Palestinian groups in Lebanon have shut down UNRWA offices across the country since Thursday as protests over controversial health care cuts continued.
Offices of UNRWA -- the UN Agency providing assistance to Palestinian refugees -- were shuttered in the northern city of Tripoli, as well as in the Ain al-Hilweh and Mieh Mieh refugee camps in southern Lebanon amid the ongoing protests, Lebanon’s Daily Star reported.
At the start of this year, UNRWA introduced modifications to their health care system, requiring refugees to partially pay for their secondary health care costs, putting an end to the decades-old free healthcare system for 450,000 Palestinians in Lebanon, 50 percent of whom reside in refugee camps scattered across the country.
Under the new UNRWA system, Palestinian refugees are required to pay between five to 20 percent of their hospital costs -- 5 percent if receiving treatment at a Palestinian Red Crescent Hospital, 15% at a government hospital, and 20% at a private hospital -- whereas the previous system provided secondary health insurance that was fully sponsored by the organization. However, the organization continues to provide free primary health insurance to all registered refugees.
Protests against the health care cuts erupted in all 12 refugee camps across Lebanon following the announcement, and tensions were heightened after a 23-year-old man, identified as Omar Khudeir,self-immolated outside an UNRWA-run clinic in the Burj al-Shemali camp in southern Lebanon mid-January.
Tensions between the agency and Palestinians were heightened further when Haitham al-Ghazi, a Palestinian man from Mieh Mieh refugee camp, declared a hunger strike in February over the health care cuts as he chanted outside of an UNRWA office “Death and not humiliation,” according to Lebanon’s National News Agency.
For months, the unrest in the refugee camps continued, as Palestinian political factions urged residents to continue with civil disobedience campaigns outside UNRWA offices until the organization restored its services, leading the agency to temporarily suspend the policy for a month in March in order to allow for review and the establishment of a joint committee to address the concerns of Palestinian groups.
Last week, a series of meetings were held by a joint committee representing several Palestinian political factions and UNRWA to discuss changes to the agency’s health care policies.
UNRWA spokesperson Chris Gunness told Ma'an on Saturday that Palestinian leadership have been informed that the controversial policy will remain suspended until the end of May to allow the necessary time for continuing “constructive technical dialogue” between the parties.
Gunness said that protests erupted this week when Palestinian “crisis cells” -- committees of Palestinian factions in the refugee camps mobilizing supporters to demonstrate against the agency -- prematurely announced that the joint committee dialogues had failed.
The local Palestinian leadership announced yesterday that blockage of UNRWA offices will end as of next Monday, according to Gunness.
The protests were an “expression of worry by refugees about their plight and the financial stability of UNRWA. The protesters are often explicitly addressing the international community not to forget the Palestinians among all the other challenges [in the world],” Gunness told Ma'an.
He assured that the agency is “undertaking all efforts to ensure that the poor and most vulnerable do not suffer as a result of the hospitalization adjustments," adding that a “medical hardship fund” has been established to address the additional needs of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.
UNRWA, established to provide direct relief and work programs to the 700,000 Palestinians who were displaced in the aftermath of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, now serves some five million Palestinian refugees.
UNRWA has experienced a severe financial crisis in recent years, as member countries have cut their contributions amid a deepening refugee crisis. As funds to the agency have been slashed, the need for UNRWA assistance has seen a dramatic increase as thousands of Palestinians caught in the Syrian civil war flee to Lebanon and Jordan to become refugees for a second time.
Last year, the organization suspended monthly cash assistance for Palestinian refugees from Syria who are now residing in Lebanon, affecting more than 43,000 Palestinian refugees who are reliant on UNRWA assistance for housing and food
According to UNRWA, Palestinians in Lebanon have the highest percentage of their population living in abject poverty from among the other sites the organization serves.
Facing discriminatory employment policies, Palestinians in Lebanon are restricted from working in over 20 professions or claiming the same rights as other non-citizens in Lebanon, while all the refugee camps suffer from overcrowding, poor housing conditions and a lack of infrastructure.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon called on UN member states on Wednesday to assist the organization in compensating for a $81 million deficit, adding that the agency is, again, in “dire need of resources.” The plea comes one year after the organization faced the largest financial setback in its history, with a recorded deficit of $100 million.
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