Enough is enough! Respect their right to live with dignity!
I would first like to apologize in the name of Cafe Thawra for the absences of articles concerning the conditions of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. This is a theme I care about a lot, notably because I visited a Palestinian camp in Lebanon and beyond all because I believe that the racist and discriminatory treatment against the Palestinians in Lebanon is a terrible sin for Lebanon and that it should end as soon as possible.
On June 15th, the Lebanese parliament could have repaired a historical injustice in granting Palestinians refugees civic rights by voting the four bills prepared by the Democratic Meeting lead by Walid Jumblatt. The four bills have the objective to improve the economic and social situation of the refugees in the camps by canceling prohibitions on property ownership, granting social security benefits for Palestinians, and ease restrictions on their right to work (Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon: Righting a Perpetual Wrong; http://www.ramzybaroud.net/). In 1987, the Lebanese Government actually unilaterally abrogated the 1969 Cairo Agreement, thus cancelling all socio-economic rights previously granted to Palestinians, whereas they enjoyed limited rights with previous agreements. Since the early 1990’s, Lebanon has placed immense legal restrictions on the Palestinians in the form of legislation: Palestinian refugees have no political, social or civil rights (UNRWA, 2002). The proposed bill was therefore a way to put an end to this ongoing injustice, but no decision was taken and the voting was postponed to an ulterior date following the pressures of the Lebanese Forces, Kataeb and the Free Patriotic Movement. Their argument, the same permanent one since the nineties, was that the granting of these rights would pave the way to the implementation of the Palestinians. Leaders and deputies of these political groups have since then competed by speech to slow down or to circumvent this process. But what is currently the situation of the Palestinians in Lebanon? Is their no emergency to grant these laws as suggested by the Lebanese Forces Deputy Antoine Zahra? I will let the reader make its own opinion.
The number of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon registered with the UNRWA is about 400 000 which amounts to around 10% of the total population of Lebanon. However, these numbers do not accurately represent the number of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, since many refugees registered with UNRWA are currently residing in other countries. It is estimated, that the number of Palestinian refugees actually residing in Lebanon is around 250,000 (Forced Migration Review, Issue 26, 2006). Around 100,000 Palestinian refugees from Lebanon have emigrated since the 1980s to Gulf countries and northern Europe, mainly to Germany, Denmark and Sweden (Dorai, Palestinian Emigration from Lebanon to Northern Europe: Refugees, Networks and Transnational Practices). These numbers are important to quote to put an end to imaginative figures used to scare the population by certain political personality such as Michel Aoun, stating 550 000 Palestinians refugees in Lebanon( Orient le jour, 23/06/2010).
Palestinians are distributed between 12 official refugee camps in Lebanon, with 214,736 registered refugees living in these camps, making up 52.8% of the total number of registered refugees in Lebanon, while about 47% of them live outside the camps (UNRWA, June 2006). There are also about 27 unregistered Palestinian informal gatherings or unofficial settlements, and which were established by refugees settling on plots of land, and are not managed by UNRWA (Can Lebanon Clean Up Its Act? Hiba’s Story, By FRANKLIN LAMB, http://counterpunch.org/lamb04122010.html).
However, UNRWA does provide direct education, relief, health and social services to registered and non-registered refugees living in these settlements or ‘gatherings’. (UNRWA, The Latest Developments in the Living Conditions of Palestine Refugees in Lebanon, 2006).
None of the camps have any formal infrastructure. Some camps were partially destroyed during the civil war and the Israeli invasion and were never rebuilt. There is a lot of poverty and the unemployment rate is very high. The area of land allocated to the camps has remained the same since 1948. Thus, in the most populated camps, the refugees could only expand upwards. Construction is not controlled and buildings do not conform to international safety standards (Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon, Sherifa Shafie)
In the South of Lebanon, the Lebanese government has banned the entry of construction material to the camps since the late 1990s. Thus, the conditions of the camp houses, streets and shops have deteriorated (Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon, Sherifa Shafie). The Lebanese Government actually forbids the reconstruction of totally destroyed camps, and in other camps any reconstruction or building requires a special permit which is usually not issued. In some camps, Lebanese soldiers verify that the residents are not smuggling in building materials. Building without a permit is punishable by arrest and detention (USCR Report, 1999). Camps space are most of the times far insufficient, and environmental conditions – lack of electricity, over-crowding, polluted water, sewage-seepage – are hazardous to the health of its inhabitants
According to UNRWA, Palestinian refugees in Lebanon have the highest rate of people living in “abject poverty” of all the Palestinian refugee communities they serve. UNRWA actually estimates that 60% of them live below the poverty line. According to United Nations coordinator Michael Williams, the daily salary of a Palestinian individual is not more than 3$ in Lebanon (Orient le Jour, 30/06/2010).
Palestinians are actually imposed many restrictions in several areas, but we will concentrate on the areas scoped by the bills, which are the main demands of the Palestinians today in Lebanon:
– Right to Employment: Various ministerial decrees (No. 1/289 of 18 December 1982 and Ministerial Decree of 15 December 1995) prohibit Palestinians from around 72 trades and professions (International Federation for Human Rights Report, 2003: 12). Since 1994, Lebanese police has been cracking down on unlicensed Palestinian clinics, pharmacies, shops and enterprises, inside and outside the refugee camps (USCR Report, 1999: 12). The Lebanese government actually applies a policy of reciprocity of treatment when it comes to granting work permits, needed by the Palestinians to legally work. The right to work is granted to foreign nationals to the extent that their state grants the right to Lebanese nationals. Palestinians are at a particular disadvantage in relation to other foreign nationals as they are stateless; therefore they are not able to provide reciprocal treatment to Lebanese nationals. The majority of Palestinians are forced to work illegally, and in unskilled labor, mostly in manual, irregular and daily – either paid, or in petty commerce in the camps. Only 1% of the Palestinians in Lebanon manage to secure the mandatory work permit required by the Lebanese government, in order to benefit from regular jobs. The 5 main sources of income of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are: employment with UNRWA; remittances from relatives working abroad; employment in Palestinian associations or organizations; employment in agriculture and Lebanese companies; employment in shops and enterprises within the refugee camps.
– Right to Social Security: Employed Palestinians have no right to social security. The reciprocity clause stipulates that citizens of another country residing in Lebanon enjoy the same treatment and rights as the Lebanese citizens residing in their country. But as Palestinians are stateless, this clause does not apply to them.
– Right on Property Ownership and Transfer: Presidential Decree 11614 of January 1969, modified in April 2001 by Law No. 296, prohibits persons ‘who not carry a citizenship issued by a recognized state’ from owning property in Lebanon. This property law prohibits Palestinians from the ownership of properties and also prohibits them from transferring their already purchased property and deeds to their children (Amnesty International, Limitations on Rights of Palestinian Refugee Children, 2006).
Palestinians are also denied from other rights such as freedom of association, actually for foreigners they are controlled by the reciprocity clause (Ministerial Decree No. 17561 of 10 July 1962) and as stateless persons, Palestinians cannot form associations. Palestinian refugees are denied access to Lebanese public schools. Lebanon is the only location where UNRWA offers secondary education to counter balance the restricted access to public schools and the high costs of private schools (International Federation for Human Rights Report, 2003). UNRWA runs 74 primary schools and 3 secondary schools in Lebanon, educating a total of 45,259 pupils (UNRWA, 2002). Despite these efforts made by UNRWA, this latter concedes that Palestinian refugees in Lebanon have ‘limited access to public secondary education’ while private secondary education is beyond the means of most Palestinian refugees (UNRWA). Lebanon’s schools have among the highest class sizes in UNRWA’s five areas of operations (USCRI, 1999: 19). The poor socio-economic conditions of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon compel many students to leave school and seek work in order to support their families. Palestinian schools in Lebanon have the highest drop-out rates in all of UNRWA’s areas of operations (UNRWA). All Palestinian refugees are denied access to Lebanese public health care, relying on UNRWA medical centers as well as hospitals that have contracts with UNRWA. While UNRWA provides primary and secondary health care, it is only able to contribute a limited reimbursement towards tertiary hospital care.
This is how Palestinian refugees in Lebanon live; with certain aspects being worse than the Gaza strip under the blockade. So, does anyone still share Antoine Zahra analysis that the adoption of these bills easing the daily life of the Palestinian is not an emergency as he claimed? I invite Antoine Zahra and all the Lebanese deputies who did not directly vote the implementation of these laws to spend only one week in the same conditions and then tell me if it is not an emergency situation! We should may be mention this interesting survey from March 2010 made by the Sabra and Chatila Foundation and the Palestine Civil Rights Campaign-Lebanon, stating that with the exception of Walid Jumblatt, two Hizbullah deputies and Saad Al-Hariri, not one member of the 128 members of the Parliament or the 30 Members of the Cabinet has acknowledged visiting a Palestinian refugee camp in the past five years (Can Lebanon Clean Up Its Act?
Hiba’s Story, By FRANKLIN LAMB, http://counterpunch.org/lamb04122010.html). Lebanon discriminatory laws against the Palestinians violates around 43 international legal obligations contained in treaties, conventions, the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in which drafting Lebanon played a major role, international customary law, and indeed its own Constitution.
How can we therefore understand the opposition to these basic rights for the Palestinians, particularly from the Kataeb via the voice of Amine and Samy Gemayel, both opposed to almost all the rights stipulated in the bills, as well as from other conservative personalities or even the Maronite Patriarchate? Their answer is that it could potentially lead to the tawteen (establishement or implantation of the Palestinians in Lebanon) in three or four generation according to them. I invite these persons to go speak to these Palestinians and they will see that the main dream of these refugees is to come back to Palestine and not establish themselves in Lebanon or become Lebanese nationals, quite far from it. But until they come back, they want to live with dignity, to be able to work and own a house for example, is this too much too ask?
This is in anyway not their true preoccupation; their opposition comes from the fact that it would break the sectarian balance in favor of the Sunni Community, because Palestinian refugees are in their far majority Sunnis. In the fifties and the sixties these same political parties or institutions such as the Maronite Church on the other encouraged the granting of the Lebanese nationality to 30 000 Palestinians Christians. My argument is not to say that I am in favor of granting the Lebanese nationality to the Palestinians, which I already said they are not interested in, but to give them the possibility to live a normal life and not survive with nothing in a hostile environnement. This goes by granting them their basic rights. We can observe that once again it is sectarian argument or reason that prevents democratic and progressive steps forwards such as in the case of not granting Lebanese women the right to pass on their nationality to their children and husbands, because it may favor a religious community over another.
On Sunday 27th June, around 4500 Palestinians and Lebanese gathered and rallied towards Beirut’s downtown asking the granting of civic rights for the Palestinians in Lebanon, the slogan was the following one: Life with dignity. The gatherings included more than one hundred Palestinian and Lebanese NGOs, while the Palestinian intellectual Azmi Bishara and ex vice president of the European Parliament Luisa Morgantin, were also present and provided their full support to the demands of the demonstrators. I wish I was at this demonstration to add my voice to this noble cause and denounce an injustice that has been going for too long, actually why should the Palestinians from Lebanon who already suffered the Nakba in 1948, could not only be granted some basic human rights. As a strong Human Rights believer, I can only condemn this discriminatory treatment and behavior from the Lebanese institutions. The struggle for Palestine will also have to go through Lebanon, the Cedar State, or any political party for that matters, can’t say that they support the Palestinian cause while denying the Palestinian people their basic rights in the country. It just does not make any sense.