During the first half of 2021, an estimated 438,000 Palestine refugees in Syria, 28,017 Palestinian refugees from Syria (PRS) in Lebanon and 18,164 PRS in Jordan entered a more serious state of poverty and vulnerability as the socioeconomic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic worsened and unemployment rates soared across the region.
In Syria, the devaluation of the Syrian pound (SYP) and rapidly rising inflation pushed the prices of basic commodities upwards. Food security was further impacted through: (i) a tightened regime of international sanctions that continued to affect a wide range of economic sectors and the importation of daily necessities, including food and medicines; (ii) an escalation of the fuel crisis, leading to inconsistent petrol and electricity supplies; and (iii) the financial and banking crisis in neighbouring Lebanon that severed Syria’s link with its last remaining financial gateway. Taken together, these developments served to negatively affect the daily lives of people in Syria, including Palestine refugees, at every level.
According to the World Food Programme (WFP), by June 2021 “The national average food basket price was 49 per cent higher than that of December 2020 (six months ago) and was 102 per cent higher compared to June 2020.” Prices for basic food items such as sugar and fresh eggs increased by 3 and 12 per cent between May and June 2021. In addition, water shortages along the Euphrates River resulted in a reduced wheat harvest and price increases for staple vegetables.
A May 2021 UNRWA Syria Field Office (SFO) crisis monitoring survey found that 82 per cent of the individuals in the 503 Palestine refugee households interviewed (representing 2,000 refugees) now live on less than US$ 1.9 per day (at the rate of SYP 3,250/US$), which includes the cash assistance received from UNRWA. This represents an 8 per cent increase on findings from the UNRWA 2017/2018 socio-economic household survey. The survey also found that 48 per cent of total household expenditure was spent on food, a disproportionately large amount that indicates severe distress within families to manage household budgets and secure food intake.
Surveys by WFP, UNFPA and other humanitarian organizations indicate that overall, women, particularly those heading households, have been especially hard hit with rising care responsibilities and loss of livelihoods for those who have to work. According to Care International, “the income generated from women’s labour is not sufficient to meet the needs of their households”.
While active conflict in Syria declined as the country entered its tenth year of conflict, the situation remained volatile in Idleb and Aleppo governorates in the northwest and in Dera’a in the south where reconciliation agreements remained fragile.
Overall, it is estimated that 40 per cent of Palestine refugees in Syria remain in protracted displacement. The psychological impact of leaving their homes and neighbourhoods amidst violent clashes, and the disintegration of their social fabric and coping mechanisms, is profound.
The COVID-19 pandemic added to the hardship faced by Palestine refugees in Syria, pushing yet more families into poverty and an increasing dependency on UNRWA. The crisis has also impacted the number of refugees returning to Syria as a result of preventative restrictions at the borders. UNRWA estimates that 443 Palestine refugees returned to Syria in the first half of 2021, compared to 3,705 refugees who returned in 2019, suggesting that the deteriorating socio-economic situation in Syria was also a determining factor.
As of the end of May 2021, over 1,000 families received approvals to return to Yarmouk camp in southern Damascus, although only a little over 400 families were actually resident in the camp by June 2021 due to the high level of destruction, limited availability of basic services and economic deterioration. Preliminary government approvals to open and renovate commercial shops were also provided and the first vegetable shop opened in February 2021 inside the camp.
In Lebanon, multiple overlapping crises, including a rapidly deteriorating socio-economic and financial situation, exacerbated by the impact of COVID-19 and the repercussions of the 2020 Beirut Port explosion, worsened in the first half of 2021 with widespread fuel and electricity shortages and soaring food prices. Political instability and the failure to form a government during the reporting period pushed the informal market exchange rate up from 8,000 Lebanese pounds (LBP)/ US$ to LBP 17,000/US$, which contributed to worsening economic conditions from April onwards. The Food Security Cluster in Lebanon reported that the revised food survival minimum expenditure basket (SMEB) recorded a 14 per cent increase between May and June 2021 at LBP 268,258, “more than five times the cost of the basket back in October 2019 (404% increase)”. At the same time, the Lebanese pound continued to depreciate against the US$, making basic goods more out of reach for many people. Lebanon Central Bank announcements on the planned lifting of fuel subsidies and price uncertainty led to the closure of pharmacies and reduced access to medicines. The World Bank has warned that the “social impact of the crisis, which is already dire, could rapidly become catastrophic”.
The condition of PRS in Lebanon remains of particular concern.
Data from internal UNRWA monitoring mechanisms indicates that an increasing number of PRS were unable to cover their basic needs in 2021. Compounded by the socio-economic impact of COVID-19, mounting food insecurity has meant that many are forced to employ increasingly negative coping mechanisms to meet their families’ basic needs. Many refugees reported losing their jobs due to shop and restaurant closures and within the transport and construction industries that have ground to a halt due to fuel shortages. Those still in work have reported that the lack of transport, due to the hike in fuel prices, has meant they are struggling to keep their jobs. The deterioration in socio-economic conditions has particularly impacted women and children in Lebanon, putting them at increased risk. High levels of domestic and intimate partner violence, increasing child labour, and involvement of children in dangerous activities, including drug dealing and with armed groups, have all been reported.
In Jordan, the situation remained relatively stable during the first half of 2021. However, an unprecedented 50 per cent youth unemployment rate at the end of 2020 did not serve as an encouraging sign for the year to come. In the first quarter of 2021, the overall unemployment rate in Jordan reached 25 per cent with deteriorating socio-economic conditions particularly affecting the most vulnerable and marginalized, including Palestine refugees, PRS, those enrolled in the Agency’s Social Safety Net Programme (SSNP), and ex-Gazan refugees. In early 2021, a steep rise in COVID-19 cases started to overwhelm Jordan’s national health system; however, government restrictions to stop the spread were lifted at the end of April as conditions improved. The protracted impact of the pandemic continues to affect the economy and further exacerbated deteriorating socio-economic conditions (public sector debt increased from 96 per cent of the gross domestic product (GDP) in 2019 to 105 per cent in 2020). Conditions in the King Abdullah Park (KAP) refugee reception facility near Irbid for 637 PRS remained of particular concern, with movement restrictions and the risk of refoulement affecting the well-being of the already vulnerable refugees there.