Syrian refugee children play together at a Syrian refugee camp in the Bekaa valley, Lebanon. File picture: Ali Hashisho/Reuters
Syrian refugee children play together at a Syrian refugee camp in the Bekaa valley, Lebanon. File picture: Ali Hashisho/Reuters

The forgotten refugees of Palestine and Syria

By Shannon Ebrahim Time of article published Jul 2, 2020

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Pretoria - In many refugee camps around the world, death by starvation has become a bigger threat than the coronavirus.

This is the result of an appalling abdication of responsibility by governments to protect refugees in what is fast becoming a human rights catastrophe.

In Lebanon, which hosts an estimated 1.5 million Syrian refugees and 175,000 Palestinian refugees, seven out of 10 refugee households have lost their livelihoods and are barely surviving. Refugees are far more afraid of hunger than Covid-19.

Lebanon has descended into economic collapse and its people are struggling to provide for themselves, which has eroded the capacity for even the smallest acts of generosity towards the refugees.

A year ago, long before the emergence of the coronavirus, I visited a Syrian refugee camp in Lebanon on the border with Syria.

They described how they had been denied opportunities to earn a basic living and the money provided by the UNHCR did not even cover the cost of a month’s worth of wood needed to warm their tents during the winter when their tents were under snow. They became so desperate that, at times, they would burn plastic, slippers or anything they could find just to prevent their children from dying of hypothermia.

The discrimination they faced on a daily basis by local Lebanese even at that time was shocking, and only the very fortunate could find work as a cleaner or field labourer.

Such jobs for Syrian refugees have fast dried up with the economic collapse in the country after years of financial mismanagement. The situation is so grave that the country’s top official in the finance ministry stepped down this week.

The onset of the coronavirus has doubled the plight of Syrian refugees who are now largely confined to their tents in 1 700 informal tented camps. The situation is beyond desperate, and few in the outside world realise that so many families on the outskirts of Beirut are facing starvation.

Palestinian refugees are also suffering in 12 camps spread throughout the country.

Unemployment had already been soaring among Palestinian refugees a year ago with literally one tiny health clinic catering to the needs of the entire refugee camp of Sabra and Shatila, but now, the situation is even more dire.

At the time, the refugees of Sabra and Shatila described to me how sometimes their health clinic would be so inundated with patients that they had seen patients die outside its doors.

With coronavirus spreading, the need for health care is far more urgent, but again, the overwhelming concern of the residents is food to survive.

Palestinian refugees had hoped that the UNRWA would play a role in helping the people, but it has not been able to.

From the perspective of Syrian and Palestinian refugees languishing in Lebanon, the world simply doesn’t care.

* Shannon Ebrahim is Independent Media's group foreign editor.

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