1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Dire conditions in Shatila mirror refugees' lack of future

Charlotte Hauswedell
May 15, 2017

An estimated 1.5 million refugees have fled to Lebanon due to the Syrian war, many thousands to Shatila. The Palestinian refugee camp is at its limit and residents face a legal void in the overburdened host country.

Shatila Flüchtlingscamp Beirut
Image: DW/C.Hauswedell

Narrow brick stairs lead up to the second floor of a rundown building in the middle of Shatila. The door is blocked, closed off with fresh cement bricks. Until one month ago, the staircase was used by the building's residents until a young boy got caught in the electric cables hanging above. He tripped, fell and died.

Unsecured electric wires are among the most common causes of hazardous accidents in the Palestinian refugee camp Shatila. Spread like spider webs, they run from building to building throughout the narrow streets and alleyways, loosely tightened with makeshift straps. Power cuts and electrocution are frequent.

The camp has been at its limit for a long time, tells Shatila resident Imad Raad who also volunteers for refugee aid organization "Basmeh & Zeitooneh." In addition to an extremely fragile infrastructure, the camp was overcrowded even before the Syrian war began in 2011. Since then, thousands more have come to Shatila. Additional floors have been built on top of buildings as one way to accommodate the newcomers.

Before the war, 22,000 Palestinian refugees lived in Shatila, an area of 1.5 square kilometers, Imad Raad explains. Since then, 17,000 new refugees have arrived, initially mostly Palestinian Syrians, later joined by regular Syrians as well.

Shatila Flüchtlingscamp Beirut
Image: DW/C.Hauswedell

Finding shelter for new families

"Families were arriving at night and did not have a place to go," Imad Raad recalls. "They did not have anything on them. There was no help available." Long time Shatila resident Imad Raad was among the first volunteers who responded to the crisis. He mobilized friends and neighbors. "We went around until the early morning hours to find shelter for the new refugees. We knocked on doors to ask if there was space." In addition, Rwad organized necessities like kitchen facilities, pots or pillows. Many Shatila residents like Imab Rwad joined to help.

Initially in 2012, there were no aid organizations present in Shatila. Basmeh & Zeitooneh was founded in 2012, it started with people like Imad Raad who were dedicated to serving Syrian refugees in Lebanon on the ground. Other local and international NGOs including al-Najda, Beit Atfal al-Soumoud, Norwegian Peoples' Aid, or Doctors Without Borders followed and set up offices in the camp.

The past years have put Shatila to the test, further aggravating living conditions but also straining the social fabric. "Palestinians who have lived here all their life know a life of struggling," Raad explains. "Refugees from Syria who had been well off before the war are not used to this."

Shatila Flüchtlingscamp Beirut
At Shatila's main squareImage: DW/C.Hauswedell

Damp shelters and streets, open sewage are a threat to environmental health conditions. Access to medical services and education is difficult, as is finding work, because even Lebanon-born Shatila residents are not allowed to legally take up a job in Lebanon. Many Syrian refugees are driven to beg in Beirut streets - young children try to sell flowers or shine shoes.

The dream of Europe

In Shatila, integration is visible. Syrian families have opened shops and sell fruit and groceries, one way to make a living. The perspectives of finding work outside the camp, however, are slim. "The dream of going to Europe is still very much in the minds of many," says one Palestinian Syrian who came to Lebanon in 2013 with his parents. "Even if the journey is dangerous, even if the laws and regulations in Europe are complicated - people who have fled the war and have no perspective here in Lebanon would rather choose the risk."

Shatila Flüchtlingscamp Beirut
Imad Raad helps newcomers who come to ShatilaImage: DW/C.Hauswedell

Many families in Shatila have left for Europe, Imad Raad confirms. An estimated 6,000 people of those who arrived since 2011 have continued their journey, headed for Europe and an uncertain future. "There are smugglers offering their services in Shatila," he says. But paying several thousand dollars for a possible chance of a future in a new country is an option out of reach for many. Others hope to return to Syria one day and choose to stay in Shatila - they want to remain as close to their country as possible.

Founded by the International Committee of the Red Cross in 1949 to house Palestinian refugees driven from their country, Shatila was left to govern itself. The camp has experienced bloodshed and violence; in was the scene of the brutal 1982 massacre during which 3,500 residents were killed by the Lebanese Christian Phalange militia. Various Palestinian factions rule over different parts the camp today. Young men armed with guns sit a few feet away from camp's main square, above them flags with their announced political leaders.

The Lebanese state remains in a state of limbo, it does not govern within the camp and has continued its infrastructural neglect toward Palestinians refugees.

Shatila Flüchtlingscamp Beirut
A boy walking up the stairs (right) got caught in the electric cablesImage: DW/C.Hauswedell

Problems of reaching schools

The relief agency for Palestinian refugees in the Near East, UNRWA, set up educational programs as well as health care services and infrastructure programs in Lebanon, including in Shatila. Infrastructural problems and a lack of social services have pervaded however, and have added to the legal void that Palestinian refugees are facing in Lebanon. "International help was mostly absent," Imad Raad states. The unavailability of medical services or education reflects the dire conditions endured by many. "There was no education, pregnant women had no help before Doctors Without Borders [Médecins Sans Frontières or MSF] arrived."

According to the UNRWA, there are 450,000 Palestinian refugees registered in Lebanon, making up a total of ten percent of the total population. Over half live in one of 12 refugee camps, Shatila being the largest in population. According to UNHCR, more than 350,000 out of 500,000 refugee children do not go to school. Programs funded by international aid are reaching out to Syrian children at Lebanese schools. Lebanese education authorities have added second shifts so that refugee children can take part in afternoon classes and hundreds of new teachers were hired with international funds.

Marginalization of Palestinian refugees

Shatila Flüchtlingscamp Beirut
Image: DW/C.Hauswedell

Yet, many children have been out of school for years and face psychological difficulties of processing experiences of war and adapting to a new environment. Merely reaching these schools can be a challenge as well. "Many families in Shatila do not have enough money to pay for the bus to school," Raad says. Letting the children walk alone in the streets outside the camp is dangerous.

Shatila residents are still marginalized and remain without legal status in Lebanon. Although migration to Lebanon has been going on for decades, refugees remain on the sidelines of social and political life in the country. They are not allowed to own property and are barred from working in as many as 20 professions.

The migration crisis due to the Syrian war is one of the main issues concerning Lebanese society and its people. The conditions in Shatila are a reminder of a very fragile situation, one of neglect, overburden and of the country's challenges to integrate new refugees as well as long-time refugees.