Palestine Refugees residing in Lebanon are faced with very poor living conditions in the congested and restricted land space location granted them by the government, resulting in life threatening situations and deaths. ENE OSHABA reports
Who are refugees?
The1951 convention relating to the status of refugees and its 1967 protocol, defines a refugee as a person who is outside his or her country of nationality or habitual residence; has a well-founded fear of being persecuted because of his or her race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion; and is unable or unwilling to avail him or herself of the protection of that country, or to return there, for fear of persecution.
People who fulfill this definition are entitled to the rights and bound by the duties of the country they reside in, the convention spelt out clearly that refugees deserve, as a minimum, the same standards of treatment enjoyed by other foreign nationals in a given country and, in many cases, the same treatment as nationals.
Unfortunately, Palestinian refugees at the Burj Al Barajneh camp in Lebanon are not enjoying these privileges provided by the UN as they continue to live an almost regimented lifestyle being compressed into a small area where freedom of association is restricted irrespective of their many years of stay in the country.
Why the Lebanese government remained adamant to their plight is not far fetched, they are not bonafide citizens, but they should be protected as spelt out by global legal instruments explicitly covering the most important aspects of a refugee’s life.
The Burj Al Barajneh Camp
Burj Al Barajneh is a Palestinian refugee camp located in the southern suburbs of Beirut, the Capital of Lebanon. The camp was established in 1948 after the ‘’Nakba’’ when Palestinians were forced to flee their homes and villages.
This particular camp which is built on a one square kilometer (0.38 square miles) of land accommodates about 22000 refugees from Palestine in addition to the 17000 refugees from the Syrian country; and so it is overcrowded because they couldn’t extend buildings beyond the area they were permitted by the government to live in.
The only alternatives is the sky, hence the compacted story buildings housing thousands of people amidst all risk factors .
Walking through the streets of Burj Al Barajneh camp, one could only imagine the danger of electrocution indigents deal with seeing the unbelievable intertwining of electric wires and water pipes like Siamese twins.
Information available on the internet shows that ideally, electric and water pipes should be 12 inches apart because when water comes into contact with electrical wiring, it can cause short circuits, shocks, and even fires.
If you ever see an electrical fire, you know how scary and devastating that can be but for lack of space these refugees are faced with the risk since there are no alternatives to this situation.
”We have lost over 50 persons to electrocution and we can’t do much because the space is tight, we have appealed for support in this area but unfortunately no help has come and we are only careful as much as we can and hoping that we won’t lose more lives, said Abou Mhamad, the Director of Al Iman School at the camp.
The closeness of buildings to each other due to lack of space is also worrisome, houses are built at very close ranges defiling building standards to protect public health, safety and general welfare as they relate to construction and occupancy of buildings and structures.
Worse off, the refugees are not permitted to own any houses outside the camp area they live because they aren’t citizens, not even the growth in population and health risks has been able to draw attention of the Lebanese government to consider granting them more land space.
The space in between buildings are so tight that you can barely carry any item wide in size between the buildings and so when death occurs the bodies are thrown down from one floor to the next until it gets down the story building where others wait to catch it.
“We are not permitted to live or build houses outside this area. Those who have dared to can only buy a house in the name of the Lebanese citizens and that is based on trust. The situation is better now because of inter-marriage unlike before when the restrictions were very tight.
“When somebody dies they pray over the body and to take it out, some homes have too narrow ways so they have to drop the corpse from one floor to the other till they bring the body down,” said Ibrahim Elalloumi, one of the facilitators at the camp.
“During winter people die from electrocution of electricity wires.
In some parts of the camp there is no light and it gets so dark early at sunset and becomes a danger zone for women and girls due to bad boys smoking and hanging around the area, so wherever you are you must return early enough to escape passing through the dark streets for fear of the bad boys,” he narrated.
It is as a result of this dangers that posters against rape and violence are littered on the walls to remind perpetrators that it is a crime, and this is why many Civil Society Organizations like the Global Network of Women Peacebuilders (GNWP) carry out advocacies on the rights of refugees to draw attention from government and stakeholders on the need to improve on their living standards.
At a point during the tour inside the camp Ibrahim the guide had quickly cautioned everyone against taking pictures and videos upon approaching the den of the bad boys. It was obvious seeing many young men idling and discussing while smoking and probably having drinks when it was just around 10 am in the morning don’t they have jobs?
However, the School Director with support from humanitarian organizations carry out youth programmes to orient them against crime and how to be responsible rather than lament over being neglected and indulge in crime.
“Every year we train about 700 to 100 youths against involvement in crime to enable them to live peacefully and responsible,” he said.
“The refugees shouldn’t expect anything from the Lebanese government but at the same time should they let them just die? Some living standards should be guaranteed for people like these refugees who are constantly tested and not wanted everywhere. They shouldn’t just stay in one tight place ,” said GNWP’s Cecilia Lazara,
Marriages on rooftop
Wondering how the refugees managed to live in such enclosed houses, the GNWP Media price winner from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) Ruth Biatshinyi, who was on tour of the camp alongside the GNWP team wondered how any ceremonies are celebrated with no space for walking conveniently let alone setting up parties.
“Whenever there are any ceremonies like marriages it is held outside the camp for those who could afford it and those who couldn’t usually make use of the roof tops,” Ibrahim said.
This reporter gathered that the rooftop is a recent idea since most of the refugees couldn’t always afford the stress and high cost of renting a hall outside the camp and since there are no spaces on the floor, they started considering building a convenient rooftop with cement instead of irons just to enable them to hold ceremonies .
“They changed most of the roof tops to cement flooring to enable them make use of the space and this is usually not convenient during the rainy season.
“Also, when it is raining it is difficult to walk through the streets with an umbrella because some of the streets cannot contain the wideness of an umbrella. No cars can pass through the streets of the camp, if you have a car you park outside the camp far away from your home which is always not convenient and that is why most people have bikes rather than cars,” Ibrahim explained further.
Resilience of women
Against all odds the indigents have continued to live peacefully, women do businesses to support and sustain their homes while youth programmes like seminars and workshops are held regularly to keep youths away from crime and every other form of restiveness.
There are activities by the elderly, a women’s initiative done once a month like a trade fair where handmade items mostly self-produced are showcased and sold. Proceeds from these sales are kept safe for unforeseen circumstances where money is needed to take care of the elderly in need.
There is also the ”Soufra” an eatery run by women where different kinds of pastries are made and always available for supplies at big occasions, seminars or workshops. This is also an all women initiative established in the camp to create employment and also raise money.
Like Palestinian refugees like Nigerian IDP’s
Though the Palestinian refugees are enduring a very poor environment, their situation is nothing compared to the inhumane living conditions of Internally Displaced Persons (IDP’s) in Nigeria.
IDP’s in Nigeria are displaced due to different kinds of crises and insecurity caused majorly by the Boko Haram terrorists while some were displaced due to invasion of their lands by killer Fulani herdsmen including other communal clashes which have led to the deaths of many.
This reporter who has visited many IDP’s camps in Nigeria narrates horrible living conditions of especially women and children subjected to living inside makeshift tents under heavy rain and sunshine and always exposed to extreme cold and heat depending on the weather.
Amongst the horrible experiences of these IDP’s is constant ailments, lack of privacy, hunger and starvation and worse off, some of the camps are not “recognized ” by the government and so does not receive any interventions but for humanitarian Civil Society Organizations who bring them relief items.
Ummi Bukar , the Executive Director of PAGED Initiative, a media based Non Governmental Organization with interest in development of rural women had said Nigeria is currently littered with IDP camps, lamenting poor conditions women and children have been exposed to.
The 1951 Convention contains a number of rights and also highlights the obligations of refugees towards their host country. The cornerstone of the Convention is the principle of non refoulement contained in Article 33.
According to this principle, a refugee should not be returned to a country where he or she faces serious threats to his or her life or freedom. However, this protection may not be claimed by refugees who are reasonably regarded as a danger to the security of the country, or having been convicted of a particularly serious crime, or considered a danger to the community.
Rights of refugees contained in the 1951 Convention include: The right not to be expelled, except under certain, strictly defined conditions (Article 32); The right not to be punished for illegal entry into the territory of a contracting State (Article31); The right to work (Articles 17 to 19); The right to housing (Article 21); The right to education (Article 22);The right to public relief and assistance (Article 23); among others.
Both the Palestinian refugees and Nigerian IDP’s are suffering different levels of conditions, but have a common challenge which is neglect from the government when in actual sense these sets of people should enjoy some rights as stated by the United Nations Convention which most countries are signatory to.
The question therefore remains how far has the Lebanese and Nigerian government ensured that refugees and IDP’s enjoy their rights? It is said that ‘When people don’t enjoy their rights it brings anger and when they are angry it could lead to crime or restiveness especially among the youths’.
The refugees are expecting a better living condition, hence their main demand is to be able to establish a renovated contract with the Lebanese government.
Though the Lebanese government is trying its best to keep these camps in good shape with the help of International CSO’s like the UNRWA, it is also facing its own challenges.
”The economic crises affecting Lebanonis difficult for both Lebanese and the Palestinians , said GNWP’s Nasar Zulfiqar.
The Program Director at the rights-based organization; Global Network of Women Peacebuilders (GNWP) Katrina Leclerc, stressed the need to enable peace at all levels, noting that it has been developing close relationships with Palestinian refugees working towards peace, justice, and gender equality.
Leclerc, pictured a world where equality for women and peace for all can thrive, with expectations for the same rights, justice, and equality for refugees.
GNWP has been working in Lebanon for several years with local partners; the Permanent Peace Movement (PPM) and Justice Without Frontiers (JWF),and has been developing close relationships with Palestinian refugees working towards peace, justice, and gender equality.
In 2021, GNWP launched, in partnership with PPM and the support from Global Affairs Canada, a network of youth leaders called the Young Women Leaders for Peace. The Lebanese chapter has several active young Palestinian youth leaders who live and work in several of the camps. It was at their invitation that GNWP visited Burj Al Barajneh.
Leclerc while responding to the living conditions said Burj Al Barajneh Palestinian Refugee camp is a moving place to visit, adding that the camp is a stark reminder of the situation of refugees, yet with inspiring vibrant cultural resilience.
”We would like to see a high standard of living, with decent work, health care, and sustainable peace in the refugee settlements. Particularly, we want young women and girls to have access to schools, be free of sexual violence, able to dream and achieve those dreams. We want women to be safe, respected, and thriving.
”We do not want resettlement or displacement to be another place provoking fear, or additional trauma and violence. We see this possible because we believe in equality for women, peace for all.
”Despite the challenging living conditions and quality of housing in the camp, there is no doubt that the Palestinians living there have chosen to foster a community and cherish cultural practices to promote peace and harmony. This was evident by the market we attended, organized by elderly women,’’ she said.
This report is a quick reminder of the better place the world would be if countries adhere to the provisions of the 1951 convention which states that refugees deserve, as a minimum, the same standards of treatment enjoyed by other foreign nationals in a given country and, in many cases, the same treatment as nationals.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres, had said that ”Refugees are among the most vulnerable people in the world”.
As published in the convention, Guterres appealed to all non-signatory States to accede to the provisions just as he pledged the full support of his Office to governments to help implement its provisions.