Shatila Camp at Lebanon

Hind Sharif, echoing work from Refugee Hosts, says that refugee-led humanitarian efforts by “established” Palestinian refugees to respond to the arrival of “new” displaced Syrians at Shatila camp raise key issues about the humanitarian system’s limitations and depictions of refugees as passive victims. This article, originally published in Forced Migration Review has important implications for the localization of aid debate. We have been focusing our blog series on “Contextualising The Localization of Aid Agenda” since it was first published. You might also find this article interesting by reading the suggested readings at its end.

Refugee-led Humanitarianism at Lebanon’s Shatila Camp

Shatila camp is a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon. It covers less than one square mile at the southern borders to Beirut. It was founded in 1949 for only 3,000 people. The camp has approximately 40,000 people today, but occupies the same space. Although poverty, overcrowded shelters, and poor health conditions still plague Shatila today, the camp has been a refuge for Syrian refugees since 2011. The camp’s emergence as a refuge for Syrian refugees was made possible by the preexisting relationships and bonds between Syrian refugees, including Palestinian refugees from Syria, and Palestinian refugees from Lebanon who were already living in Shatila. According to estimates, Shatila’s population has increased by more than twice since the start of the conflict in Syria. Although the humanitarian efforts of refugees to assist Syrian refugees who arrived in Shatila camp are not well documented, such initiatives have provided key and tangible forms of support, solidarity, and hospitality. This is an example of what Refugee hosts PI Elena Fiddian Qasmiyeh calls’refugee refugee humanitarianism’.

international mandates

Different  apply to different types of Palestinians. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in North East (UNRWA) has the responsibility for Palestine refugees. UNRWA has the authority to rehabilitate ‘established’ refugees living in Shatila, who were previously Palestinian refugees. UNHCR, UN Refugee Agency offers its services to anyone who is a refugee as per the 1951 Geneva Convention. This includes Syrians (except Palestinians). This separation creates a gap in legal and social protection between Syrian and Palestinian refugees in Shatila. It also impacts the power relationships and power imbalances within the camp between the ‘new and established’ refugees. Majdi Adam, a Palestinian social activist who is captain of Shatila’s Palestine Sports Club, said that Palestinian refugees from Syria were seen in distribution centres for Syrians asking for help. Majdi explained to us that Palestinian refugees started using their own initiative and fought this unjustified separation. He had heard from one refugee that they started their own initiatives and were working with NGOs that help only the Syrians. We would, for example, register Syrian refugees as needed, but we would then provide what was necessary to the Palestinian refugees fleeing Syria at night.

Distribution of scarce resources

The is also a concern for the established refugee community. Majdi, for example, said that aid agencies give every family the same amount of supplies regardless of their number of children. These organisations work with established refugees who have taken initiative to fill the gap. Majdi said, “For families with many children, we would tell these people to return at night and provide them with more blankets and other resources to meet their needs.” These refugee-led initiatives place Palestinian refugees in a position of being providers rather than dependent recipients. These experiences, most importantly, show the refugee perspective on the failures of the humanitarian response. They also demonstrate how refugee-refugeee solidarity can fill these gaps. One of the Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon who worked with UNRWA said, “As Palestinian refugees we know how it feels to not have somewhere safe to go or to be welcome.” They are our national, moral and human responsibility to do whatever we can to help them and at the very least to welcome them.

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