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The Palestinians of Lebanon; a life of curtailed rights and limited opportunities

This November marked 60 years since the 1954 United Nations convention which first promised to tackle the issue of statelessness was adopted. Today however the problem is far from resolved and being stateless – not considered a national of any state-effects at least 10 million people worldwide. To mark the 60th anniversary of the UN’s pledge, MEMO has produced a series of articles on Palestinian statelessness.

Read the first article of the series: Palestinians in East Jerusalem fighting complete erasure

The Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, like all refugee camps, were built to be temporary. Palestinians escaping the violence that preceded and ensued the establishment of the State of Israel hoped they would return to their homeland in the not so distant future.

Some 450,000 refugees are registered with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) in Lebanon, with many living in the country’s 12 official refugee camps. The camps that were built to offer temporary shelters have become the homes’ of generations born into exile, their infrastructure crumbling as the growing population spills out of the camps’ confines.

Lebanon is not a signatory of the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention and its 1967 protocol does not recognize the basic rights and legal obligations to people with refugee status. In Lebanon, Palestinian refugees, despite being born and raised in the country, are denied political, economic and social rights of a national. They are “stateless” and a plethora of inequalities are born from this.

Before the 1982 Israeli invasion, Lebanon was the centre of the Palestinian national movement. Israel’s invasion was followed by the expulsion of PLO fighters from Lebanon, which in turn was followed by the massacre in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps sheltering Palestinians, perpetrated by Lebanese militias under the watch of the Israeli army. Following the invasion and the PLO withdrawal from Lebanon, movement to and from Palestinian refugee camps became subject to strict security measures. Today, Palestinian refugees are seen more as security concerns instead of humanitarian considerations.

Making up about 10 percent of Lebanon’s population, they are isolated from Lebanese social, political and economic sphere and treated with disdain. The fear is that the granting of more rights may lead to naturalization (tawteen), and permanent settlement which will upset Lebanon’s fragile political balance. As a result, the country’s Palestinian refugee community is considered among the most marginalized in the Palestinian Diaspora.

Being stateless in Lebanon defines what job you can do, how much you earn, where you live, whether you own property- it defines, in short, every aspect of ones life.

Zizette Darkazally from UNRWA’s Lebanon division said: “Words cannot describe the hardship of camps established in the 40’s and 50’s that were meant to be temporary.” She added: “The people living there have established homes there under the promise this is temporary yet there are no indications their plight will end soon.”

“Lebanon is a country Palestinians are isolated and not viewed as part of society,” she said. “There is a feeling of emptiness in belonging and they live on the promise they will return.”

From birth, being stateless defines your future. Primary health care for those in camps comes from UNRWA or non-profit clinics, which of crowded and underfunded- a doctor at an UNRWA health clinic usually sees, on average, 117 patients per day.

Palestinians cannot access the public school system in Lebanon. UNRWA runs 74 schools across Lebanon and two vocational education centres that cannot meet all the needs of an increasingly young population. The organisation estimates that half of Palestinian teenagers leave school before their education is complete. Only 0.1 percent go on to university.

Even if they did progress onto university, their career opportunities are immediately curtailed. Palestinians refugees in Lebanon are barred from certain professions, including medicine, law and engineering. Although Palestinians in Lebanon were given the right to take clerical and lower-level jobs in 2005 and allowed to work in further professions in 2010, there are still restrictions. A policy of reciprocity still affects “stateless” Palestinians, despite moves to alter this, with the idea that they cannot be employed like other foreigners who belong to recognized states that can offer similar benefits to the Lebanese. For example, despite being born and raised in Lebanon, the world’s youngest doctor Iqbal Assa was unable to work there due to her status as a Palestinian and so sought work in the US.

As a result, roughly 56% of Palestinian refugee workers are jobless, leaving only 37% of the working age population employed, according to statistics from aid organisation Anera. Lebanon has the highest percentage of Palestinian refugees living in extreme poverty.

Out of the 75,000 Palestinians who are part of Lebanon’s workforce, 20 percent have a written contract, 66 percent are below the poverty line, 75 percent earn less than the minimal wage ($305 for Palestinian women, $369 for men) and 95 percent have no health insurance. Despite having contributed $14 million to Lebanon’s National Social Security Fund, Palestinian workers are denied benefits of health coverage (unlike, say, French workers), according to an infographic from Visualizing Palestine.

While most refugees are registered with UNRWA or the Lebanese authorities, many are not registered at all. Even more restrictions apply to these “non-ID refugees”. Unlawfully residing in Lebanon, they cannot register marriages, graduate from high school or enrol in either public or private higher education and they find it difficult to access UNRWA services and cannot afford to pay for healthcare. Under Lebanese law, the children of non-ID refugees, even when born in Lebanon, and even if their mother is a registered refugee or a Lebanese citizen, are not legally recognised and hence do not possess any personal documentation attesting to their existence.

With the Syrian crisis, Palestinian refugees from Syria fled to Lebanon seeking protection in their thousands. Human Rights Watch and UNRWA expressed concern this year that Lebanon is blocking specifically Palestinians fleeing Syria from entering.

Those fleeing were initially welcomed by the Palestinian refugees of Lebanon, but Darkazally says they are “now they are competing for the same space, same job market and same services.” She says that UNRWA was struggling before and is struggling even more with the influx of refugees coming from Syria.

The Nahr El Bared refugee camp in northern Lebanon, for example, was destroyed in 2007 during fighting between militant group Fatah al-Islam and the Lebanese army. Around 15,000 residents are still waiting to return to their homes. Restrictions on rehabilitation work, however minor, and on the entry of materials into the camps needed for repairs and renovation, makes the rebuild a slow process. As the new refugees flood in, UNRWA’s attention is being diverted from other projects, such as this.

In 1965, the Arab League’s Casablanca Treaty obliged Arab states to preserve Palestinians’ refugee status by not granting them citizenship, but also stipulated that the refugees be given the same rights as nationals. In Lebanon, generations of Palestinians are born with curtailed rights and limited opportunities. As those fleeing Syria swell the number of refugees in the country, it is likely that they will face increased hardships.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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