Blog post by Jasmin Lilian Diab, PhD, American University of Beirut*
Syrians and Palestinians from Syria in Lebanon Have Different Legal Standings
As of 2021, Lebanon hosts close to 1.5 million Syrian refugees and more than 50,000 Palestinian refugees from Syria. Refugees in the country have settled in different regions, depending mostly on their initial border crossing, their social or family networks existing in the country and the financial resources at their disposal. The Syrian refugee population was thus mainly concentrated north of the country in the Beqaa and, on a smaller scale, in Beirut and its suburbs. Palestinians from Syria on the other hand, largely joined the twelve Palestinian refugee camps established in Lebanon in the late 1940s.
Though they are fleeing the same conflict, the Syrian and Palestinian refugees from Syria fall under separate legal statutes under Lebanese and international legal frameworks. As a country that is not signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, Lebanon does not recognize refugee status and its policies towards migrants depend on bilateral agreements between Lebanon and each of the signatory countries. As per the agreement signed between Lebanon and Syria in 1991, Syrians enjoy a privileged status in terms of mobility, the right to work and residence. On a separate note, Lebanese policy towards Palestinian refugees from Syria falls in-line with the country’s policy towards Palestinians from Lebanon, who have been refugees in the country at the end of the 1940s. In addition to the restrictive legal, political and security arrangements that govern the status of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, they are excluded from the international protection regime of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and fall under the sole assistance mandate of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA).
While Lebanon and Syria had historically maintained an open-border policy for decades, Lebanon officially announced the closure of the Lebanese border in 2014 to refugees from Syria. Since the beginning of 2015, Lebanese authorities have imposed entry visas and residence permits on Syrians who reside in the country, constituting a first in the history of mobility between the two countries. Lebanon justifies these measures by insisting that the country can no longer accommodate influxes of refugees, and also denounces the lack of humanitarian and international aid allocated to it to cope with the influx of refugees from Syria. Beyond the policies set in place, the presence of Syrian refugees in Lebanon renews anti-refugee, and anti-Syrian sentiments in the country, as its political history with Syria under decades of occupation as well as the involvement of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in the country’s Civil War remain major drivers and hindrances to refugee integration.
From Syria to Lebanon’s Chatila Camps: New Arrivals Bring New Tensions
The arrival of Syrian and Palestinian refugees from Syria to Lebanon’s Chatila camp took place in successive waves, as violence spread across different Syrian regions. It was essentially between 2012 and 2013 that the Palestinian refugees from Syria migrated to Chatila camp, fleeing, for the most part, from the Yarmouk camp, located on the outskirts of Damascus. The choice to settle in the Chatila area has been most often determined by the presence of relatives, family networks or a general knowledge of the fact that services are offered in the camp. By September 2014, nearly 5,000 Syrian and Palestinian refugees from Syria had settled in Chatila camp. The total population of the camp currently varies between 22,000 and 30,000 inhabitants, with thousands of families settled in the impoverished neighborhoods surrounding Chatila. This massive influx of refugees from Syria, which increases the population of Chatila camp by almost 20%, is difficult to absorb, as conditions are already dire, and have thus further deteriorated. The increase in population was not followed by the development of services (electricity, water), nor by improvements to the infrastructure of the camp. Additionally, this massive influx has generated widespread inflation in the price of rents in the camp, ultimately affecting new and old residents alike. This overcrowding is frequently a source of litigation between neighbors. New families arriving from Syria continue to struggle to adapt to the camp’s environment, and the already-present Palestinians of Chatila have publicly denounced the conditions in which they live, and expressed that they feel insulted by the criticisms coming from families arriving from Syria.
Several forms of solidarity on the part of the Palestinians in Chatila were exhibited with the arrival of the refugees from Syria. This encompassed initiatives from the inhabitants, political factions, as well as local and international associations and NGOs. In addition to the provision of material aid (clothing and food), the “Lebanese” Palestinians in Chatila have come to serve as an “informal social database” of aid services and methods for coping with the Lebanese military and General Security. The “Lebanese” Palestinians are also important sources of empathy and practical advice for the new arrivals, utilizing their vast knowledge of the functioning of Lebanese institutions, UNRWA and humanitarian organizations. These forms of solidarity often cement the lines of division between Syrians and Palestinians from Syria who now reside in Lebanon. The delivery of aid and services on the basis of the nationality mirrors the system adopted by international organizations: UNHCR for the Syrians and UNRWA for the Palestinians from Syria. UNRWA headquarters in Lebanon have also gone as far as opening their clinics and schools to the “Lebanese” Palestinians and the “Syrian” Palestinians through designated timetables in order to receive each of these groups: Palestinians from Lebanon (PRL) and Palestinians from Syria (PRS), designated respectively, in the language of UN employees.
These institutional categorizations that are based, on one hand, on separate legal systems and not on the country of departure (Syrians vs. Palestinians from Syria) and on the other, on the refugees’ host country (Palestinians from Lebanon vs. Palestinians from Syria), give rise to differentiated experiences and reinforce the barriers between the different groups. In fact, it is reportedly common to hear Palestinians from Lebanon and Palestinians from Syria refer to each other as “Lebanese” and “Syrians”. Though probably just an abbreviation, these designations also refer to different national experiences which would explain certain behaviors and barriers to complete integration between the two communities.
With the long-term settlement of Syrians and Palestinians from Syria in Chatila (and Lebanon), solidarity and compassion have gradually transformed into tensions between “new” and “old” refugees. In addition to the deterioration of living conditions in the camp, these tensions mainly center on two essential factors. The first factor of tension concerns the competition that this new population represents on the Lebanese labor market. Syrians and PRS work in the same sectors as the PRL and accept much lower wages. The presence of a completely deprived population has been exploited by many employers who have lowered the cost of labor considerably. The PRL were extremely affected by this situation, as were the Syrians who worked in Lebanon before the massive influxes began in 2011. PRL, unlike the Syrians, are not permitted to work in a number of professions, and the Lebanese authorities are known to refuse giving them a work permit. Another important factor that contributes to the tension is the exclusion of PRL from several aid programs aimed solely at Syrians and PRS. The emergence of NGOs and aid associations that solely cater to PRS (who they consider more vulnerable), creates increased tensions in the Chatila camp as well.
Long-term displacement and exposure to challenging living conditions in Lebanon’s Chatila camp will undeniably influence family dynamics, gender roles, gender-based violence as well as community and mental well-being. And the situation in Chatila serves as a small example of larger patterns of inequality, vulnerability and fragility across the country – as vulnerable Lebanese, Syrian and Palestinian families continue to endure the long-term and short-term effects of protracted regional conflicts. In the absence of international consensus, political will or a “diplomatic” solution in Syria, the PRL in Chatila know very well that they will have bear the brunt and endure these exacerbated vulnerabilities into the unforeseen future.
Dr. Jasmin Lilian Diab is a Canadian-Lebanese researcher, writer, editor, university professor and consultant in the areas of Migration, Gender and Conflict Studies. She is the Refugee Health Program Coordinator at the American University of Beirut’s Global Health Institute, as well as a Research Associate on the Political Economy of Health in Conflict under its Conflict Medicine Program. Dr. Diab is a Senior Consultant on Refugee and Gender Studies at Cambridge Consulting Services, a Research Affiliate at the Centre for Refugee Studies at York University, a Junior Scholar in Forced Displacement at University of Ottawa’s Human Rights Research and Education Centre, and a Junior Fellow and Program Lead at the ‘War, Conflict and Global Migration’ Think Tank of the Global Research Network. She holds a PhD in International Relations and Diplomacy with an emphasis on Asylum, Refugees and Security from the esteemed Centre d’Etudes Diplomatiques et Stratégiques of the School of Advanced International and Political Studies (INSEEC U.) in France, and is the author of two books and over seventy academic and para-academic publications on intersectional issues across Migration, Gender, Conflict, Human Rights, International Relations and International Law.
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