Dire conditions in Shatila mirror refugees’ lack of perspectives
AN ESTIMATED 1.5 MILLION REFUGEES HAVE FLED TO LEBANON DUE TO THE SYRIAN WAR, MANY THOUSANDS TO SHATILA. THE PALESTINIAN REFUGEE CAMP IS AT ITS LIMIT AND RESIDENTS FACE A LEGAL VOID IN THE OVERBURDENED HOST COUNTRY
DW—Narrow brick stairs lead up to the second floor of a rundown building in the middle of Shatila.The door is blocked, closed off with fresh cement bricks. Until one month ago, the staircase was used by the building’s residents until a young boy got caught in the electric cables hanging above. He tripped, fell, and died.
Unsecured electric wires are among the most common causes of hazardous accidents in the Palestinian refugee camp Shatila. Spread like spider webs, they run from building to building throughout the narrow streets and alleyways, loosely tightened with makeshift straps. Power cuts and electrocution are frequent.
The camp has been at its limit for a long time, tells Shatila resident Imad Raad who also volunteers for refugee aid organisation “Basmeh and Zeitooneh”. In addition to an extremely fragile infrastructure, the camp was overcrowded even before the Syrian war began in 2011. Since then, thousands more have come to Shatila. Additional floors have been built on top of buildings as one way to accommodate the newcomers.
Before the war, 22,000 Palestinian refugees lived in Shatila, an area of 1.5 square kilometres, Imad Raad explains. Since then, 17,000 new refugees have arrived, initially mostly Palestinian Syrians, later joined by regular Syrians as well.
Finding shelter for new families
“Families were arriving at night and did not have a place to go,” Imad Raad recalls. “They did not have anything on them. There was no help available.” Long-time Shatila resident Imad Raad was among the first volunteers who responded to the crisis. He mobilised friends and neighbours. “We went around until the early morning hours to find shelter for the new refugees.We knocked on doors to ask if there was space.” In addition, Raad organised necessities
Unsecured electric wires are among the most common causes of hazardous accidents in the Palestinian refugee camp Shatila
like kitchen facilities, pots, or pillows.
Initially in 2012, there were no aid organisations present in Shatila. Basmeh and Zeitooneh was founded in 2012; it started with people like Raad who were dedicated to serving Syrian refugees in Lebanon on the ground. Other local and international NGOs—including al-Najda, Beit Atfal al-Soumoud, Norwegian Peoples’ Aid, or Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières, or MSF) —followed and set up offices in the camp.
The past years have put Shatila to the test, not only aggravating living conditions, but also straining the social fabric.“Palestinians who have lived here all their life know a life of struggling,” Raad explains.“Refugees from Syria who had been well off before the war are not used to this.”
At Shatila’s main square
In damp shelters and streets, open sewage is a threat to environmental health conditions. Access to medical services and education is difficult,as is finding work, because even Lebanonborn Shatila residents are not allowed to legally take up a job in Lebanon. Many Syrian refugees are driven to beg in Beirut streets—young children try to sell flowers or shine shoes.
The camp has been at its limit for a long time The dream of Europe
In Shatila, integration is visible. Syrian families have opened shops and sell fruit and groceries, one way to make a living. The perspectives of finding work outside the camp, however, are slim.“The dream of going to Europe is still very much in the minds of many,” says one Palestinian Syrian who came to Lebanon in 2013 with his parents.“Even if the journey is dangerous, even if the laws and regulations in Europe are complicated,people who have fled the war and have no perspective here in Lebanon would rather choose the risk.”
Imad Raad helps newcomers who come to Shatila
Many families in Shatila have left for Europe, Raad confirms.An estimated 6,000 people of those who arrived since 2011 have continued their journey, headed for Europe and an uncertain future. “There are smugglers offering their services in Shatila,” he says. But paying several thousand dollars for a possible chance of a future in a new country is an option out of reach for many.Others hope to return to Syria one day and choose to stay in Shatila—they want to remain as close to their country as possible.
Founded by the International Committee of the Red Cross in 1949 to house Palestinian refugees driven from their country, Shatila was left to govern itself.The camp has experienced bloodshed and violence before; it was the scene of the brutal 1982 massacre, during which 3,500 residents were killed by the Lebanese Christian Phalange militia.Various Palestinian factions rule over different parts the camp today.Young men armed with guns sit a few feet away from camp’s main square, above them flags with their announced political leaders.
The Lebanese state remains in a state of limbo; it does not govern within the camp and has continued its infrastructural neglect toward Palestinians refugees.
Problems of reaching schools
The relief agency for Palestinian refugees in the near east,UNRWA,set up educational programmes as well as healthcare services and infrastructure programmes in Lebanon, including in Shatila. Infrastructural problems and a lack of social services have pervaded however, and have added to the legal void that Palestinian refugees are facing in Lebanon.“International help was mostly absent,” Raad states.The unavailability of medical services or education reflects the dire conditions endured by many.“There was no education, pregnant women had no help before Doctors Without Borders arrived.”
According to the UNRWA, there are 450,000 Palestinian refugees registered in Lebanon, making up a total of 10% of the total population. Over half live in one of 12 refugee camps, Shatila being the largest in population.According to the UNHCR, more than 350,000 out of 500,000 refugee children do not go to school. Programmes funded by international aid are reaching out to Syrian children at Lebanese schools. Lebanese education authorities have added second shifts so that refugee children can take part in afternoon classes and hundreds of new teachers were hired with international funds.
Marginalisation of Palestinian refugees
Yet, many children have been out of school for years and face psychological difficulties of processing experiences of war and adapting to a new environment. Merely reaching these schools can be a challenge as well. “Many families in Shatila do not have enough money to pay for the bus to school,” Raad says. Letting the children walk alone in the streets outside the camp is dangerous.
Shatila residents are still marginalised and remain without legal status in Lebanon. Although emigration to Lebanon has been going on for decades, refugees remain on the sidelines of social and political life in the country.They are not allowed to own property and are barred from working in as many as 20 professions.
The emigration crisis due to the Syrian war is one of the main issues concerning Lebanese society and its people.The conditions in Shatila are a reminder of a very fragile situation, one of neglect, of overburden, and of the country’s challenges to integrate new refugees as well as long-time refugees.