Reflections on Hope and Heartbreak for Palestine's 'Double Refugees' in Lebanon on World Refugee Day

After an inconclusive and disappointing G8 summit, the Syrian conflict shows no sign of abating. As the civil war enters its third year, one story remains largely untold - that of Palestinian 'double refugees'.

After an inconclusive and disappointing G8 summit, the Syrian conflict shows no sign of abating. As the civil war enters its third year, one story remains largely untold - that of Palestinian 'double refugees'. After decades of statelessness, tens of thousands of Palestinians have now fled their second home in Syria. Generations of Palestinians have lived in Yarmouk camp in Syria since it was established in 1957. Tragically, they have found their lives uprooted by conflict once again.

According to UNWRA, 70-80% of Palestinians living in Syria have been displaced by the conflict since the fighting began. The Palestinian communities who host these double refugees are already under immense strain and need additional help and assistance to cope. NGOs and aid agencies are carrying out essential work in partnership with local communities already on the ground to assist both refugees and host communities. However, until further funds become available they can only do so much.

I recently visited Lebanon with international children's charity, World Vision, where the number of Syrian refugees has now reached over half a million. I wanted to see for myself the impact of the Syrian crisis on Lebanon, the plight of Syrian and Palestinian refugees and the impact of the continued outpouring of refugees on Lebanese host communities. I witnessed a great deal of suffering first hand. It is now estimated that over a million people, representing more than a quarter of the Lebanese population, will be refugees by this Christmas. This huge influx of people is happening in a country half the size of Wales.

The displacement of Syrians and Palestinians is placing unprecedented strain on communities, infrastructure and services in neighbouring countries who are hosting more than 1.6 million refugees of the Syrian civil war. While there has been significant coverage of the current humanitarian crisis, the spill over effect into neighbouring states, such as Lebanon, has gone largely unreported and unnoticed.

Lebanon - a small and impressive country with a rich history but turbulent past, blighted by conflict and civil war - is experiencing a crisis of its own. With no official refugee camps for Syrians, the country's already severely limited resources are being stretched. Up to 4,000 Syrian refugees are crossing the border into Lebanon every day. According to the UN, Lebanon will need $1.7billion to cope with this crisis by the end of the year. This amount is staggering and will be difficult to raise.

Palestinian refugees make up an estimated 10% of the population in Lebanon. During my trip, I visited a Palestinian refugee camp in Bourj Chemaly near the southern city of Saida. The Palestinians I met were living in dire conditions, housed in thousands of squalid and overcrowded accomodation packed in about one square mile, surrounded by uncollected rubbish.

Since the crisis began, the number of refugees in the camp has swelled from 19,000 to 26,000. Lebanon is now housing 33,000 double refugees, people who had fled Palestine generations ago and have now fled the conflict in Syria. As double refugees join already fragile communities, tensions are high and fraught, jobs are increasingly scarce and hygiene is poor - something which can only worsen as the summer fast approaches.

Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are trapped in a poverty cycle. They do not enjoy the same rights as the Lebanese or Syrians. They do not have the right to work in most skilled professions and have little to no access to social services, public health or educational facilities. Some Lebanese still blame the Palestinians for fuelling Lebanon's civil war three decades ago and they fear that granting them greater rights could disrupt the country's already fragile system of sectarian politics.

In a camp where people are struggling to even get by, I did not expect generosity and hope to be the defining characteristics of this community. However, most Palestinians I met remained hopeful they would be able to return home. Many families keep the keys of their old houses with them in the hope that they will one day return. I was struck by an elderly Palestinian woman peering through the window of her house, waving at our group with her granddaughters as we left. Her friendly gesture spoke volumes of the generosity and plight of these people.

It was also encouraging to see the resourcefulness of the refugees. With the help of World Vision and partner agencies, refugees have come up with innovative solutions to set up businesses to serve their community, from shops to car valet services. I saw the fantastic work of PAWL (Palestinian Arab Women League). In 1982, most of their centres were destroyed during the Israeli-Lebanese conflict, but since then they have returned with vigour, working on vital economic development projects in their communities. The camp was a testament to the inspirational and resilient characters who lived there, worked there, and the countless others like it across the Middle East.

What is important now is what I recently made clear to Prime Minister David Cameron. Whatever happens in the Syrian crisis going forward, whatever the decisions the international community may reach, aid agencies carrying out exceptional work such as World Vision must be allowed to operate in Syria and in neighbouring countries. Refugees and host communities alike cannot cope without humanitarian assistance from the international community. The conflict in Syria has led to the deaths of nearly 93,000 people, including around 6,000 children. The international community's decision in the weeks and months ahead on how to end this terrible conflict must have at its heart the protection of lives and communities.

A video documenting Rushanara Ali MP's visit to Lebanon can be found here.


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