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Palestinians of Shatila – from Refugee Camp to Urban Slum

The commencement of the Rio+20 Sustainability Conference on June 20th coincides with another important UN event – World Refugee Day.  The occasion will be marked in countries accross the world to mobilise support for the millions of people who have been forcibly displaced from their homes due to conflict, poverty and natural disasters.

The UNHCR Chief, António Guterres, is in Rio to emphasize that “environmentally induced migration and displacement could reach epic dimensions by 2050″. For this reason it is important to take into account the existing refugee populations that are in dire need of resettlement, integration into their societies or a safe return to their homes.

From a Make-Shift Camp to an Urban Slum

“If an earthquake were to hit this city, Shatila would be the first to go,”  Mohammad gesticulated towards the haphazard assortment of dilapidated buildings. Mohammad is a coffee seller who has resided in Shatila Refugee camp most of his life. A camp that has transformed into a ‘ghetto’ squat for all those on the periphery of Lebanese society.

Market surrounding Shatila Camp

Shatila Refugee Camp was formed in 1949 following the ousting of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homeland. Sixty years and a few waves of refugee crises later, the camp resembles an urban slum, struggling to accommodate its burgeoning population. Shatila has little means of sustaining the continuing growth in its population that has far outpaced the peace processes. Multiple tracks of negotiations over the years failed to achieve a permanent or equitable settlement to the protracted refugee crisis.

Prolonged Crisis

The refugees have no plausible right to return to present day Israel where ground realities change by the day. They have no right to naturalization in an unwilling Lebanese society, or in fact a possible means in between. Sixty years after the start of the Palestinian refugee crisis, a life of dignity continues to evade the Palestinian refugees of Lebanon. They remain in a country that is reluctant to assimilate them while yearning to return to a place that now exists only in their imaginations.

Shatila resembles a sprawling urban slum

According to the United Nations Relief and Work Agency (UNWRA) about 425,000 Palestinians live in refugee camps dispersed across Lebanon. They constitute ten percent of the country’s population. Yet, they remain disenfranchised from the Lebanese state and society, including those who were born in the country and not privy to any other reality. This perpetual state of limbo is the core reality that dictates their lives. Their statelessness has become a precondition to which all their aspirations are attached – this ranges from the vocations they may pursue, to the education they receive and the places within Lebanon where they may take up residency.

To most visiting Lebanon, the country’s multicultural heritage becomes apparent through its capital city, Beirut – the Armenian Quarters juxtaposed against Maronite dominated neighbourhoods that in turn border Shia centres. But, within this religious-sectarian mix, one quickly realises that the lines, although imaginary, are defined and definitive as the residents of different neighbourhoods stick to their boundaries.

When I was in Beirut and wanted to visit the ‘camps,’ most Lebanese friends did no have the faintest clue about how to get there. Despite living in the city for years and in some cases their entire lives, they had never been to a Palestinian refugee camp and did not see the necessity for doing so.

The Military vs. Militarised Refugees

Lebanese Military stationed on the periphery of the camp site

As one nears the camp areas, the Lebanese military presence is a strong indication of the chronic tension that has existed between the country’s security apparatus and the political factions from the camps.   Within the camp,  different Palestinian  factions have been at odds with each other but collective in their stance against the Lebanese state.

After my first photo of a military installation stationed outside the camp, a Lebanese soldier walked towards me and curtly instructed me to stop.

As I made my way towards the undefined entrance of Shatila, the “service” (shared taxi) driver called out to me and said “Look for the Arafat Posters. That is your entrance to the camp.”

Entrance to Shatila

When surrounded by the crumbling building complex which houses people beyond its capacity, the international community’s failure in securing an equitable solution for Palestinians feels like a daunting and personal burden.

No Rights, No Future

“The continuing restrictions which deny Palestinian refugees access to their rights to work, education and adequate housing and health are wholly unjustified and should be lifted without further procrastination or delay” – Human Rights Watch Report

The majority of Lebanon’s Palestinian refugees live in one of the twelve camps set up by the United Nations in 1949. The solid cement structures that exist today as ‘camps’ hardly resemble the conventional white tents intended as temporary make shift arrangements, while the new refugees wait to return to their homeland. These camps have now become the closest to being called home by three generations of refugees who are still without a state, land or citizenship.

In 2005, of the 109 000 work permits applied for by foreigners, only 270 were applications from Palestinians. The following year that number dropped to just 39. In spite of the growing population, the amount of land allocated for the 12 refugee camps has not been expanded by the Lebanese government since 1948. Amnesty International has described the conditions in these camps as “war-torn, decaying and poverty-stricken.” It is not surprising, that as years pass by, with conditions stagnating and worsening, refugees living in Lebanon increasingly view their host state as the direct enemy.

A Palestinian family of three generations with Yasser Arafat's poster in the background

According to UNRWA, Lebanon has the highest percentage of Palestinian refugees living in abject poverty. This has been their existence for 60 years but can these conditions continue indefinitely and without repercussions? If there is a backlash from a mobilised refugee population, what form will it take and who will be targeted?

Living on the Brink

It is a commonly accepted notion – if a natural disaster, such as an earthquake, were to hit Beirut, the camps will be the first to go. And it is one acknowledged without a shred of urgency as the camp has devolved into a community of pariahs who place little value on mainstream society. In addition to Palestinian refugees registered under UNRWA, the camp has become a refuge for illegal migrants from neighbouring countries such as Egypt and Syria, domestic workers from farther away such as Sri Lanka and Somalia fled their Lebanese employers and destitute Roma who searches through rubbish for recyclables.

The community lives in squalid conditions, sometimes without running water, electricity and basic amenities.

Entangled wires are an impending hazard for those living in Shatila

One of the perils of living in such an environment are the water pipes and electricity wires that criss-cross to form intertwining webs, throughout the camp, sometimes causing fatal accidents. A few deaths have be been reported every year over the last five years due to electrocution.

Sustainability and Equity

Amnesty International has repeatedly stated that the Lebanese government’s practices against Palestinian refugees continue to breach the country’s obligations under international human rights law.

One of the important themes of focus at Rio+20 are  refugees and development. Although priority will be given to civilians displaced by natural disasters and future refugees from Island Nations such as Kiribati whose homes are rapidly sinking because of global warming, the existing refugee populations pose an unresolved obstacle to global sustainable development.

An older Roma woman collects rubbish in the vicinity of Shatila

Positive advancement in refugee camps like Shatila is not possible without rights to property, education and most importantly assimilation into their immediate vicinities. Without tackling the qualms of current populations of refugees, whether in Lebanon, Sudan or Burma, the UN and the host states will be faced with much larger populations of disenfranchised ‘outsiders’ suffering abject poverty and developing radicalised views towards the state.

Sustainable development in a Lebanese context necessitates equitable opportunities for Palestinian refugees that number about 425,000 in a country with a population of about 4 million. To evade this demographic for much longer would be futile and detrimental to a country with a consociational political system, where avoiding violence between different sectarian/religious groups is a vital concern.

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About The Author(s)



Preethi Nallu

Preethi Nallu

Journalist (print/audio/video), multi-media specialist, current affairs analyst

Preethi Nallu is a print and broadcast journalist with a special focus on human rights and development. She is a regular contributor to a variety of media outlets, including Al Jazeera, Inter-Press Service, Doha Centre for Media Freedom, Monocle 24 and VJ Movement. ​Preethi has covered wide-ranging issues from Arab-Israeli politics to the UN Climate Conference (COP 15) and human rights/democratic reform in Burma ​With living and work experience in eight countries across the globe, her vision as a journalist is to combine the fields of International Relations, Current Affairs and Media in producing timely and thematic stories with in-depth analysis.

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