The Discrimination against Palestinian Refugees Living in Lebanon
There are presently over 400,000 registered Palestinian refugees residing in 12 official camps and a number of unofficial camps and gatherings throughout Lebanon. These unofficial camps and gatherings were created as a result of displacement during the 1948 war as well as by population growth. The number of registered refugees does not account for the large numbers of unregistered Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon who are not eligible to receive assistance from the United Nations Relief and Work Agency (UNRWA), the agency formed in 1949 to cater to Palestinian refugees.
The Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon are widely recognized as having the worst living conditions of any of the Palestinian refugee camps. The majority of the refugees residing in Lebanon lack citizenship and have been marginalized from Lebanese society. The Lebanese government has assigned them the legal status of foreigners, which has negatively affected their rights to health care, social services, education and property ownership. As a result, most Palestinian refugees suffer from abject poverty and unemployment, have little hope for their situation to improve, and are utterly reliant on UNRWA.
The Lebanese government's rationale for its refusal to extend citizenship status to the Palestinian refugees living within its borders rests upon the argument that the integration of the Palestinians into Lebanese society would negate their right of return to a future Palestinian state, and would upset the fragile sectarian balance upon which Lebanon's government precariously relies. As the majority of Palestinians who sought refuge were Muslims, their presence in Lebanon - a country divided along religious sectarian boundaries with a great deal of tension between Christians and Muslims - fueled much political and social turmoil. The Palestinian refugees have been largely blamed for many of Lebanon's ills, and they have been subjected to discrimination, intolerance and even massacres throughout the past 60 years. Thus, the appalling living conditions in the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon are not simply the result of poor planning by UNRWA, but the consequence of deliberate discrimination on the part of the Lebanese government.


Today UNRWA remains the main agency providing basic services to the Palestinian refugees, such as education, health, relief and social services and emergency aid. The current number of registered refugees under UNRWA's care has now reached over 4.4 million people, living in 59 refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip. When the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was established in 1950, the decision was made that UNRWA and its field of operations in the Middle East were to be excluded from the UNHCR's mandate. As a result, the Palestinian refugees are the only refugees in the world who are barred from the international legal and physical protection provided by UNHCR to refugees under its mandate; instead, they must rely solely on their host country's policies for protection. As a relief agency, UNRWA does not have the authority to provide the refugees with protection of their human rights.
UNRWA is financially dependent on voluntary donations from UN donor countries and does not receive any funding from the UN's general funds. As a result of the rapidly increasing population of the beneficiaries of UNRWA's aid and services, since the 1990s, donations have not been enough to effectively sustain UNRWA's programs, and the agency is facing severe budget cuts, especially in educational and medical care programs. Whereas in 1975 UNRWA spent an annual average of more than $200 per refugee, today these figures have dropped to around $70 per refugee.
Although most of the refugees were born and raised in Lebanon, they have been denied Lebanese citizenship - even children born to a Lebanese mother and a Palestinian father -reflecting the fact that Lebanon retains a patriarchal political system. The Lebanese government treats the Palestinian refugees as second-class citizens and has given them the legal status of foreigners. This means they cannot attend public schools; they are denied the practice of most professions; they are denied access to the national health care system, and they are prohibited from owning property. This leaves the majority of registered refugees completely dependent on UNRWA and other NGOs.

Schooling, Job Opportunities

UNRWA administers 80 elementary and preparatory schools and only six secondary schools for the children of registered Palestinian refugees. UNRWA schools in Lebanon have the highest drop-out rate among its schools in the region. The students come from extremely destitute families, and often feel obliged to drop out so that they can work to support their families. UNRWA classes average around 43 students per teacher, and children are forced to share desks, books, pencils, and other educational materials, making it very difficult for them to learn. As a result of the large number of students compared to the number of schools, UNRWA schools operate on a double-shift. Because their access to employment is limited, refugee children often feel it is not worth it to continue with school, since they would not be able to afford upper secondary school or university. Even if they could, Lebanese law prohibits them from working in most professions that call for an upper secondary diploma or a university degree. Until 1992, UNRWA provided scholarships for refugees to attend private and government schools, but due to financial limitations, this practice was stopped. A very limited number of university scholarships are awarded by UNRWA to academically outstanding Palestinian refugee students.
The Lebanese government requires Palestinians to apply for work permits - which are rarely granted - before they are able to seek employment. In fact, between 1982 and 1992, all Palestinian refugees who applied for work permits were rejected. Even when they receive a permit, the refugees are largely restricted to menial labor in such areas as construction, electricity, sanitation, agriculture, textiles and carpets, smelting, car wash and lubrication. They can also work as nurses, nannies, servants and cooks. Recent amendments to labor laws affecting Palestinians have opened up opportunities in clerical and administrative positions, but they remain categorically excluded from more skilled professions, such as doctors, lawyers and business managers. As a result, unemployment among Palestinian refugees is approximately 65% - although this estimate takes into consideration the tiny proportion of refugees that have been given citizenship and is closer to 90% among refugees living in official and unofficial camps and gatherings. As for those who do work, they are still not eligible to benefit from Lebanon's social security system.

Health Care, Property Ownership, Documentation

Lebanon has the highest percentage of Palestinian refugees living in utter absolute poverty among those registered with UNRWA's special hardship program. This program targets refugee families that subsist on the meager food rations provided by UNRWA. Fifty percent of households are living on the equivalent of less than $2 per person per day. This percentage is much higher than that in Jordan and Syria, even though Lebanon has the highest per-capita national income among the three countries.
Since they are unable to afford private medical care and are not offered public health care by the Lebanese government, most Palestinian refugees rely on the 25 primary health care facilities administered by UNRWA. Child and adult health among these refugees is significantly poorer than that of Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Syria or the Palestinian territories. Similarly, infant, child and maternal mortality rates and the number of refugees suffering from disabilities, mental health problems, malnutrition and chronic illnesses such as hypertension, cancer and diabetes is also much higher in Lebanon. It is not uncommon for Lebanese hospitals to deny emergency services to Palestinian refugees, even when UNRWA clinics are incapable of treating their specific condition. Palestinian refugees surveyed in Lebanon have reported that the health services they receive, specifically from UNRWA, are unacceptable, citing poor hygiene, inadequately trained personnel, and insufficient medical attention. This has to do with the fact that UNRWA's clinics have a very low doctor-patient ratio; the doctors see around 80 patients per doctor per day.
In 2002 the national property law in Lebanon was amended, legally barring "non-Lebanese persons, who do not possess citizenship issued by a state recognized by Lebanon, to inherit or buy property" - a law that obviously targets the stateless Palestinians. This law has to do with Lebanon's regulations pertaining to Palestinians becoming formally integrated into Lebanese society. Thus, Palestinian refugees are prohibited from owning property or even passing previously-owned property down to non-immediate family members. In fact, when a Palestinian refugee dies, his/her property becomes the possession of the Lebanese government.

Collapsed Infrastructure, Insalubrious Living Conditions

During the Lebanese civil war, over three-quarters of the refugee camps' infrastructure and facilities were damaged. While there has been some reconstruction, the Lebanese government has placed severe restrictions on the rebuilding of camps and prohibited their expansion to meet the needs of the population, which has grown four-fold since 1948. Regulations exist even on bringing building materials into the camps for the purpose of repair, expansion or renovation. Penalties for disregarding this law have included fines, imprisonment and the demolition of the newly built rooms or floors.
The 3,000 to 5,000 Palestinian refugees who are not registered with either UNRWA or the Lebanese government face even worse violations of their human rights. They are considered to be illegal residents and lack identity documents, which puts severe restrictions on their freedom of movement because documentation is required at the checkpoints in and out of the camps and around the country. Consequently, many fear they will be arrested upon leaving the camps and cannot work. Lack of documentation also means that having marriages registered by the government is extremely difficult. Even if a non-registered refugee marries a registered refugee, the marriage often stays unrecognized and their children cannot be registered. Additionally, they are not eligible to receive educational, medical or social services from UNRWA.
According to UNRWA, "all 12 official refugee camps in [Lebanon] suffer from serious problems - no proper infrastructure, overcrowding, poverty and unemployment." The Lebanese civil war left a crumbling infrastructure that has become extremely unsafe and highly susceptible to structural collapse. Because of restrictions on horizontal building, Palestinian refugees have been forced to build vertically, and the alleyways between buildings have become narrower and darker. Within the alleyways, a hazardous tangled web of exposed electrical wires can be found. The houses are typically built of either concrete blocks or corrugated metal sheets and suffer from numerous indoor environmental problems, including difficult temperature regulation, weak ventilation, mold and dampness. Cracks in walls and ceilings allow for seepage and for cockroaches and other pests to infest the homes. These indoor living conditions are positively correlated with a number of illnesses, including dizziness, headaches, eye and skin irritation, asthma, upper respiratory tract infections and an increase in the incidence of cardiovascular diseases.
Housing units are tremendously overcrowded. According to UNRWA, over 210,000 refugees are living in camps designed to provide accommodation to no more than 50,000 persons. Overcrowding is associated with acute respiratory infections, mental health disorders in children and young adults, and household accidents, such as burns and scalding, cuts, falls and other injuries. As a result of the lack of space, there are very few playgrounds and parks for children to play in; most of the time children play in the streets, in alleyways and in damaged and abandoned buildings, which exposes them to a multitude of dangers.
Access to piped drinking water, adequate sanitation and electricity is also severely limited. For those who do have running water, sanitation, or both, their water supply is cut off on an almost weekly basis. Piped drinking water is often unsafe because most camps still use a water distribution network that was largely destroyed during the Lebanese civil war, and the damaged, corroded, and contaminated pipes have not been replaced or properly rehabilitated. Although the majority of refugee households have electricity, most experience daily power cuts.
The Lebanese government prohibits the connection of the camps' sewage system with those of municipalities close by. This isolation has meant that the camps have been denied the benefits of Lebanon's extensive post-war infrastructure restoration efforts. Thus, in more than half of the Palestinian refugee households, UNRWA is relied upon as the sole provider of sewage network connection, while 14% of households do not have any sewage connection whatsoever. Open sewers as well as open drainage ditches filled with garbage and stagnant water are commonly found in the refugee camps and gatherings.
The Lebanese government does not provide garbage collection in the refugee camps, either and, in most cases, garbage collection services are provided by UNRWA or by the NGOs operating in the camps. However, this collection is infrequent, and one can often find enormous garbage heaps adjacent to the dwellings. Residents often complain about the sewage and garbage smells that pervade the camps. These conditions encourage infestation by disease-transmitting organisms, such as mosquitoes, lice, flies, fleas, mice and rats.

Systematic Discrimination, but Some Hope?

It is difficult to deny that the Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon have been subjected to systematic discrimination and to the violation of their basic human rights. The Palestinian refugees have been forced into abject poverty by the Lebanese government's denial of their rights to remunerated employment, social security, public health care, public education and property ownership. The argument that Palestinian integration into Lebanese society would either cause them to lose their right of return or would upset Lebanon's sectarian balance is just a pretext the Lebanese government uses to discriminate against the Palestinians, whom many Lebanese blame for causing the Lebanese civil war. The Palestinian refugees are not asking for citizenship; they are simply asking to be afforded the rights given to other refugees around the world.
Some recent developments suggest that change is possible. In 2005, a Lebanese-Palestinian Dialogue Committee was established with the objective of improving the living conditions of the Palestinian refugees. Not much has been achieved so far, save for a slight amendment in 2005 to Lebanon's labor laws pertaining to the Palestinian refugees, allowing those refugees born in Lebanon to work in some manual and clerical jobs from which they had previously been barred, increasing the number of potential jobs from 20 to 50. Recent clashes between the Lebanese army and the Islamist group Fatah al-Islam in the Nahr el-Bared refugee camp have led to the complete destruction of the camp's infrastructure and water and sewage systems. While this conflict has led to the further displacement of Palestinian refugees and the deaths of Palestinian civilians, it has brought some officials in the Lebanese government to the realization that Lebanon's security demands a revision of its discriminatory policies against the Palestinians. This is evidenced by the unprecedented collaboration of the Lebanese government in efforts to secure funding for the rebuilding of Nahr el-Bared camp. In September 2007, at a donors' conference in Beirut, Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora made an appeal to international donors for $400 million for the rebuilding of Nahr el-Bared, acknowledging that "failing to rebuild Nahr el-Bared will mean catastrophic consequences. We cannot risk chaos and violence in any of Lebanon's 11 other camps. If we fail to rebuild, it will not only be tragic, but the dangers will be limitless. This was a wake-up call." While the possibility that a complete re-evaluation of the discriminatory policies is slim, these recent developments represent a positive change and provide some hope that, in the future, justice will prevail for the Palestinian refugees.


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