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Palestinian refugees in Lebanon

Palestinian girl collects bullet cartridges, Ein el-hilweh refugee camp, Sidon
Palestinian girl collects bullet cartridges, Ein el-hilweh refugee camp, Sidon

In 1949, the number of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon was 100,000. They had fled or were expelled from their homes and lands in 1948 during the creation of the state of Israel; 58 years later, they are still unable to return to their homes. Their children and grand children were born in Lebanon and never saw the towns and villages from where their families came. Today, over 400,000 of them are registered by the United Nations as refugees in Lebanon.

The majority of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon live in the 12 official refugee camps serviced by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), an organization created in 1949 to provide relief and work programmes for Palestinian refugees. The land area of the official camps has remained mostly unchanged since 1948 despite the large increase in the Palestinian refugee population in Lebanon.

The overcrowding created by this situation is worsened by the Lebanese authorities’ prohibition of entry of building materials to camps in the south of Lebanon, which hosts some of the largest Palestinian camps, thus preventing inhabitants from making improvements or repairs to their homes.

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Other Palestinian refugees in Lebanon live either in cities and towns or what are known as unofficial camps, makeshift settlements that have existed since Palestinian refugees arrived in Lebanon. These settlements have limited infrastructure and are poorly constructed because the Lebanese government prohibits all construction work in these unofficial camps. Many families place corrugated metal sheets side-by-side to act as walls or roofs, providing only limited shelter from the heat and the rain. Building with bricks so as to gain greater protection from the elements can lead to trouble. In one case, a woman was arrested by the police and detained until the brick wall her husband had recently built was pulled down.

Khaled has lived with his family in El-Maachouk gathering in Tyre for 32 years where his family moved from Burj El-Shemali (Tyre) to a bigger house. He left school in the fourth grade to support his family when his father was detained during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. He now lives in a small house close to his parents, with his wife and children. His parents’ house has one room where the ceiling is made of corrugated metal while the other room has a ceiling made of bamboo sticks topped by mud. “To build bricks in the ceiling instead we need permission from the local authority; the local authority does not give permissions. We could go to the governorate but it does not give permissions either.”

As for his own house, Khaled “built [the wall of] a small room in 2003; the police came and pulled it down”; he had to pay a LL230,000 fine.

The actions of the Lebanese authorities, in blocking Palestinian refugees from making improvements to make their accommodation safe, habitable and adequate, violate the duty to respect their housing rights.

In addition, since 2001, Lebanese law has effectively prevented Palestinian refugees from owning property in Lebanon. The law is worded in a manner that almost exclusively prevents Palestinians from owning property. This law and the building restrictions imposed on Palestinian camps and settlements are discriminatory; they violate the human rights of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, including their housing rights and their right to an adequate standard of living. By discriminating against Palestinian refugees in this manner, Lebanon violates its obligations under several international human rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, (ICESCR), the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD).

1. The Right to Work

Amnesty International has long-standing human rights concerns over the restrictions that have been placed for many years on the right to work of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon as well as their rights at work. For years, Palestinians were not allowed to work in dozens of professions in Lebanon including as accountants, secretaries, deputy directors, marketing agents, salespersons, pharmacists, electricians, guards, drivers, cooks, hairdressers or engineers.

In June 2005, however, Lebanon’s Minister of Labour issued a decision according to which Palestinian refugees residing in Lebanon would be permitted to work in various occupations that were previously barred to them by law, though not those governed by a professional syndicate (such as engineering, medicine and pharmacy), from which they are still barred.

In order to benefit from the Minister’s decision, Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are still required to obtain a work permit before they can take up employment in one of the occupations that the decision opened to them; as yet, it is not clear to what extent Palestinians have been able to do so and, therefore, whether in practice the ministerial decision of June 2005 has yet had more than a cosmetic effect in reducing actual discrimination against Palestinians and alleviating the conditions to which Palestinian refugees are exposed in Lebanon.

The severe difficulties faced by Palestinians in accessing employment have a direct effect on their enjoyment of other human rights. This is not only true of their ability to enjoy an adequate standard of living, but also has negative consequences on other rights such as the right to education.

In many cases, Palestinian families interviewed by Amnesty International said that children dropped out of school as they believe that spending many years of education to finish school or university would be wasted as they would not be able to benefit from their education in order to find work.

Marwan is one of those young people. He dropped out of school after the 6th grade as his family could not afford the cost of education. He says that “as a Palestinian, you study and pay fees then you can’t work… I have cousins who finished school and work in home painting jobs and don’t get back any of what they spent.” Marwan learned butchery after he dropped out; he worked for a Lebanese employer for seven years during which he received less than half the salary of his Lebanese counterparts. Marwan took a loan and opened his own butcher’s shop inside his home camp in Beirut. His brother left school after 7th grade; “he could have continued his education until he was 25 but make no money. So I took him to work with me in the butcher’s shop to learn something with which he can earn a living.”

2. Discrimination against those known as “non-ID” Palestinian refugees.

Non-ID Palestinian refugees are a category of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon who do not possess valid identification documents; due to this, they face more severe restrictions on their human rights than registered refugees. Their number is estimated to be between 3,000 and 5,000. The first generation came to Lebanon from other countries where they had been refugees and were unable to gain residency in Lebanon. As their identity documents expired or were lost, they had neither residency nor valid identification. Subsequent generations have been born to non-ID fathers and – as citizenship is transmitted through the father in Lebanon – were not registered at birth. These second generation children and adults have no legal recognition in Lebanon. One of the major problems that non-ID refugees face is that they are not able freely to move around Lebanon. As they do not have IDs or residency permits, many of them seldom leave refugee camps for fear of being arrested.

Non-ID refugee children are unable to access formal education, including state or UNRWA education. They can pay to attend private school, but they are unable to take the brévé state exams (leading to an intermediate schooling certificate) and so receive no recognition of their educational achievement or finish school.

Rola is a 42-years old Palestinian refugee. Her family came to Lebanon in 1948 and are registered with UNRWA. Her husband (whom she divorced) had a Jordanian passport; however, he lost his passport and the Jordanian authorities allegedly refused to renew it.Rola do not have a civil certificate for her marriage, only a religious one. Despite being registered with UNRWA, her children lack such registration; they are non-IDs. They all went to non-UNRWA paying schools. They were not able to continue their education after the 9th grade as they could not sit for the state exams (brévé).

They are also unable to register their marriages as they have no official registration themselves. In both Palestinian and Lebanese society, marriage is highly regarded.
Given the importance of marriage in the Palestinian community in Lebanon, not being able to get or register as married can have profound social consequences and even psychological and economic consequences.

Miryam is 20 years old; she is a non-ID Palestinian refugee. She has been engaged for five years to a Lebanese man. However, she has not been able to get married as her marriage would not get a civil recognition because she has no documents. Her family has been working on the papers for years, but there seems to be nothing that they can do. She is very depressed.

3. The right of return

Amnesty International believes that durable solutions respectful of the human rights of Palestinian refugees must be made available to them in any final peace agreement between the Palestinian Authority and Israel. Amnesty International recognizes that voluntary repatriation in safety and dignity is the preferred durable solution for refugees. The right of return is enshrined in international law and Amnesty International believes that Palestinian refugees should be able to exercise their right of return to their homes and lands.

Of the three durable solutions for refugees - resettlement in a third country, local integration, and voluntary repatriation - the third is often recognized as the preferred solution for refugees. However, voluntary repatriation has been inaccessible to Palestinian refugees since their flight in 1948 due to the refusal of the state of Israel to allow them to return to their homes and lands in Israel, or to the Palestinian Occupied Territories.

No significant resettlement efforts for Palestinian refugees have taken place since 1948. There have been and continue to be individual refugees who seek to emigrate and live in third countries; however, for nearly 60 years, the only available alternative for most Palestinian refugees has been to remain in Lebanon.

Amnesty International believes that until such time as the right of return is fulfilled, Palestinian refugees should benefit from civil and political, as well as economic, social and cultural rights in their host countries on the basis of equality with nationals, including, but not limited to, the right to work, the right to education, the right to healthcare, the right to adequate housing and the right to an adequate standard of living.

In accordance with the principle of international burden and responsibility-sharing, the international community has, in the case of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, an important role to play in providing assistance to Lebanon to enable it to extend the highest possible level of enjoyment of human rights to its refugee population.