, Syrian workers who rented cheap rooms in the camp before the war began have relocated their extended families to share the same cramped spaces. UN officials currently estimate that the camp’s population is at least 22,000 (15,000 Palestinians from Lebanon, 3,000 Palestinian refugees from Syria and 4,000 Syrian refugees). This number is nearly triple the number of Palestinians registered in the neighborhood before the Syrian fighting broke out. UN officials’ approximations for Burj al-Barajna, a second camp in Beirut’s suburbs, place the population at over 32,000 people (26,000 Palestinians from Lebanon, 3,500 Palestinian refugees from Syria and 2,500 Syrian refugees). Additionally, there are thousands of refugees from Syria living in the surrounding Palestinian-heavy districts of al-Da‘uq and Tariq al-Jadida.

Informal Social Database

While exhausted, underfunded and overstretched state and humanitarian apparatuses are struggling to cope with the demand for material aid and services across the country, the Palestinian camps and their surroundings are devoid of offices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) — the body that provides humanitarian assistance to refugee populations around the world and that serves Syrians elsewhere in Lebanon. The Palestinian camps, in addition, are often unfamiliar to employees of the UNHCR and the non-governmental organizations with which it partners. Refugees from Syria who live in these districts frequently have incomplete knowledge of what services exist, who provides them, how much they cost and how to get them. Access to aid has also been curtailed as security in the Baabda district, which includes southern Beirut’s Palestinian camps, has worsened in the past six months, [1] leading international aid organizations to pull out of the area.

In the absence of knowledge and due to the difficulty of access, Palestinians living in the camps (often called “Lebanese” Palestinians to distinguish them from the Palestinian refugees arriving from Syria) have come to serve as an informal social database of aid services and methods for coping with the Lebanese military and General Security, where visas must be renewed and new births registered. The “Lebanese” Palestinians are also important sources of empathy and practical advice for the new arrivals. They have lived under various administrative systems — run by Lebanese intelligence, the Palestine Liberation Organization and the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the special body set up to handle the Palestinians made refugees in the 1948 nakba. The range of experiences has taught Palestinian refugees in Lebanon how to navigate the maze of humanitarian services, documentation requirements and formal, systematic social exclusion. For example, each family member must be registered with UNRWA in order to benefit from its health and educational programs. Palestinians must visit Lebanese General Security in order to maintain personal documents such as passports. As they are banned from owning property or building in the camps, many Palestinians are adept at developing and maintaining relationships with members of the Lebanese bureaucracy in order to bypass regulations. In other words, they understand how refugee status institutionally and socially structures life in Lebanon. The system of informal knowledge transfer that has emerged in the camps thus socializes refugees from Syria into the realities of displacement.

Community Integration and Solidarity

While this background may seem helpful only to Palestinian refugees from Syria — who have access to UNRWA programs whereas Syrian nationals do not — it is also a vital source of information for Syrian nationals. Access to medical care is one particularly fraught issue. An event such as a birth — a simple, low-cost affair in Syria — immediately becomes a bureaucratic nightmare involving the UN, the Lebanese public health system, private insurance companies, Lebanese mukhtars or local officials, the Lebanese Department of Civil Affairs and Lebanese General Security.

In January, Umm ‘Umar, a Palestinian, found Ahmad, a refugee from Aleppo, pacing in front of a Palestinian Red Crescent Society hospital. Ahmad’s wife, Munfaza, was in labor and they did not know where she should give birth. Umm ‘Umar immediately started asking about Munfaza’s nationality, knowing that if Munfaza were a Palestinian refugee from Lebanon or Syria, the birth would be financially covered by UNRWA at the Red Crescent hospital, which was also close to the couple’s rented room where their four other children remained.

Because Munfaza is one of over 992,013 Syrian refugees who are registered with the UNHCR in Lebanon, Mo, a local Palestinian aid worker and friend of Umm ‘Umar’s, knew that it would be less expensive for her to give birth in the Lebanese government hospital. The UNHCR covers 75 percent of registered Syrian refugees’ treatment expenses through its contracted insurance company. The public hospital requires Syrians to pay an up-front deposit, in cash, of between 199,000 and 250,000 Lebanese lira ($131 and $165, respectively). If refugees are lucky, some of the remaining expenses might be covered by an Islamic organization — information that Mo relayed to Ahmad and Munfaza. Unregistered refugees pay more: In the maternity ward, one couple had paid 550,000 lira (approximately $266) as a “down payment” for a delivery with no complications. Giving birth at the Red Crescent hospital, by contrast, the Syrian couple would pay about 500,000 lira (around $332). The financial information that Umm ‘Umar and Mo provided made the decision for Ahmad and Munfaza, who had to borrow cash from multiple relatives and friends before traveling to the hospital. (Not surprisingly, given Ahmad and Munfaza’s experience, a 2013 Oxfam report found that some 77 percent of Syrian refugee households in Lebanon are in debt.) [2]

Dismissive and frequently rude behavior by hospital employees compounds what is already a stressful situation. Morale in Lebanese public hospitals is low. Intra-governmental disputes involving the Ministry of Health have held up staff salaries and hospital funds for months. In this atmosphere, fear that caring for Syrian refugees will further strain the system runs deep. Refugees are frequently informed that there are no hospital beds available, even as Lebanese patients sign intake papers and see doctors (though recently, according to Lebanese TV reports, many Lebanese have been denied hospitalization as well, particularly at night). Refugees are told to leave facilities if they cannot provide the requested down payment (which can vary from patient to patient for the same procedure). Hospital administrators regularly confiscate refugees’ documentation — passports, family books or entry cards — if they receive treatment for which they cannot pay.

These practices compound Syrians’ vulnerability while underscoring a deeper aspect of refugee life. Like anyone else from the Palestinian camps and surrounding communities, Umm ‘Umar and Mo both immediately knew to ask about the Syrian couple’s legal and registration situation. Explaining these rules to refugees from Syria is consequently a task that many of their new Palestinian neighbors have assumed. While regulations exist, they seem to constantly shift; extensive confusion permeates refugee communities regarding registration and visa procedures. Some journalists have noted that many people are too afraid to register with aid agencies. [3] Misunderstanding the myriad rules that apply to non-citizens can lead to bribe requests, arrest, detention and deportation by the Lebanese military or General Security. The seizure of documents by a hospital leaves refugees unable to renew their documentation. In other words, if someone is unlucky enough to go to the hospital near the deadline for renewal, a hospital stay could put them in the category of overstaying their visas, thus incurring more fines.

“Lebanese” Palestinians have attempted to provide a buffer against these challenges. Palestinians visit General Security on behalf of their Syrian tenants or friends in order to clarify regulations and fees ahead of time. This step protects Syrians from harassment or document inspection. Some have volunteered in part due to their personal connections with Lebanese bureaucrats — via intermarriage, for example — that were understood to protect new refugees from bribe requests. Other “Lebanese” Palestinians have personally accompanied refugees to General Security in order to protect newcomers from being overcharged (or to raise the alarm in the event of their detention). Coupled with the now common habit of tracking the distribution of Lebanese military checkpoints around the camps, these practices provide a quotidian safety net for refugees from Syria. Relaying that a new checkpoint is being staged, that a stricter officer has arrived or that walk-ins are being searched as well as cars not only protects refugees from immediate threats; it also gives them a sense of community integration and solidarity.

Loci of Contention

But tension is building among “Lebanese” Palestinians, “Syrian” Palestinians, Syrian nationals and other marginalized populations. The housing situation is one major source of pressure. Rooms in Shatila and Burj al-Barajna that rented for $100 in 2011 now rent for $400 or more a month (the minimum wage in Lebanon is $250 a month but is often ignored by employers, especially since cheap labor is abundant). Many “Lebanese” Palestinians who control these homes expelled African and Asian migrant workers living in the camps in order to raise prices for refugees from Syria. This process fractured support networks for some of Lebanon’s most vulnerable and oft-ignored non-citizens and left them financially exposed. [4] It also means that Syrian refugees’ savings bottom out faster than previously, forcing them to crowd more people into the same tight, run-down spaces. Yet the financial success of this model is visible in the new floors being built above Shatila’s skyline; four-story buildings have expanded to eight or nine stories. A small financial elite (in relative terms) is thus rapidly emerging within Shatila’s established Palestinian community.

Access to and provision of aid have formed another locus of contention. Palestinian refugees from Syria did not previously experience the systematic, institutionalized social and political exclusion that Palestinians living in Lebanon face daily; in pre-war Syria, Palestinian refugees enjoyed civil rights, could serve in the military and owned property, for example. Now, in Lebanon, “Syrian” Palestinians have different aid privileges than both local Palestinians and Syrian nationals. One oft-cited and generally successful UNRWA program provides cash aid via debit cards to Palestinians from Syria. This program has been productively mimicked by NGOs such as the International Rescue Committee. Yet distinctions in access to aid agencies also produce social schisms. It has become common to hear claims that the “Syrian” Palestinians save aid money rather than spending it in local communities, that “Syrian” Palestinians live with “Lebanese” Palestinian family members rent-free so that they can save up for future business ventures, and that they simultaneously steal work from local Palestinians and Syrian migrant workers (thus contributing to a state-wide drop in wages). These rumors have become more common in recent months and constitute a source of resentment toward one specific category of refugees.

Simultaneously, media coverage of Syrians’ plight often eclipses the struggles of long-standing Palestinian communities in Lebanon in favor of focusing on the most “current” story. The image that only Syrian refugees inhabit Beirut’s refugee camps accompanies and reinforces the redirection of scarce aid money from “Lebanese” Palestinian communities to the newer, “more needy” arrivals. Journalists have also attributed novelty to emergent Syrian NGOs [5] rather than noting that many of these efforts are modeled on long-established, camp-based Palestinian organizations that pioneered programs for women, children and the disabled in the camps decades ago (and have extended their services to refugees from Syria). In other words, rather than addressing the complexities that accompany intermixing refugee and migrant populations, many journalists and aid workers have engaged in a process of historical erasure that undermines Palestinian refugee camps’ community identities, renders key Palestinian organizations invisible to potential sources of support and establishes a hierarchy of suffering. All of these processes create unnecessary competition and strain the very relationships upon which many refugees from Syria are most dependent — those with their new Palestinian neighbors.


[1] Daily Star (Beirut), November 19, 2013 and January 21, 2014.
[2] Oxfam et al, Survey on the Livelihoods of Syrian Refugees in Lebanon (Beirut, November 2013), p. 5.
[3] Al Jazeera America, October 2, 2013.
[4] Jeremy Menchik, Joumana Ibrahim, Dima Saber, et al, “Visualizing Human Rights for Migrant Domestic Workers in Lebanon,” Jadaliyya, January 11, 2013.
[5] Adam Rasmi, “Syrian Children Are Drawing to Heal the Trauma of War,” Vice, March 27, 2014.

How to cite this article:

Sarah Parkinson "Refugee 101," Middle East Report Online, April 03, 2014.

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