BEIRUT, 18 January (IRIN) – The UN Relief Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) refuted accusations that it had reduced the quality of medical care for Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, following reports of deteriorating health services. "UNRWA has reduced neither the quantity nor the quality of medical care," said Hoda al-Turk, assistant public information officer at UNRWA. "On the contrary, it has signed an agreement with a hospital that offers first class medical care at a very reasonable cost."

The hospital in question is the state-run Beirut University Hospital (BUH), with which the relief agency signed a contract on 1 January to provide specialised treatment for serious illnesses such as heart disease and cancer. Palestinian refugees expressed frustration over the move, however, saying that the hospital in Beirut was too far away for those in the far north or south of the country. BUH is situated 40 km and 75 km respectively from the southern camps of Sidon, and Tyre. More than 60 km separate it from the northern camps of Tripoli, and 75 km from the camps of Baalbak in the east.
"By ending its contracts with some of the hospitals outside the capital, [the UNRWA decision] has led to a true crisis in the patients’ lives," said Abou Fadi Menawar, Vice President of the Popular Committees in South Lebanon, which serve as a liaison between the camps, the UNRWA and the Lebanese government.

"This is not only dangerous, but also costly, as the patient will have to pay for transportation," Menawar argued.

In an indication of their discontent, Palestinian refugees held protests in Tripoli, Tyre, Sidon and Baalbak earlier this week.

The UNRWA, meanwhile, defended the move, saying the decision had been taken after numerous complaints from the refugee community about the administrative, financial and quality problems experienced at other hospitals.

"It’s important to note that such [critical] cases represent only 8.6 percent of the total number of hospital cases managed by UNRWA," the agency noted in a press release.

A meeting between a Popular Committees delegation and UNRWA Director in Lebanon Richard Cook to discuss the issue was scheduled for Wednesday.

There are some 400,000 Palestinian refugees registered with the UNRWA in Lebanon. Roughly half of them live in camps and all suffer from a significant lack of personal rights, particularly those concerned with issues of labour and property.