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'Lifeline' aid to Palestinian refugees in Lebanon running out

A Palestinian girl with a national flag on her head attends a protest against the so-called deal of the century from U.S. President Donald Trump to solve the conflict between Palestinians and Israel, in Bourj al-Barajneh Palestinian refugee camp, in the southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, on January 31. File Photo by Wael Hamzeh/EPA-EFE
A Palestinian girl with a national flag on her head attends a protest against the so-called "deal of the century" from U.S. President Donald Trump to solve the conflict between Palestinians and Israel, in Bourj al-Barajneh Palestinian refugee camp, in the southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, on January 31. File Photo by Wael Hamzeh/EPA-EFE

BEIRUT, Lebanon, Dec. 1 (UPI) -- Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are at risk of losing their only source of survival as the United Nations agency that has been supporting them since its creation in 1949 is running out of cash.

The U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees' financial crisis, compounded by Lebanon's deteriorating economic conditions and an alarming spread of COVID-19, has pushed the estimated 200,000 refugees deeper into poverty. With 45% of them living in some 12 crowded shanty towns across the country, the refugees depend entirely on UNRWA for education, healthcare, social services and humanitarian assistance.

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"The conditions are really difficult. If we ran out of money and we cannot support the poor among the Palestinians, whose numbers are increasing, then they are left on their own," Claudio Cordone, UNRWA director in Lebanon, told UPI. "There is nobody else for them. UNRWA literally is the only lifeline."

Cash-strapped Lebanon, which is grappling with its worst financial and economic crisis since its 1975-90 civil war, can barely feed its own population and doesn't have the capacity to help any of the refugees on its soil. Besides the Palestinian refugees, Lebanon also hosts more than 1 million Syrians who fled the war in their country.

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UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini sounded the alarm earlier this month, warning that a huge deficit in the agency's budget could force it to stop some of its services and the payment of salaries to 28,000 staffers in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip, Lebanon and Jordan.

The agency, which supports 5.5 million Palestinian refugees, has been experiencing its worst financial crisis since it lost all funding from its major donor, the United States. In 2018, President Donald Trump suspended the United States' $360 million annual contribution to UNRWA as part of his efforts to force the Palestinians to resume peace talks with Israel and accept his "deal of the century."

In Lebanon, the Palestinians are suffering the most, with poverty and unemployment soaring since Oct. 17, 2019, when thousands of Lebanese took to the streets to demand the ouster of corrupt political leaders and protest the country's deteriorating conditions. With the national currency losing 80 percent of its value against the U.S. dollar, inflation reaching record levels, food commodities prices almost quadrupled and coronavirus cases on the rise, it has become hard for the refugees to survive.

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"The situation is catastrophic," Mahmoud Fares, a 40-year-old taxi driver from the refugee camp of Rashidiyeh in southern Lebanon, told UPI. "Everything in the camp is pointing to death -- no jobs, no money, and we are facing one crisis after the other...If it wasn't for the salaries that some young men are getting from the Palestinian factions, people would have died of hunger."

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The worst for Samira Sabri, a 75-year-old Palestinian woman, was to see children in the camp suffering from malnutrition as "their parents cannot afford to buy enough food and of course no meat or chicken."

Samir al Hajj is using dynamite to catch fish to feed his children. "We cannot survive with what UNRWA is able to give us now...We are stuck," Al Hajj, 50, told UPI.

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Cordone sees signs of possible violence, people committing suicide, more attempts at irregular migration, young people lured by extremist groups and eventually social unrest and instability that could engulf all of Lebanon.

"You can imagine young people without a job and without prospects...some groups would give them a gun and some money to carry out acts of violence," he said. "Every time I meet someone in the camp, he would tell me that what he really wants is to leave as they are not able to have a future in this country."

Abdelnasser el Ayi, office director of the Lebanese-Palestinian Dialogue Committee, said despair, poverty and anger are prompting the refugees to risk everything to settle in Europe, Canada or the United States.

"They have nothing to lose as they feel unwelcome in the country...But last year, some became victims of human trafficking and mafias facilitating illegal immigration," el Ayi told UPI. "Many are still stuck in countries like Indonesia or Cuba and unable to reach countries of destination, having been abandoned by the traffickers."

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Despite the worsening living conditions, Islamic extremist groups may not be an attractive option for the impoverished refugees, at least for the time being, according to a number of Palestinian security officials contacted by UPI.

Those groups, who were active in the refugee camp of Ein el-Helweh on the outskirts of the southern port city of Sidon, were contained and isolated by the Palestinian factions running the shanty town with the cooperation of the Lebanese security forces three years ago.

"The security situation in the camps is much better than before, but poverty could push you to do everything," Mohamad Bikai, Fatah spokesman in the southern Tyre region, told UPI. "The real fear is hunger and terrorist groups with their sleeping cells could exploit the misery in the camps."

However, the ability of the Palestine Liberation Organization to pay half salary in U.S. dollars for its officers and administrators in Lebanon, along with money transferred from Palestinians living abroad to their families and occasional donations by wealthy Palestinian businessmen and European NGOs, have helped alleviate the suffering of the refugees.

"This helps and can prevent social explosion but it cannot replace UNRWA," Bikai said. "Reducing UNRWA's funding and services is essentially a political issue. It is meant to break the will of the Palestinians so they accept Trump's 'deal of the century.'"

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UNRWA is planning a conference in March to appeal to all donor countries to make significant contributions to help it out of its crisis. Meanwhile, U.S. President-elect Joe Biden has said he would resume humanitarian payments for the Palestinians.

"Palestinian refugees are not going to disappear tomorrow even if UNRWA disappears. They exist and need to be supported," Cordone said.

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