Created in December 1949 after the first Arab-Israeli war to meet the needs of 750,000 Palestinian refugees, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) takes care of 1.4 million refugees from the Gaza Strip.
But UNRWA's presence is not limited to the Gaza Strip. The agency also takes care of the numerous camps, erected since 1948 in Gaza, the West Bank and in the Arab countries neighboring Israel. Already under tension before the outbreak of the conflict in a country in the midst of an economic crisis, the Lebanese branch of the UN agency warns of the dramatic situation of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, also threatened by the widening conflict between Israel and Hamas .
Dorothée Klaus has been the Director of UNRWA Affairs in Lebanon since February 2023.
LE FIGARO. - What are the main missions of UNRWA in the twelve camps you manage in Lebanon?
Dorothée KLAUS - In Lebanon, UNRWA provides basic services to 250,000 Palestinian refugees in the country. UNRWA is the main, and often only, provider of services such as education and health for these refugees. We provide primary education - and secondary education for those who wish it - to nearly 40,000 students. We operate 63 schools and provide health care in 28 centers, most located inside the camps. Around 200,000 people visit our health centers each year. In addition, we provide social services: 50 social workers regularly visit families in difficulty.
Due to the unprecedented economic crisis in Lebanon, we are currently providing 160,000 refugees, or 65% of them, with a modest sum of $50 in cash every quarter. We focus on the most vulnerable: children, the elderly, those with chronic illnesses or disabilities. The poverty rate of Palestinian refugees, estimated at 93%, was lowered to 80% thanks to the introduction of this quarterly financial aid. We are working to find sufficient funds to continue this cash assistance, and we are also working to improve basic infrastructure in the camps, i.e. sewers, water pumping, electricity... There is no civil administration in the camps, so UNRWA fills the gap, but it all depends on the contribution of our donors.
Also read: “A humanitarian catastrophe threatens the Gaza Strip”: the alert from the United Nations deputy head for Palestinian refugees
Since October 7, what are the consequences of the conflict between Israel and Hamas for UNRWA, and for the refugees you care for? UNRWA, as an organization, is very concerned about this absolutely unprecedented disaster in its history taking place in Gaza. In Lebanon, we have not been directly affected so far, but when we go to the south near the border with Israel, we can hear the explosions. Above all, we are happy that the children continue to go to school after a first week where, giving in to panic, the parents decided to keep them at home.
At the same time, with the United Nations and the Lebanese government, we have undertaken emergency planning, in order to be able to respond to any eventuality. We have repositioned all our medical supplies in different health centers across the country, distributed medicine stocks two months in advance to people with chronic illnesses, and we have refilled all our fuel stocks to prepare potential locations. reception of displaced people. We are considering establishing contracts with hospitals to provide additional support, and to strengthen the hospital system in Lebanon which has extremely limited resources. I would like to point out that we have a very open and non-discriminatory reception and accommodation policy, in order to counter any potential rise in anti-Palestinian resentment which is already affecting the community in the country.
Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are very vulnerable today, given the fragility of the geopolitical context in the region and the military action in the south of the country. These refugees are very nervous, they have experienced a lot of displacement and destruction in the camps in Lebanon, and they know too well what it means to see your home destroyed, to lose everything and to have to start from scratch.
Palestinian refugees supported by UNRWA are scattered between Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. What is specific about Lebanon for them?
In Lebanon, Palestinian refugees are not allowed to work in traditional middle-class professions, such as engineers or doctors. In the region, between 40 and 50% of jobs come from the public sector, but this is not accessible to Palestinians. This also impacts women's employment rates, as they prefer to work in the public sector, which is considered more secure and appropriate.
UNRWA partly fills this gap by providing employment and a working environment similar to that of the government, but we are only able to offer 3500 jobs. There is a very strong demand for UNRWA to employ more. A telling example: we recently published 18 vacancies for sanitation worker positions, and we received 37,000 applications.
Palestinian refugees cannot acquire real estate either. Overall, this situation largely explains why they see no future for themselves in Lebanon and are strongly encouraged to emigrate, which they do whenever they get the chance. Overall, the situation in the camps is depressing, due to the economic situation and because there is currently no road map for improving their civil status. The Lebanese government itself has extremely limited resources.
Between July and September, violent clashes between different Palestinian factions took place in the Aïn el-Héloué camp. How was UNRWA affected?
There is no Lebanese security service inside the camp, nor any civil administration. The Lebanese army controls entries and exits from five camps in the south of the country, but not the interior (with the exception of the Nahr el-Bahred camp in the north). On the other hand, there are militarized Palestinian factions in these camps, and escalations between these political factions can occur. This is what happened in the Aïn el-Héloué camp, where large parts of the camp were destroyed between July and September following a political conflict. More than 30 people died, and two school complexes made up of eight UNWA schools, which usually accommodated 6,000 children, were affected. One of the compounds is still controlled by two factions, while the other has reportedly been evacuated.
We are currently assessing the damage in the schools and seeing to what extent we can repair it to allow these children to return. For now, we have put in place temporary measures so that children can attend UNRWA schools near the camp. It was very difficult to negotiate this arrangement because the Lebanese fear that it would lead to more people leaving the camp. We had to negotiate with the army to regulate the entry and exit of these children, which was granted to us for three months. This situation shows the heavy price that the lack of control inside the camp is taking on the population, and in particular on the children.