On 20 May fierce clashes erupted between armed members of the radical group Fatah Al Islam (FAI) and the Lebanese Army in Tripoli in northern Lebanon. These quickly spread to the nearby Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr El Bared (NBC), which has been infiltrated by up to 200 armed FAI fighters. Fighting between FAI members and the Army raged for three days until a ceasefire was brokered on the afternoon of 22 May. Despite sporadic and sometimes intense exchanges of gunfire and shelling, this ceasefire held largely for over one week but on 1st June fighting again broke out with a renewed intensity. The Lebanese Army siege of Nahr El Bared continues, with troops in a tense stand-off with FAI members holed up inside the camp, and controlling all movement in and out.
UNRWA estimates that approximately 27,000 registered refugees were living inside NBC prior to the start of the current crisis. By 25 May, the majority of families had fled, either seeking shelter in nearby Beddawi camp - with relatives or in UNRWA schools - or moving in with relatives in other Palestinian refugee camps across Lebanon. By 31 May there were indications that between 3 - 5,000 refugees remained inside the camp, where they have been besieged without adequate water, sanitation and electricity since 20 May. It is believed that those still inside the camp include children, the sick and the elderly.
With the security situation inside NBC unresolved, access to the camp remains extremely problematic. Up to date information on the number of casualties is not available; by 31 May, the Palestine Red Crescent, which has continued to run ambulance services into and out of the camp, stated that 18 civilians had been killed since the start of the crisis. Media reports indicate that over 30 Lebanese soldiers and up to 60 FAI members have been killed. UNRWA is extremely concerned about the safety of the civilians who remain inside Nahr El Bared camp and calls for their rights under International Human Rights and Humanitarian Law to be upheld.
It is believed that NBC has sustained significant damage during the fighting and shelling, with large numbers of public and private buildings affected and water, sewage and electricity networks badly damaged. Over one-third of the 315 UNRWA staff living in the camp who have fled have reported that their homes have either been destroyed or damaged. Water services in the camp are believed to be no longer functioning: the water reservoirs that serve the camp have been damaged, whilst many of the plastic household water containers on the roofs of refugee shelters have been shot through with arms fire. A small number of privately owned wells may be functioning but require benzene for pumping, which is in severely short supply. Sewage systems are likely to be clogged up after several days without running water, presenting a potentially major public health risk. Refugees who have fled the camp since the fighting began have been treated for dehydration, diarrhoea and stomach complaints.
As a direct consequence of the crisis the population of Beddawi camp, 15km to the south of NBC, has swollen from around 16,000 persons to 37,000, seriously stretching already crowded living conditions and overburdened facilities. Displaced persons have scant resources to purchase food and essential supplies, whilst the coping mechanisms of hosting refugee families, many of whom are themselves facing extreme hardship, are severely strained. Many refugees fleeing the camp are suffering from stress and trauma as a result of their ordeal, with the needs of children a particular concern.
Water services in Beddawi camp are currently able to meet the needs of the displaced; however, UNRWA has so far not been able to test the water level in the wells, so future shortages cannot be ruled out. Provision of adequate sanitation for affected families is a major worry. Over 2,000 of the displaced are living in UNRWA schools in and around Beddawi, which do not have adequate washing and toilet facilities; private facilities in host households are also coming under strain.