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The Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and the right to work

Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut, Lebanon [Professor Kamel Hawwash]
Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut, Lebanon [Professor Kamel Hawwash]

The latest campaign against “foreign labour” by the Lebanese Ministry of Labour provoked wide-spread protests amongst Palestinian refugees, who felt that they are its targets. This was so despite their political and legal status as refugees who did not enter Lebanon in search of work, but were the victims of forced displacement by Zionist terror gangs in the 1948 Nakba. Their position in Lebanon is one of forced asylum because they have been prevented consistently since 1948 from exercising their legitimate right to return to their towns and villages in what is now called Israel.

After more than seventy years, Lebanon remains the country where Palestinian refugees suffer the most, where they are deprived of many of their economic and human rights, including working in certain professions, procedural complications in obtaining work permits, and denial of the right to own property. As for property inheritance, contrary to all rumours, the current law officially allows Palestinian refugees to inherit property and register it under their own names. However, this process is usually full of complications.

During the past fifteen years, limited measures have been introduced to alleviate some of the suffering of the refugees. The number of prohibited professions was decreased, and some law amendments in 2010 revoked the “reciprocity of treatment” usually applied among states. They now have the opportunity to benefit partially from the social security system, where previously the refugee or his employer had to pay 23 per cent of his fees, without obtaining social security benefits. Now, though, refugees can obtain an 8.5 per cent benefit linked to “end of service” benefits.

Hence, practically speaking, the problem still persists, whether concerning being banned from working in certain jobs and professions, or obtaining a work permit, or in terms of the social security system that takes far more than it gives.

READ: Palestinians continue protests against Lebanon work restriction

The concerns of some parties regarding the “employment” of Palestinians — notably that they will compete with the Lebanese for jobs — are unfounded. According to an official government census of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, they number around 174,000 but if we suppose that there are some whom were not included in the census we may add tens of thousands to this figure to make around 220,000. According to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), though, there are about 500,000 registered refugees, which means that there is a “haemorrhage” of around 300,000 Palestinians temporarily or permanently living elsewhere. Thus, if the number of women — 50 per cent of the total — is subtracted, as the overwhelming majority of them do not work, and the number of children under the age of 18 (30–35 per cent) is also subtracted, then the actual Palestinian labour force is around 50,000 people, more than half of whom (according to academic studies) are currently unemployed, with many (under one-third) working inside the refugee camps. It is clear, therefore, that the Palestinian labour force is limited, and even small compared with others.

Other claims that the Palestinian refugees are a burden on the Lebanese government are an exaggeration, because it does not spend on any refugee infrastructure, nor does it offer special services to Palestinian refugees out of its budget. Furthermore, Palestinians do not benefit from the health, education and social welfare systems.

Palestinians in the refugee camp of Baddawi in Lebanon protest against the imposed restrictions on their work opportunities on 15 July 2019 [Quds News Network/Twitter]

Palestinians in the refugee camp of Baddawi in Lebanon protest against the imposed restrictions on their work opportunities on 15 July 2019 [Quds News Network/Twitter]

Aside from the fact that it is a basic human right, allowing Palestinians to work would in itself be a service to the Lebanese economy, for it would reflect positively on the development process and meet the needs of different sectors. It would also turn the refugees from an unproductive force into productive contributors to society, adding value for everyone. The “legitimisation” of refugees’ work will result in them entering the Lebanese tax system and paying various fees to the state treasury. They would thus be an asset to Lebanon.

Moreover, Palestinian workers would spend their money in Lebanon, and thus redistribute their income across various sectors of the local economy, which would be a development catalyst for the country. This is unlike “foreign” workers who transfer hundreds of millions of dollars to their home countries.

READ: Following protests, Lebanon exempts Palestinians from new labour law

Those Palestinian refugees with Lebanese travel documents, who have had to work abroad in the Gulf countries, Europe and other places, transfer hundreds of millions of dollars annually. Many would no doubt like to invest in Lebanon, which would reflect positively on the economy if they were allowed to purchase property in their own names.

The continued restrictions on Palestinian refugees which deny them their right to work, lead to feelings of injustice and oppression. This leaves them open to extremism and social problems. They can be exploited, which harms Lebanon and its security and relative stability. Hence, allowing Palestinian refugees to work in decent conditions is a political, security and social imperative for Lebanon, as well as an economic need.

International studies indicate that immigration often has a positive influence on the economies of host countries if it is handled well. That was the conclusion of the Hamilton Project (an economic policy initiative at the Brookings Institution, one of the most prominent think tanks in the world, launched in April 2006). The Hamilton studies confirm the role of immigrants in economic growth and the boosting of innovation. Indeed, many major companies were founded by “immigrants”, such as Google, Intel, PayPal and eBay, for example. More than half the patents in the USA were filed by “immigrants” or their children, although they constitute just 15 per cent of the population.

The Palestinians who were forced to seek refuge in Lebanon carried with them 150 million Palestinian pounds (around $15 billion at today’s rates), and are well known for how much they have contributed to the growth of the Lebanese economy, as well as their establishment of many large institutions; they are more than capable of continuing with such a positive economic role. The political leadership in Lebanon, therefore, should take the forced migration status of the Palestinian refugees into consideration, look at them positively and build on other experiences in the same context.

READ: Life as a Palestinian refugee in Lebanon

The Lebanese-Palestinian Dialogue Committee (LPDC) attached to the office of the Presidency of the Council of Ministers, took an approach resulting in the issue of a document in January 2017 — A Unified Lebanese Vision For the Palestinian Refugees Affairs In Lebanon — that was approved by Lebanon’s political parties and influential groups. This was an important step towards addressing the rights of Palestinian refugees in the country, with a consensus on meeting the human, economic and social rights of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon; improving the conditions in their camps; “humanising” security procedures; respecting the peaceful political rights and freedoms of Palestinian refugees; facilitating the establishment and registration of Palestinian associations working in Palestinian circles; and approving the existence of representative committees of the refugee camps.

Shatila Palestinian refugee camp, Beirut, Lebanon [File photo]

Shatila Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut, Lebanon [File photo]

However, after more than two years, no actual steps have been taken, the suffering has continued and the “Palestinian haemorrhage” is still there, with many refugees compelled to move, legally or otherwise, from Lebanon. This may be attributed to an “undeclared desire” on the part of some parties to expel Palestinians from the country, due to their fears of “permanent resettlement” or perhaps some sectarian, economic or political calculations. Nevertheless, we must mention that the Lebanese political and legislative system is slow and suffers real problems due to the complex and interlaced political and sectarian structure, which disrupts the interests of the Lebanese themselves, as has been seen when choosing the State President, forming the government, passing the budget or even solving the waste disposal crisis. Consequently, many political forces do not believe that addressing the rights of refugees is a pressing matter. Even those who adopt Palestinian demands, don’t want to put pressure on their allies who have reservations about the rights of refugees.

Finally, Lebanese forces that are sympathetic with Palestinian rights, who refuse to get rid of the Palestine issue and reject the “deal of the century” must not — whether directly or indirectly — contribute to the pressure that compels Palestinians to leave Lebanon. At the very least, Palestinians in the country must be given their basic rights, which will help them stay near Palestine while waiting for their legitimate return. Such procedures would not only lift the injustice and improve the image of the Lebanese administration, but also lead to a qualitative addition to the Lebanese economy and contribute to a more politically and socially stable country, with huge benefits for state security.

This article was originally published in Arabic by Arabi 21 on 20 July 2019

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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