BEIRUT (Reuters) - In Burj al-Barajneh camp, Amira Nassar fears for the future after the United States cut aid to the U.N. agency that helps her and many others among the estimated 170,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.
Sitting in an old people’s centre, talk turns to the impact on their healthcare.
“Services used to be very good in the beginning ... They gave us medication and hospital admissions,” says the 63-year-old. “But now with this donor funding cut for the Palestinians, our situation in the camps is very bad.”
Barred from taking up most jobs in Lebanon, the refugees depend on the United Nations Refugee Works Association (UNRWA) for basic services.
But the United States, historically the agency’s biggest donor, said this month it would withhold more than half of the $125 million it had planned to give, amid a widening rift between U.S. President Donald Trump and Palestinian leaders.
Trump, stung by Palestinian condemnation of his decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, had days earlier questioned the value of such funding.
Last week, he threatened again to withhold aid to the Palestinians if they did not pursue peace with Israel, accusing them of snubbing the United States by not meeting Vice President Mike Pence during a recent visit.
News of Trump’s speech at the World Economic Forum in the snowy Swiss resort of Davos spread quickly through the dusty lanes of Burj al-Barajneh in the southern suburbs of Beirut.
UNRWA is already facing a financial crisis and in Lebanon has had to adjust to the arrival of 30,000 more Palestinian refugees fleeing camps in war-torn Syria.
“It’s extremely tough to be a Palestinian refugee this day. For one thing, there is no prospect of political solution any time soon and the living conditions are tough,” said Claudio Cordone, head of UNRWA in Lebanon.
“Anything that takes away any support that we are giving them would have a major serious impact on the day to day life,” he added when asked about the impact of the aid cut.
UNRWA was formed in 1949 after hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled or were expelled from their homes in the 1948 war that followed Israel’s creation.
Laila al-Mughrabi, another woman at the old people’s centre, can remember leaving her home in Acre as a young Palestinian girl. For much of the seven decades since then she has lived in the Burj al-Barajneh.
“We were living near the sea, near the fortress. We lived there and were born there and raised there. Then Israel came and the attacks and shelling. We started to flee,” she says.
Burj al-Barajneh is off a main road in south Beirut, where Palestinian flags and posters of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat hang as bunting and are pasted to walls. UNRWA has registered almost 18,000 Palestinian refugees there.
In the warren of alleys behind the camp’s narrow main road, the ways are too small for cars and a thick canopy of tangled electrical wires and water pipes blocks out the light.
“As Palestinians, we are in catastrophe. We barely gather food for our children and there is no work,” Nassar says.
Nearby, a steady flow of people - old and young - attend an UNRWA clinic. A woman with a baby on her shoulder stands waiting while a doctor walks along a corridor in a white lab coat and pink headscarf.
UNRWA has launched a global campaign for countries and private donors to help it deal with a shortfall in funding.
“We have a clear mandate, which is a humanitarian mandate. We need to support, through schools, through health, through other services, a very vulnerable population here in Lebanon and the other countries where UNRWA operates. We are determined to continue to do that,” said Cordone.
Reporting By Angus McDowall, Ayat Basma and Alaa Kanaan; Editing by Andrew Heavens