by Leonardo Schiocchet
In Lebanon today, the livelihoods of Palestine refugees and refugees of the Syrian conflict are largely intertwined. Palestinian forced migration is one of the largest, oldest and most protracted cases in the world. Especially for those living in one of the dozens of refugee camps in the Near East today, forced mobility (having to leave one’s land) became quickly enforced immobility (as they have been kept in refugee camps for around 70 years), as Anne Irfan suggests (May 12, 2020). The protracted situation of Palestinian refugees means that they have been immersed in regional contexts for decades. The Syrian war greatly affected more than half a million Palestinian refugees in Syria (UNRWA n/d a), many of whom managed to move especially to Lebanon or Jordan. The current Lebanese political and financial crisis has therefore equally affected Lebanon’s displaced from the Syrian war. Access to Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon varies. While some have been largely closed to non-Palestinian refugees, others have been quite open. This can be attributed to various degrees of external control. The physical boundaries of some camps (like ‘Ayn el-Helweh) are controlled by Lebanese army checkpoints, in others these boundaries are self-managed by Palestinian factions (like Wavel [Al-Jalil]), while access to others is largely uncontrolled, as it is most notably the case with Shatila.
Shatila is located in the south of Beirut, where most of the internally displaced from the south of Lebanon moved during the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990) - a majoritarian Shi’a population today much aligned with Hizbollah. Since the infamous Sabra and Shatila massacre of 1982, the Palestinians de facto lost control of the camp and its boundaries became increasingly porous. The camp was largely absorbed by the urbs of Beirut, and while it is symbolic territory for most Palestinian (Schiocchet 2016), it presently harbours a very diverse population composed of around 10.000 registered Palestinian refugees (UNRWA n/d a); poor Lebanese citizens of all confessions; a myriad of illegalized workers (Filipino who arrived as maids, Sri Lankans who arrived to work as garbage collectors, etc.); and refugees, most notably from the Syrian conflict. Around 120.000 Palestine refugees left Syria for its neighbouring countries (UNRWA n/d b) as part of the 884,266 registered refugees1 from the Syrian conflict that are living today in Lebanon, a significant number of them (Palestinian or not) ending up in Shatila (UNHCR, June 30, 2020) or in the Beka’ Valley2 .
In October 2019, Lebanon was hit by a political crisis that turned the country into turmoil. Protesters blocked the most important roads in the country in a bid to force the government to resign, which caused economic life to grind to a halt, affecting the most vulnerable populations, including refugees. The global Covid-19 outbreak in early 2020 affected Lebanon relatively less than many other countries in the region. However, there are no reliable numbers, especially when it comes to such densely populated and loosely controlled refugee camps as Shatila. The response to the Covid-19 outbreak, however, deepened the economic crisis, which quickly escalated to become the worst since the country’s independence in 1943. As a study by the Euro-Mediterranean Study Commission (EuroMeSCo) suggests (June 2020), it is expected that poverty will rise to 45% or more of the population by the end of 2020, with extreme (food) poverty more than doubling to 22% of the population. The GPD is expected to fall by 15% and unemployment rates should hit 50%.
Many external observers praised the Lebanese government policies to curb the spread of Covid-19 through curfews and movement restrictions. In reality, however, the Lebanese government used this opportunity to remove the protesters’ bases in the largest cities. Government actions, coupled with some of the protesters’ fear of the pandemic led to the temporary demobilization of the Hirak (Arabic, “mobility”) social movement. Meanwhile, established elites linked to the government filled the gap left by the protesters and by the insufficient state health policies, often offering aid and thus strengthening clientelism and the grip of the status quo. In Shatila, the efforts of the United Nations Refugee Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) and the UNHCR were severely hampered by lack of funds. While Hirak has regained some momentum in the last few months, the explosion in the port of Beirut (August 4, 2020) brought a vast number of protesters back to the streets, with a high increase in the numbers of those willing to resort to more confrontational actions such as erecting burning street barricades in response to the violent state response.
As Irfan suggests, “Imposing immobility” has been a basic tenet of many national governments in response to the Covid-19 outbreak. But the “twin pillars of social distancing” - keep people indoors and keep them apart – can be mutually exclusive, for in most refugee camps staying put means staying in an overcrowded, often unsanitary, environment (May 12, 2020). My own fieldwork (intermittently, from 2006 to the present) corroborates the impossibility of social distancing policies. In Shatila, refugee aid is not nearly sufficient to keep people indoors, so they have to scrap a living day-by-day through informal work such as vegetable vendor (inside the camp) or day labour construction worker (outside the camp). If imposing immobility in Shatila is not an effective answer to combat Covid-19 in Shatila, we have to look elsewhere.
When I asked one refugee if the Covid-19 crisis had hit Shatila hard he answered: “I think so, but not officially” (…) “people are not caring about it. Shatila and Sabra always were crazy. They never cared. Actually, I have been in quarantine now for 14 days. My sister has it” . To put the conversation in context, the situation in Shatila is so dire that curbing the spread of Covid-19 in the camp is not necessarily a priority from the point of view of many residents, much contrary to the perspective of many in the Global North. The pandemic hit Lebanon during the recent political and economic turmoil, and for many Shatila residents, putting food on the table, or dealing with quotidian symbolic and physical violence take precedence. There are pockets of grassroots actions against the pandemic. As Irfan contends (May 12, 2020), some refugees themselves are pioneering new initiatives to combat the virus through organizing the distribution of information and resources and donations of essential items to keep the community safe, and refugees must be seen as potential assets in the global combat against Covid-19. Yet, general instability and the lack of policies dedicated to refugee camps greatly curb such actions. The muted reaction to the Covid-19 pandemic in Shatila is significantly due to the government’s lack of support for their non-citizen population (one of the largest in the world) and further subdued by the current political and economic situation.
This situation is similar in Lebanon at large, and hot spots of Covid-19 may spread fast in the near future. Looking at the situation of the most vulnerable populations may shed light on how to deal with what the EuroMeSCo (June 2020) called, in the case of Lebanon, a “crisis within a crisis”. Within this context, it is also logical that the scant responses (both by the Lebanese government and by grassroot initiatives) may be even more pronounced in Shatila among refugees from the Syrian conflict who, having moved to the camp only in the last few years, lack the necessary social and economic support, including networks of clientelism (epitomized by the figure of the wasta) that are vital for survival especially among vulnerable populations in Lebanon.
1. These numbers have been largely stable since 2016. However, it is estimated that the actual number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon is around 1.5 million (EuroMeSCo, June 2020).
2. There are no reliable references as to how many refugees of the Syrian conflict inhabit Shatila. Based on his intermittent ethnographic fieldwork between 2011 and 2020, and constant contact with residents, Schiocchet estimates that 3.000 refugees would be conservative numbers.
EuroMeSCo (the Euro-Mediterranean Study Commission). June 2020. The Socioeconomic Impact of COVID-19 on Lebanon: A Crisis Within Crises. https://www.euromesco.net/publication/the-socioeconomic-impact-of-covid-19-on-lebanon-a-crisis-within-crises/. Accessed on August 14, 2020.
Irfan, Anne. May 12, 2020. Covid-19 in the Palestinian Refugee Camps. Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford. Https://Www.Rsc.Ox.Ac.Uk/Covid-19-Resources/Covid-19-Blog/Covid-19-In-The-Palestinian-Refugee-Camps?Fbclid=Iwar2pqcmmkk8ccm3hp3qvngzfvbg0_X0qfybuyvln4dz7lyy9swd_Oqsipws. Accessed on August 14, 2020.
UNHCR. June 30, 2020. Syria Regional Refugee Response: Lebanon. https://data2.unhcr.org/en/situations/syria/location/71. Accessed on August 14, 2020.
UNRWA. n/d a. Where we work: Syria. https://www.unrwa.org/where-we-work/syria. Accessed on August 14, 2020.
UNRWA. n/d b. Where we work: Lebanon: Shatila. https://www.unrwa.org/where-we-work/lebanon/shatila-camp
Schiocchet, Leonardo. 2016. On the Brink of a State of Exception? Austria, Europe, and the Refugee Crisis. Critique and Humanism. Vol. 46, no. 2 (2016): 211-248.