On the outskirts of the Lebanese capital Beirut and in the heart of its southern suburbs lies Burj al-Barajneh Camp, the largest and most populous camp in the Beirut area and the one that has suffered the most over the years.
The camp lies about 2 kilometers (one mile) from Beirut International Airport and is surrounded by al-Raml al-Aali, Harat Hreik, Baajour, and Ain al-Sikka neighborhoods. It is 90 kilometers (56 miles) from the border with Israel/Palestine at Naqura. The camp has several entrances: Jawad Zain al-Din, al-Taawuniyya, al-Ameliyya, al-Mashnouq, al-Sa‘iqa, Abu Faisal, and al-Kifah al-Musallah
The Origins of the Camp
The camp was established in 1948 by the League of Red Cross Societies to house the Palestinian refugees who had had to leave their towns and villages in Galilee in northern Palestine. The UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) took over the camp in 1950.
Before 1948 there had been strong commercial relations between merchants in the locality of Burj al-Barajneh and merchants in the Galilee village of Tarshiha. Shortly before the fall of Tarshiha, Salim Mustafa, a prominent villager, had taken refuge in the Aley area of Lebanon in expectation that war would soon break out. He contacted his friends and acquaintances, most importantly the mukhtar of Burj al-Barajneh, Hassan al-Saba, who offered to take in the Palestinians who had fled Tarshiha. Al-Saba asked all the people of Burj al-Barajneh to host a refugee family in one room in their house if they could, and a few months later Shaykh Mohammed Mneimneh offered the mukhtar the land that later became known as Jawrat al-Tarashha (“the pit of the people from Tarshiha”). The first tent pitched in the new camp was that of Hassan al-Khalili, followed a few months later by about thirty tents.
In the first years living conditions in the camp were dreadful. Many families had to share tents designed for a single family and the tents rapidly got damaged in the heavy rains. The toilets were communal, and people had to walk long distances to obtain water, which they carried home in containers.
Conditions gradually improved. Each family was given its own tent and with the passage of time, the families started to build houses out of sheet metal and then ordinary houses.
The Demographic and Social Composition of the Camp
The first camp residents were families from Galilee villages, especially Shaykh Dawud, Kuwaykat, Tarshiha, al-Kabri, Sha‘b, al-Ghabisiyya, Sa‘sa‘, Fara, and Suhmata. As in other Palestinian refugee camps, people from the same village often arrived together and congregated in the same part of the camp, so that the camp felt like a collection of small Palestinian villages. Parts of the camp were named after the villages that the residents had left, such as Jawrat al-Tarashha (for people from Tarshiha) and Sahat Ahaali al-Ghabisiyya (for people from al-Ghabisiyya).
The best-known neighborhoods in Burj al-Barajneh camp are al-Ameliyya, Haifa Hospital, Jaysh al-Tahrir (Liberation Army), Jawrat al-Tarashha, al-Kifah al-Musallah (Armed Struggle), al-Haydos, al-Sa‘iqa, al-Wazzan, and Kuwaykat.
The camp residents were assigned places in the camp according to the time they arrived. The people of Tarshiha, who were first to come, settled in a line that stretched from the north to the south of the camp parallel to the main road that separated the camp from the Burj al-Barajneh district. They were followed in close succession by people from al-Kabri, Kuwaykat, Shaykh Dawud, and other villages. Social cohesion was not confined to housing patterns: it was also evident in social relationships and all aspects of life that the refugees brought to the camp from Palestine, such as customs and traditions, political divisions, partisan conflicts, and social contrasts.
Hajj Salim Ali al-Hussein from al-Kabri recalls with pleasure how ties of familiarity and affection brought people together in the camp: “We used to work as farmers and builders, but at night we would sit and have dinner. You'd find in front of you dishes of every kind. It was the custom that everyone would send a dish to their neighbors’ houses. So every hara [neighborhood] would end up with the same food for dinner. I mean, people were really nice to each other in those days.”
Demographically, the camp has undergone major changes since it was set up. Many camp residents have left, either because of security incidents or to emigrate or to live outside the camp. But the most significant development came when the Syrian crisis broke out in 2011. The camp saw a large influx of Palestinian families from the Yarmouk Camp and of Syrian families seeking refuge. This has led to a massive population increase.
A survey of Palestinian inhabitants, camp households, and concentrations of Palestinians in Lebanon was conducted by the Lebanese central statistics agency and the Palestinian central statistics agency in 2017 and supervised by the Lebanese-Palestinian dialogue committee. According to the survey, 18,351 people resided in the camp in December 2017, including 8,219 Palestinian refugees from Lebanon (44.8 percent of the total), 687 Palestinian refugees from Syria (3.7 percent), 528 Lebanese (2.9 percent), 8,790 Syrian refugees (47 percent), and 126 people of other nationalities (0.7 percent).
Sources in the popular committee in the camp have rejected these statistics; they claim that more than 50,000 people now live in the camp, most of them Syrians. They say that a single visit is enough to show how overcrowded the camp is.
Relationships with the Surroundings
After the camp was set up, social and economic relations started to develop between the camp residents and their Lebanese neighbors. Many of the refugees found work in the orchards owned by the Lebanese families in the neighboring villages, and the construction of Beirut International Airport in the 1950s provided additional job opportunities for the refugees and for Lebanese who had migrated from the countryside in the south or the Biqa‘ Valley, who had also settled in the area. Since the Palestinian refugees and the incoming Lebanese shared the experience of migrating to the city and a similar class status, ties began to take shape between the two communities.
Relations between the Palestinians in the camp and their Lebanese neighbors appear to be harmonious, and the Lebanese neighborhoods have extended to the edges of the camp as a result of population growth. Sources in the popular committee in the camp emphasize the importance of these ties, which they describe as excellent. Joint committees deal with unexpected developments, and there is coordination with the neighboring municipal authorities.
Area and Construction
The original area of the camp was about one square kilometer (250 acres), but when the population rose the camp expanded into new areas and the area is now about two square kilometers (500 acres). The camp has expanded horizontally and vertically and in an unregulated manner inside the camp. Many houses are built side by side, and some of the streets have been reduced to very narrow lanes just wide enough for one person. This high population density has naturally led to major social and health problems; the Lebanese authorities have prevented building materials from entering the camp, which has exacerbated this problem. According to the popular committee, the Lebanese authorities believe that if they allow building work to proceed, the houses might reach the airport road, which could pose a threat to aviation safety. But they seem to have made no provisions for the natural increase in the camp's population.
The camp's services infrastructure, especially the electricity grid and the water distribution network, suffers from numerous problems. These are worse than in any other camp in Lebanon.
Despite the constant increase in the camp's population, which leads to higher demand for electricity, the state company Électricité du Liban has not responded to urgent requests to supply more electricity to the camp, on the grounds that the camp is a small area and there is no need to increase the supply. Visitors to the camp see a random jumble of power cables, water pipes, and Internet connections; as a result, there have been repeated accidents. There have been 87 deaths by electrocution in the camp, more than in any other part of Lebanon. Improving the electricity supply system is the priority of UNRWA and the other organizations that are still working hard to find solutions to this problem. As in Lebanon generally, the camp residents are forced to rely on expensive electricity from privately owned generators.
Camp residents suffer from a shortage of water. Nineteen wells supply water to the camp residents, but they do not operate continually and do not cover the camp's growing demand for water. UNICEF (the UN Children's Fund) has set up water tanks to supply the camp with drinking water and nonpotable water. The drinking water in the camp is not only in short supply but is also of very low quality, with a high salt content. The water pipes can also be contaminated by proximity to sewage pipes and to the exposed wastewater, which can be smelled in the lanes and the houses and causes numerous diseases.
In addition to problems with sewage and wastewater drainage, the camp also has a waste disposal problem. UNRWA has 20 waste disposal workers, not enough to handle the waste produced by about 50,000 people. Civil society organizations try to fill the gap.
Education and health
The camp has seven primary and intermediate schools and one secondary school. UNRWA supervises one health center that receives 115 patients a day and a center that trains women. Training, health services, and kindergartens are provided by nongovernmental organizations: the Palestinian Association for the Families of Martyrs, the Najda Association, the Palestine Red Crescent Society (whose best-known institution is the Haifa Hospital), the Union of Palestinian Women, the Ghassan Kanafani Foundation, and the Arab Cultural Club. There are also social groups named after the Galilee villages from which families originate, youth organizations, sports clubs and scout groups, and a center for the elderly.
The camp has many problems with services, most notably the narrowness of the streets and the poor infrastructure, which is especially obvious in winter. The cemetery is also very small and cannot be expanded because land outside the camp is so expensive, so people have to bury their dead on top of one another.
Employment in the camp is mainly in construction and ancillary trades such as plumbing, wiring, tiling, and decorating; jobs in UNRWA and the Palestine Red Crescent Society; and full-time work in Palestinian political groups or in the NGOs that are active in the camps. Some camp residents also own small shops, stalls, or carts. The worsening economic crisis in Lebanon has affected conditions in the camps, which already had problems with employment; the problem is compounded by Lebanese laws that prevent Palestinians from engaging in more than 70 trades and professions, which limits their options and often forces them to do jobs that do not match their educational qualifications. The Palestinian camps in Lebanon, including Burj al-Barajneh, have very high unemployment rates, especially among the young, and this has led to high poverty rates among families.
High unemployment and poverty have led to problems and harmful phenomena of another kind, such as the proliferation of drugs. This has necessitated the establishment of a center for the treatment of addicts, Markaz Insan, where addicts undergo medical and psychological therapy sessions. The political groups try to tackle the drug problem in the camp, working in coordination with the Lebanese security agencies, given that many of the drug dealers are not camp residents. Camp residents think the main cause of the problem is unemployment and poverty.
The camp suffered greatly during the 1975–76 period of the Lebanese civil war because it is located on the edge of Beirut, it was the most densely populated camp in the Beirut area, and it was a bastion for Palestinian guerrilla groups and a base for the resistance. Its strategic position close to Beirut airport also exposed it to shelling and air raids during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, the three-month siege of Beirut that followed, and the Israeli occupation of the capital. The Sabra and Shatila massacre took place only a few kilometres from Burj al-Barajneh camp, and the camp residents believe that only divine intervention saved them from a similar massacre.
The Camps War broke out in 1985 and continued until 1988. The camp was under a siege so tight that food was almost unobtainable. Many buildings were destroyed and many lives were lost. Because of its position at the entrance to the southern suburbs of Beirut, the camp was also attacked several times during the Israeli attack on Lebanon in 2006, and the camp residents, along with Lebanese in the southern suburbs, were forced to move away from Beirut to seek safety. Prior to these events, disputes between factions inside the camp had sometimes led to armed clashes.
When the camp was set up, the Lebanese authorities supervised it through the Deuxième Bureau, which had been set up under the French Mandate as a military intelligence agency to gather information and prevent espionage. It initially targeted those who posed a threat to the French authorities, and when the Mandate ended the new Lebanese authorities retained the agency, which took over supervision of the Palestinian camps.
The Deuxième Bureau had an office at the entrance to the camp and imposed strict and unreasonable restrictions on the activities of the camp residents, who still remember how they suffered during this period. When they talk about that period, they say that for the simplest of house repairs, for example, they had to go to the police station and pay a fee. The refugees were not allowed to leave the camp between dusk and dawn, and they needed permits to visit friends and relatives in the other camps. Gatherings of more than a certain number of people were banned, so even weddings and funerals required permits from the Deuxième Bureau.
Things changed when the Deuxième Bureau left the camps in the late 1970s and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) moved in and took charge of the camps.
The camp lacks a single popular committee that manages everyday camp affairs and deals with other authorities. Two political structures took shape after the Israeli invasion of 1982: the PLO and the Salvation Front that was loyal to the Syrian government, and the National Coalition when the Islamist groups appeared on the scene. All the Palestinian nationalist and Islamist factions have offices in the camp, mostly of a political, civilian, and service-oriented nature.
Although the Palestinian groups are in charge of security inside the camp, they coordinate with the Lebanese security forces in criminal cases and with Hizballah and the Amal Movement when necessary.
Burj al-Barajneh Camp, like other Palestinian camps in Lebanon, continues to bear witness to the sufferings and the tragedy of the refugees, which have been growing worse day after day, especially with the ongoing and worsening economic crises in Lebanon. The whole camp is a hive of daily activity coupled with quiet anticipation and hope.
Avery, Helen and Nihal Halimeh. “Crafting Futures in Lebanese Refugee Camps: The Case of Burj El Barajneh Palestinian Camp.” Form Akademisk: Relating Systems Thinking and Design V (Special Issue) 12, no.2 (2019).
Latif, Nadia. “Space, Power and Identity in a Palestinian Refugee Camp.” Asylon(s): Palestiniens en / hors camps, no.5 (September 2008).
Latif, Nadia. “Burj al-Barajneh: The Production of Urban Space and Forms of Local Engagement in the Palestinian Refugee Camp.”
Roberts, Rebecca. “Bourj al-Barajneh: The Significance of Village Origin in a Palestinian Refugee Camp.” Masters theses, Durham University, 1999.
UNRWA. “Burj Barajneh Camp.” unrwa.org/where-we-work/lebanon/burj-barajneh-camp
الحاج علي، أحمد علي. "مخيم برج البراجنة: ظل الموت والحياة". بيروت: المنظمة الفلسطينية لحق العودة "ثابت"، 2007.
عبد العال، شذى. "برج البراجنة: كثافة سكانية عالية وفقر ومعاناة وبنى تحتية سيئة"، (21 تشرين الثاني/ نوفمبر 2018):
لجنة الحوار اللبناني الفلسطيني. "التعداد العام للسكان والمساكن في المخيمات والتجمعات الفلسطينية في لبنان: النتائج الرئيسية 2017".
خليل البرقجي، بيروت، 2018.
أبو أشرف، عضو اللجنة الشعبية في المخيم، أيلول/ سبتمبر 2021.
الحاج سليم علي الحسين. مخيم برج البراجنة، أيلول/ سبتمبر 2021.