This article by Stefano Fogliata examines the intertwined trajectories of Palestinian refugees fleeing from the Syrian conflict who have found shelter in the recently rehabilitated Nahr el-Bared camp in North Lebanon. Investigating such a phenomenon, and experiences of diverse encounters between new and established refugee communities, is key to our Refugee Hosts project in light of the growing prevalence of overlapping displacements in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey since 2011. Stefano Fogliata’s reflection on new arrivals in the Nahr el-Bared camp intersects in many ways with one of our project’s field sites – Baddawi refugee camp (discussed here,  here,  here and here by Refugee Hosts PI Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh) -, and also echoes some of the key themes addressed in the photo-essays by Refugee Hosts contributor Samar Maqusi with regards to Burj al-Barajneh camp in Lebanon and Baqa’a camp in Jordan, in addition to the broader conversations hosted at the 2017 Space of Refuge Symposium

Back to Metal: Palestinians from Syria in Nahr el-Bared camp in Lebanon

by Stefano Fogliata, University of Bergamo and Lebanese American University

Marginalized spaces?

Of all the States in the Middle East hosting Palestinian refugees, Syria’s record on Palestinian integration had long been regarded as one of the best in the region. Many Palestinians were in fact regarded as Syrians in origin, providing access to legal and civil rights. Palestinian camps were even considered an integral part of the national social fabric allowing camp residents to benefit from national public services.

Similarly to Syrian citizens, more than half of the 600,000 Palestinians in Syria are currently internally displaced in the country due to the on-going conflict. In turn, more than 100,000 Palestinians have crossed Syria’s borders to find refuge in one of the neighbouring countries. Up until May 2014, when arbitrary and cumulative restrictions were placed on the entry of Palestinians from Syria, Lebanon had been providing sanctuary to at least half of these “double refugees”.

According to a survey carried out by UNRWA, around 31,500 Palestinians from Syria were residing in Lebanon in June 2016 . Most of them, together with tens of thousands of Syrian citizens, settled in or around the 12 Palestinian camps established in the aftermath of the 1948 Israel-Arab war,  including in Baddawi and Nahr el-Bared in the North of the country, and Bourj el-Barajneh in the southern area of Beirut. As a result, pre-established refugee camps have become new transitional zones of emplacement, complicating the traditional dichotomy between the refugee and the host State. In the new context, Palestinians from Syria inherit the “special” system implemented for the 300,000 Palestinians living in Lebanon since 1948, allowing them to become an integral part of a problematic relation between the State and the Palestinian community.

Benefiting from the porous and transnational familiar connections spread between Syria and Lebanon, most of the newcomers found shelter within the camps, rather than in Lebanese towns and cities, due to the more affordable rents and lower daily living costs. At the same time, many people report that this choice was also a matter of safety, since Palestinian camps- as “extraterritorial spaces” out of the Lebanese legislation and interference – have historically been identified as safe places for thousands of undocumented migrants. In this context it is important to remember that more than 80% of Palestinians are living in Lebanon without valid legal documentation.

In such a peculiar and paradoxical situation, concrete risks of arbitrary detention prevent most Palestinians who have arrived from Syria from going out of the established camps. Due to spatial and social marginalization, daily living conditions inside the already-overcrowded camps are often undermined by a lack of decent public service provision. This situation is confounded by shortage of work opportunities, a lack of social services and the concomitant cuts in charity and UNRWA funds.

A work-in-progress camp

Among the 12 official Palestinian camps in Lebanon, Nahr el-Bared constitutes one of the most significant examples of multiple overlapping displacements. Established in 1949, the camp is located 16 kilometres north of the city of Tripoli in northern Lebanon. Tarek, an old inhabitant recalls how: “Before being destroyed, Nahr el-Bared was the market of northern regions comparable to Tripoli: in the camp you could find nine gold shops before the war.”

During summer of 2007, three months of combat fighting between Fatah al Islam and the Lebanese army led to the destruction of the refugee camp. As a result of the fighting, Nahr el-Bared – which used to host around 30,000 Palestinians – was razed to the ground and most of its residents were displaced around the country, including to Baddawi refugee camp. International donors have laboriously financed a process of participatory planning for the reconstruction of the camp under an agreement with the Lebanese government. Despite a number of significant and enduring delays, mainly due to funding shortages, approximately three quarters of the old camp have been rebuilt ten years later, and most of the inhabitants have been provided with new houses in the camp.

In Nahr el-Bared – as well as in other camps in Lebanon – Palestinians are residents but they are not able to regulate their own mobility: strict checkpoints enclose the camp, dividing residents from the city and suffocating both the camp-dwellers as well as the camp’s markets. Officially implemented with the aim of preventing and repressing the proliferation of criminal activities within Nahr el-Bared and between the camp and outside, checkpoints constitute a heavy burden for people living in the camp, many of whom do not have valid legal documents.

In spite of this protracted marginalization, since 2012 thousands of Syrians and Palestinians from Syria have found shelter in Nahr el-Bared, having been issued permits released by the Lebanese military authorities who monitor the camp. In terms of accommodation, a wide range of housing solutions have developed in this precarious setting. For instance, established Palestinian residents rearrange their households by renting out their garages or spare rooms to Palestinians from Syria, while others rent out their whole house and invest that money to themselves rent a place outside of the camp. Finally, some others are reported to have sold their households in order to finance a “one-way ticket to Europe”. This has given rise to a process of constant change in Lebanese camps, from ever increasing electricity wires, to taller (and more precarious) buildings.

While the average rental cost (around $200) is cheaper than outside the camp, a few months after their arrival from Syria many newcomers ran out of resources due to an inability to find work – a product both of the camp’s irregular economy and the immobility placed on refugees by the state. From July 2015, the situation deteriorated even further, when UNRWA suspended monthly cash assistance (totalling $100) for housing for Palestinian refugees from Syria in Lebanon due to financial gaps in their funding. Consequently, many Palestinians from Syria were forced into an insolvency spiral, leading to multiple evictions by their landlords.

In the face of this precarious situation, many refugees have pursued several informal practices in order to at least guarantee basic shelters for their families. Among these, one peculiar situation is represented by the occupation of the metal barracks which had formerly been inhabited by Palestinian refugees – as a temporary solution offered by UNRWA – after a large part of the camp was destroyed in 2007. In this way, as well as inheriting a precarious legal status, Palestinians from Syria are currently inheriting precarious transitional shelters too.

Outside the barracks of Nahr el-Bared  (c) S. Fogliata
Inside the precarious barracks of Nahr el-Bared (c) S. Fogliata
Inside the precarious barracks of Nahr el-Bared (c) S. Fogliata

These 120 barracks, distributed on two floors along two different blocks facing each other, are located outside of the official camp on private land rented by UNRWA. Since almost all of the former dwellers left these temporary shelters once they were granted a new house in the camp, most of the barracks were empty when Syrians and Palestinians from Syria arrived in Nahr el-Bared. Yasser, a disabled man from Yarmouk camp in Syria explains how he sought to reconvert these empty shelters in his new household:

“After spending a few months in a garage, both of my seriously ill children could not stand that kind of humidity anymore and no one could help us with paying rent. At that time my neighbour informed me that some of the barracks in the old part of the camp were free, because the old inhabitants had been provided with new houses in the rehabilitated sector. Since all the empty containers were previously locked by UNRWA, I broke the door open and moved all my family here. 

Within a few days, more than forty families, mainly Palestinians from Syria, replicated Yasser’s initiative, seizing the empty barracks, and moving in with their belongings. After a few weeks of self-appropriation procedures, the former inhabitants of the remaining barracks realized they had an opportunity to benefit from these vacant spaces and started “selling” them for around $150 each.

In spite of being the formal, legitimate owner of the barracks, UNRWA has overlooked these transactions and has not directly intervened in the matter. According to the bureaucracy of the Agency, in fact, these barracks have been considered to be closed spaces since the former legitimate dwellers moved into their newly built houses.

In this context, the triangular relationship between the former dwellers, the newcomers and the UN Agency exemplifies the ephemeral boundaries between “legal and illegal” that pervade the atmosphere of Palestinian camps in Lebanon. The relations between the refugees and the Organization thus rest more on informal negotiations. For instance, UNRWA still supplies water and electricity to the barracks, but, contrary to the situation in the rest of the camp, does not consider itself responsible for the maintenance of the barracks’ infrastructure.

This confusion thus further exacerbates the already-precarious conditions of the barracks: built with low-quality materials on the outskirts of the camp over ten years ago, households live in unhealthy conditions and in isolation. During a meeting on a cold day in December, Yasser stated that “while in summer we live in a sort of microwave, during the winter you live in a freezer. UNRWA has provided us with an electrical heater but we have just sold that because we needed some money.”

Trying to merge different catastrophes 

The arrival of thousands of Syrians and Palestinians from Syria to the already-overcrowded camps in Lebanon further exacerbates daily conditions as well as the atmosphere in the camp. Along this perspective, new interactions emerge between two groups of refugees that, despite a shared sense of collective origin and national attachment, were hosted for decades in different countries and yet now find themselves obliged to share increasingly contracted spaces. As regards the camps’ security issues – often considered to be one of the most urgent topics in Lebanon – Palestinians have remained neutral, leading to no major incidents in the camps despite the pressures that have emerged since 2011. Explicit frictions between the “old” residents and the newcomers have, instead, related to everyday challenges: competition over jobs or between children at schools.

Bird Cages Pervade the Barrack Spaces
Bird cages and other details pervade the barrack spaces (c) S. Fogliata

In Nahr el-Bared, all these dimensions overlap with a further dimension of transitional uncertainty due to the destruction of the camp in 2007 and the subsequent problems that have emerged during the camp’s reconstruction. In the camp, the “host community-refugee community” binary is instead constituted of people who have repeatedly been evicted and displaced. Current dynamics evolving around the metal barracks exemplify this ongoing sense of precariousness.

Contextually, in light of the enduring absence of effective international policies, relations between communities turn into a daily struggle for existence. While several cases of tensions relating to economic competition have been registered (especially during 2014), Nahr el-Bared is currently experiencing a sort of tacit but active form of cooperation among and between the camp dwellers. In this situation, a shared experience of overlapping displacement – as a form of refugee-refugee solidarity – turns into a valid cultural and social resource to overcome the overall precariousness of the camp.

In the case of the barracks, for instance, several established Palestinians from Lebanon mobilised – individually and collectively through local associations – to guarantee their right to stay together by providing new dwellers with basic humanitarian assistance. Broadly speaking, despite the constant precariousness facing most of the inhabitants, the majority of the Palestinian associations have prioritized intervening in favour of Palestinians from Syria living in the camp. Fatma, a Palestinian woman born in Nahr el-Bared and who recently returned to the camp following her displacement in 2007, recalls:

 “We are all currently living in the same situation and sharing the same burden. Here in Nahr el-Bared we had a four-floor building and we are still waiting to receive a new small apartment. When we were displaced out of the camp we used to believe that the camp could not have been totally destroyed: it was the best camp in Lebanon. Yarmouk was also the best camp in Syria, and they destroyed it completely. Now I can feel the burden of these Palestinians coming from Syria, they are passing through the same experiences of multiple catastrophes. They are also looking forward to coming back home”.


Featured Image: Outside the barracks (c) S. Fogliata

If you have found this piece of interest, click here and here to read reflections on dynamics between refugees from Syria and the established refugee communities of Baddawi and Burj el-Barajneh camps in Lebanon, and subscribe to our project mailing list here.


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