UNRWA cites progress in talks over Palestinians from Syria

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BEIRUT: Ongoing talks between the U.N. and the Palestinian factions are making progress on issues facing Palestinian refugees from Syria, according to UNRWA Affairs Director in Lebanon Matthias Schmale. “I’d like to think overall this dialogue has gone well in terms of articulated concerns and then working together to find solutions. I rate it as quite positive,” Schmale told The Daily Star Friday.

Over the last three months, UNRWA – the agency tasked with providing services to Palestinians – and Palestinian factions have been engaged in close technical negotiations over the major issues affecting the community in Lebanon. Dialogue committees, set up under the umbrella of a Crisis Cell, are studying health care funding, education, reconstruction of the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp and assistance for Palestinians refugees from Syria, or PRS. The talks were set up following large protests over a new health care funding policy UNRWA passed in January.

UNRWA officially estimates that there are 42,500 PRS in Lebanon, however this figure has been disputed during the dialogue process. Palestinian factions place the number at closer to 32,000. Both sides accept that some families may have left over the last five years, especially over the last 12 months as thousands of refugees fled to Europe.

“For example, we know loads of families that have left to Europe but their accounts in Lebanon are still active and they get the transfers from UNRWA, while others who are in more need and have remained in Lebanon get nothing,” Ibrahim Ali, the head of the Palestinian Syrian Dialogue Committee, told The Daily Star. Ali also explained that they were told a recount of the population would begin last month.

UNRWA plans to undertake a program to verify the number of beneficiaries still in Lebanon in July following Ramadan. The factions hope that if UNRWA had fewer beneficiaries still in the country, it would result more aid being distributed to the remaining families.

This issue of assistance has been the main point of discussion between UNRWA and the Crisis Cell, Schmale explained. UNRWA provides PRS with $27 per person per month and has done for some time. This, they say, is expected to continue at least to the end of the year. However, the main concern of the factions has been an additional $100 per family primarily for rent assistance. “We had to stop this last July and that was an issue we’ve been discussing. We’ve been able to reassure them somewhat as we were able to reintroduce it in April for four months and have since been able to extend it at least to the end of October,” Schmale said.

But Ali and other members of the factions are concerned that even if the payments can be made regularly, they are only the tip of the iceberg for a community that is legally barred from working in Lebanon without costly and hard to obtain permits. “There is ambiguity in [PRS] legal status, they are being treated as tourists rather than as refugees and they have to constantly renew their papers,” Ali said. “Palestinians in Lebanon are suffering but they have UNRWA to fall back on,” he added. “The Palestinians from Syria have nothing and are being left to tend to their own needs in a country that doesn’t provide them the means to do so.”

Schmale says UNRWA takes these concerns seriously and is trying – reliant on its budget and funding – to help as much as possible. “It’s good that these [concerns] are part of the dialogue and we could hear that concern in terms of a continued need for humanitarian assistance and we’ve been able to respond positively.”

The third major area of the talks has been over integrating PRS into the existing services in Lebanon. “PRS obviously are part of our regular services, so for example they are in our schools, using our health centers, and so we’ve been having useful dialogue around how that is done in a sustainable manner and in a manner that doesn’t overload these services,” Schmale explained.

“The children need to be treated as Palestinians [in Lebanon] and get access to schools ... because of the ambiguity, sometimes they are able to go to school, sometimes they are not,” claimed Ahmad Abeld al Hadi, a member of the Palestinian Crisis Cell negotiating with UNRWA. He also said that PRS struggle with affordable access to health care, having come from a country with different funding structures and costs associated with its provision.

Overall, Schmale feels there have been a number of positive outcomes to the ongoing sessions that UNRWA should continue to build on. “I have said fairly publicly in our meetings ... that I have learned that it is important to keep the faction leadership sighted on major developments before we implement them,” he explained. “We need to turn this into a more normal, regular way of talking to each other [with] regular talks on a needs basis.”

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