The “complex” Lebanese crisis had a severe impact on the situation of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon during the past two years 2019–2020. For they were full of dramatic events and developments affecting all the classes of the Lebanese people and the rest of its residents, including the Palestinians. Since before the crisis escalation and until now, the Palestinian community has been suffering from all forms of marginalization: Economic, social and spatial, and from the loss of national and international protection guaranteed to refugees by relevant treaties and agreements, with the exception of the limited protection provided by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). It is a kind of “relief” protection rather than the refugee protection provided by international standards.
This makes the Palestinian community in Lebanon, which suffers from deprivation of most basic human rights, more fragile and vulnerable to the impact of the deteriorating economic, financial and monetary conditions, the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the repercussions of the Beirut Port explosion on 4/8/2020.
This assessment addresses a number of related issues, most notably: The pre-crisis living conditions indicators, the repercussions of the crisis on the Palestinian community by providing quantitative and qualitative data, strengthening the resilience of the refugee community facing the crisis, strategies /mechanisms for coping with the repercussions of the crisis, and recommendations.
First: The Pre-Crisis Living Conditions Indicators
In this regard, it is important to note that the legal status of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon has not undergone any significant change since 2010, when the Lebanese Parliament amended Article 59 of the Labor Law and Article 9 of the Social Security Law, and approved the Labor Laws no. 129 and 128 related to the right to work and social security, respectively.
These amendments abolished the principle of reciprocity stated in the Law-decree no. 17561, on 18/9/1964, which is a positive step. However, they maintained the rules of obtaining a work permit, considering the Palestinians foreigners, which contradicts the annulment of the reciprocity rule.
As for the National Social Security Fund, the amendments allowed the Palestinian worker who has a work permit to subscribe to it, but he/she has to pay 23.5% of his/her fees, while benefitting from end-of-service compensation (8%), without benefitting from other compensations (family compensations, healthcare and maternity).
Unfortunately, the two new laws—despite their imperfections—were not applied, for they needed implementations decrees, which have not been issued until today.
Accordingly, the living conditions of the Palestinians have not witnessed any significant improvement since that date. In this context, the 2015 survey of the American University of Beirut (AUB) and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) found out that 65% of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon live in poverty compared to 35% of the Lebanese, while 56% are unemployed. Therefore, based on these data, the analysis of the economic trends of the current crisis, and the disproportionate effects of the crisis on marginalized societies, it is certain that poverty and unemployment rates among Palestinians have increased dramatically since the date of this study.
Second: The Repercussions of the Crisis on the Palestinian Community: Quantitative and Qualitative Data
In the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF)’s new report “Comorbidity of Crises in Lebanon,” which was presented by UNICEF Representative, Yukie Mokuo, on 21/12/2020, it indicated that “2020 has been exceptionally challenging, a year of unprecedented deterioration of the wellbeing of children, young people and families living in Lebanon. The COVID-19 pandemic, as well as a dramatically worsening economic situation followed by the Beirut explosions, are having a devastating impact on children and families who are increasingly in greater need of crucial support.”
In the ESCWA Policy Brief. 15, 2020, “Poverty in Lebanon: Solidarity is Vital to Address the Impact of Multiple Overlapping Shocks,” the following indicators were presented: The headcount poverty rate is expected to jump from 28% in 2019 to 55% in May 2020. The corresponding increase in extreme poverty is from 8% to 23%. According to the Central Administration of Statistics, the consumer price index shows an inflation of 131% from September 2019 to September 2020. Moreover, an additional rise is expected in prices and a decline in the value of the national currency, which will increase the risk of instability and expose families to poverty and vulnerability.
Confirming the above data is the report of the Palestinian Association for Human Rights (Witness) in February 2020 on the social, economic and political impacts of the Lebanese crisis on the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, including Palestinian refugees who came from Syria at the start of the Syrian crisis in 2011.
It showed that 34.2% of the breadwinners of the family were dismissed, 47.6% of them work part-time, while 18.2% of them continue to work normally. As for the income of Palestinian families, the study showed that 49% of families have a monthly income of less than 500 thousand LBP (about $60), which is less than the minimum wage. This means that Palestinian families are unable to cover basic expenses, and provide the health treatment bill, where 72.4% of the refugees surveyed confirmed their inability to pay the substitution in the medical bill, in accordance with the UNRWA treatment system, knowing that the study showed that 55% of them suffer from chronic diseases.
The previous data are nothing but a logical result of the austerity measures and measures that resulted from the crisis. In 2020, several economic institutions in Lebanon have laid off a large number of workers, reduced the wages of the remaining ones and dismissed non-Lebanese employees, Palestinians in particular. Consequently, many unskilled Palestinian workers lost their jobs in sectors such as agriculture and construction, and the effects of this loss was compounded by the decrease in the purchasing power of the Lebanese pound, and the difficulty of receiving remittances from Palestinian families abroad. Many families have depleted their modest savings, and those who are unable to pay the costs of medical treatment, buy medicine, and pay school and university fees have increased.
Other repercussions include the increase of social and psychological unrest among Palestinian youth in the refugee camps, increased demand for drugs and smoking, increase of depression and mental illness cases, and the family problems related to divorce and spinsterhood became more severe. Moreover, generally, the desire to emigrate has increased, and the actions of the youth movements calling for migration have increased. Those movements began to express themselves openly and explicitly through sit-ins in front of foreign embassies (For example, the Canadian Embassy), demanding humanitarian asylum and the transfer of their family files from UNRWA to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). However, this is considered infeasible given the specificity of the UNRWA mandate and its difference from the mandate of the UNHCR. It is noted that there are growing concerns about the endeavors of some extremist groups to recruit youth to serve their own agendas.
Various estimates indicate that the rates of poverty and unemployment are close to 80% and have been steadily increasing since October 2019.
The most urgent current needs of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon range from providing decent job opportunities to providing continuous and emergency food assistance, hence the prevalence of food insecurity in the refugee community.
In fact, since more than seven decades, the living conditions of the Palestinians in Lebanon have reached an unprecedented state of deterioration, where they became the most fragile and the most vulnerable to marginalization and deprivation, compared to other refugee communities. The weakness of the official Palestinian authorities and the absence of a unified socio-economic reference concerned with the conditions of the Palestinians in Lebanon, have added insult to injury, especially when there is an increase in social and economic needs. All of this is in light of the decline, if not almost absence, of the support of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the factions, not to mention the decline of the UNRWA services, quantity and quality wise, due to its ongoing financial crisis.
Third: The Impact of the Crisis on the Palestine Refugees from Syria in Lebanon
The crisis, with all its implications, has an impact also on the Palestine refugees from Syria (PRS) in Lebanon (currently about 28 thousand). Actually, they are the most affected, due to their loss of their livelihoods, lack of a stable life, lack of legal protection and crisis coping mechanisms, compared to the Palestinian refugee community in Lebanon.
According to a report published by the AUB and UNRWA, 89% of PRS in Lebanon are in poverty, with 9% living in extreme poverty, while 94.5% are food insecure. The Protection at UNRWA reports stated that 93.4% of PRS youth were living in poverty, 85% of households consider UNRWA assistance as the first source of income, 64% of PRS children are not enrolled in secondary school, while 85% suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Fourth: Facing the Crisis and Strengthening the Resilience of the Refugee Community: Whose Responsibility?
The situation of the Palestinian community in Lebanon has surpassed the need for statistics and field surveys, it has become an urgent priority, where saving the situation from total collapse and strengthening resilience to face the complex crises has become a national priority, rather a humanitarian one. It doesn’t tolerate waiting, studying or theorizing anymore. Whose responsibility is it? And who will protect the rights of the Palestinians under a sectarian system based on quotas?
According to the same above Witness study, 64.1% of the refugees surveyed confirmed that UNRWA, the PLO, other Palestinian factions and the Lebanese state all bear responsibility towards the refugees, while 26% of the refugees have limited the responsibility to UNRWA only.
The responsibility to face the repercussions of the crisis on the refugee community is a shared responsibility of the international community (represented by UNRWA), in addition to the PLO and the host country, where each party bears different role.
UNRWA has launched several urgent appeals to face the crisis in its five areas of operations: The first was in March 2020 to provide $14 million; then the second was in May to provide $93.4 million, however, according to its sources, it was only able to collect less than 65% of it, which prompted the UNRWA to launch its third appeal in September 2020 in order to raise $96.6 million.
In this context, the Director of UNRWA Operations in Lebanon Claudio Cordone stated that despite the difficulty of funding, UNRWA has made some important achievements in the health and education fields, in addition to being constantly in communication with the official Lebanese authorities in order to affirm the economic and social rights of the refugees, which do not cancel the provision of the right of return. He said, “Despite all the efforts made by UNRWA, the prospects and opportunities for Palestinian refugees in Lebanon remain bleak, and it will remain so for a while, especially with the continuing political financial crisis in Lebanon. I fear that unemployment and poverty rates will continue to rise.”
2. PLO/ the Palestinian Authority (PA):
Regardless of the financial crisis afflicting the PLO and PA, they remain responsible for their people in Lebanon. During the crisis, the PA and the PLO have received a package of aid worth millions of dollars from Saudi Arabia, the European Union, the French Development Agency, and other Arab and European countries, to face the economic and social problems inflicted by the COVID-19 pandemic. However, their support to the Palestinian people in Lebanon during the crisis did not live up to the needs inflicted by the crisis.
3. Lebanon (Host Country)
In March 2020, the Lebanese Council of Ministers approved an economic support plan of 80 billion Lebanese pounds, intended for the poorest families. It received additional support, as a loan, for the same purpose, from the World Bank. Although President Michel Aoun, stated that the state will provide protection for citizens and residents, which means it would support Palestinian refugees as well, the Palestinian refugees were excluded from the official support. It was claimed that they were the responsibility of international organizations, particularly the UNRWA. Actually, international responsibility does not eliminate the legal and moral responsibility of the host country, and an ethical approach here is needed in addition to the legal approach.
In general, Lebanon excludes the Palestinians from national programs supported by the World Bank and other international bodies, whether these programs are concerned with education (virtual education), health (vaccines and medicines for chronic diseases), or food (food aid), as well as some of the facilities that are generally provided by the state to the Lebanese (such as: buying dollars at the official platform price in specific cases, granting the ration card, and other facilities). It is claimed that they are foreigners, despite their long stay in Lebanon, which gives them the advantage of “social citizenship,” if not legal citizenship. It is noted that the sponsors of some urgent international aid received by Lebanon do not exclude the Palestinians as beneficiaries.
It is concluded that any urgent and effective relief program undertaken by the aforementioned parties together is absent. Moreover, a comprehensive socio-economic development action plan that addresses the chronic needs of the Palestinians in Lebanon is also absent.
Fifth: Crisis Coping Strategies/ Mechanisms
The Palestinian refugee community in Lebanon has a long (since the Nakbah), unique and rich experience of facing the suffering of refuge. It has tremendous resilience and ability to withstand and face marginalization, wars and internal displacement, constantly developing coping mechanisms with all the challenges, difficulties and problems (As is the case in dealing with the current crisis). The following are, in brief, the most prominent of these mechanisms:
• Strengthening social solidarity inherited from the traditions of the agricultural community in Palestine before the Nakbah, e.g., village and family associations.
• Relying on remittances sent to the families in Lebanon by their children and relatives (For example from the United Arab Emirates).
• Initiatives of young immigrants, who were in residing in the refugee camps and now live in various countries, either by providing in-kind assistance to the people of their camps, or by supporting relief projects or small income-generating projects.
• Household economic strengthening and increasing the production of some of the families’ food needs (Bread, vegetables, dried foods, jams, etc.), whether for intra-household consumption or domestic marketing.
• Strengthening the role of civil society in times of crisis by providing in-kind and cash assistance, various educational and health services and psychological support.
Sixth: The Impact of the Crisis: Possible Scenarios
What are the possible scenarios regarding the impacts of the current Lebanese crisis on the living conditions of the Palestinian refugees in the short and medium terms?
Based on the above analysis, there are two possible scenarios:
First: The Fragility Scenario; the living conditions indicators (unemployment and poverty), and their previously mentioned social and psychological repercussions (the most important of which is migration if it becomes available) would deteriorate to the extent they herald a comprehensive collapse in the resilience of Palestinian society. This would happen particularly if the Lebanese crisis remained unaddressed, leading to an all-out social explosion in Lebanon.
Second: The Resilience Scenario: the Palestinian society would adapt to the repercussions of the crisis, through the continued work and influence of the aforementioned coping mechanisms and strategies (Social and family solidarity, remittances, civil society intervention and household economic strengthening), and perhaps by developing new coping mechanisms. This scenario does not in any way mean escaping the repercussions of the first one, but rather only mitigating them. This means the suffering would continue and the daily lifestyle would change (Austerity, changing spending and consumption patterns, rearranging priorities and living needs, etc.).
The Question is: Which of the Two Scenarios is More Likely?
We tend to favor the second scenario, especially if it is strengthened by increasing the role of the PLO and the factions, through increasing their support and contributions to the most needy groups of Palestinian society, especially refugee camp residents. Also, if the severity of the UNRWA financial crisis subsides, as the new US administration is expected to have a new UNRWA policy, and if the Lebanese government abandons its discriminatory policies against the Palestinians, which is mostly unlikely. Among the main factors that favor this scenario: The rich experience of the Palestinian community in Lebanon in adapting to being in refuge, and to internal displacement, Israeli aggression and civil wars.
• The UNRWA must mobilize support and issue urgent appeals to meet the immediate needs of Palestinian refugees in the near term, and launch an emergency relief project to meet for a year the basic needs of Palestinian refugees affected by this complex crisis. The UNRWA must call on donors to include Palestinian refugees in Lebanon’s emergency response plans.
• Establishing a social and economic safety net in the medium term to secure Palestinian basic living rights, where the UNRWA, the PLO/ PA, and major UN agencies such as the UNICEF, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), and the World Health Organization would participate in coordination with the host country.
• The current and future Lebanese governments need to adopt a responsible and transparent policy towards Palestinian refugees. In particular, they should ensure that the Palestinian refugees are included in the urgent humanitarian aid to Lebanon, whether it was food, medicine, healthcare, or other kind, and in social benefits programs, such as the “ration card,” if approved.
• The PLO must establish a special “relief fund” to help the refugee community in Lebanon overcome the repercussions of the crisis, allocate part of the international aid and donations recently obtained by the PA (to support the steadfastness of Palestinians in the PA territories) to support this fund, and call the Palestinian businessmen in Palestine and the diaspora to finance it.
• “The Joint Palestinian Action Committee,” established in 2018, must be activated, not only as a political reference, but also as an economic and social one, in order to meet the challenges faced by the Palestinian community in Lebanon, especially in the refugee camps. These challenges are mainly the socio-economic ones resulting from the crisis, and the security instability in the camps.
• The necessity of coordination between the various programs and initiatives of the Palestinian civil society and all the initiatives of social solidarity in the Palestinian refugee camps and gatherings, that aim to support the steadfastness of the Palestinian society. Such a coordination would make aid reach a wider segment, and ensure transparency and fairness in aid distribution.
• Enhancing cooperation and coordination between Lebanese and Palestinian civil society organizations to lobby for putting the Palestinian rights file back on the Lebanese official and partisan national agenda, and remove it from the inter-partisan bargaining. This would contribute to the correction of the relationship between the Lebanese and Palestinian societies, and strengthen the Palestinian society facing the crisis.
Note: This strategic assessment is based on a paper presented by Jaber Suleimanin the virtual panel discussion held by al-Zaytouna Centre for Studies and Consultations, under the same title, on 23/12/2020. The ideas presented by the participants in the panel discussion have also enriched this assessment.
 The study was issued in February 2020, with a sample of 319 Palestinian refugees residing inside and outside the refugee camps, see (Witness) Current Lebanese Crisis and its Effect on the Palestinian Refugees “Rights-Based Study” Shocking Numbers and Statistics, site of the Palestinian Association for Human Rights (Witness), 12/3/2020, https://pahrw.org/portal/en-US/studies/45/c/witness-current-lebanese-crisis-and-its-effect-on-the-palestinian-refugees-rights-based-study-shocking-numbers-and-statistics/1200/
 A webinar held by Commission 302 to Defend Refugees’ Rights entitled “UNRWA after 71… Funding Challenge and Service Cut,” was attended by directors of UNRWA offices in its five fields of operations, 15/12/2020.
* Al-Zaytouna Centre thanks Mr. Jaber Suleiman for authoring this strategic assessment.