Refugee protests in Lebanon could go beyond Palestinians

For more than a month, large protests throughout Lebanon have been gaining size and momentum, driven by the announcement that UNRWA, the UN agency which provides services and relief to Palestinian refugees, will no longer cover the cost of regular hospital visits for Palestinians in Lebanon.

This move has been interpreted as representing a wider decline in the fortunes of Palestinians in Lebanon and the resulting protests recently culminated in the shutdown of the agency’s offices in Beirut.

While the protests have been non-violent, if these grievances are unaddressed, a combination of factors, including some linked to the war in Syria, could lead Palestinians in Lebanon to decide that violence is the only tool at their disposal to attain their humanitarian and political needs.

Cuts in assistance, rising poverty rates, the absence or impotence of their political representatives, an increase in extremism and the presence of foreign fighters in the camps, combined with growing hopelessness, could contribute to confrontations with the Lebanese state.

The UNRWA cuts have the potential to significantly affect humanitarian conditions for Palestinians, who are a particularly vulnerable group in Lebanon.

Poverty rates are high among this community and they are largely dependent on UNRWA for education, jobs and welfare assistance, in addition to health care.

The poverty rates are partly due to the fact that Palestinians are restricted in which sectors they are legally permitted to work, with the vast majority working in agriculture or construction for low wages and in harsh conditions, according to a 2012 studyby the International Labour Organisation.

The situation for Palestinians has been deteriorating recently in the context of the wider economic and political crisis Lebanon is facing.

The country has been without a president since May 2014 and last year its economy is reputed to have experienced zero GDP growth. Lebanese citizens have also been protesting in great numbers against their government’s dysfunction, corruption and civil rights abuses.

While some Lebanese parties and their constituencies can still look to regional patrons for political support and consequent economic benefits, Palestinians’ regional alliances are diminishing.

Previously, certain Palestinian groups in Lebanon received political backing from Damascus. Yet since Syria’s withdrawal in 2005 and particularly since the outbreak of its civil war in 2011, Palestinians in Lebanon can no longer look to the Syrian government as a major political ally.

Two additional drivers of Palestinian vulnerability and potential destabilisation are also linked to the Syrian civil war: the growing presence of extremist groups and foreign fighters in Palestinian refugee camps, and the declining financial state of the UNRWA itself.

The war has exacerbated divisions between Palestinian factions and groups in Lebanon, which makes it more difficult to maintain security in the camps.

Hamas’s decision to close its political office in Damascus and endorse the Syrian uprising against its erstwhile patron Bashar Al Assad provoked a split among Palestinian Islamist groups – of which there are many operating in the camps in Lebanon – into pro- and anti-regime sides.

In addition, armed groups from Syria such as the Al Qaeda-affiliated Al Nusra Front have established a presence and alliances in refugee camps, particularly Ain Al Hilweh. Extremist groups composed of foreign fighters who are new to the Lebanese scene are less likely to value their relationship with the state or with local actors because they have not experienced the outcomes of past conflicts in the camps or do not feel invested in the security of the local community. Rather, they are more likely to engage in clashes with security forces or with rival groups, as argued in a recent paper by Lebanon Support, an NGO.

At the same time, the Syria crisis has led to unprecedented financial difficulties for UNRWA, with donor funds tied up in meeting the needs of Syrians and host communities.