By Carolina Montenegro*, in Beirut
“Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon have the worst life conditions in the entire Middle East”, states Nadim Houry, senior analyst of the Human Rights Watch (HRW) for Syria and Lebanon. The NGO opened at the end of last year its first office in the region, famous worldwide for the frequent cases of human rights violations.
Presently, about 410,000 Palestinian refugees live in Lebanon, according to data of the UNRWA (UN agency that provides assistance to Palestinian refugees). The sum is equivalent to 10% of the total Lebanese population and majority of the refugees have lived in the country since 1948, after the first invasion of Israel in Palestinian territories.
In spite of the representative number, Palestinians have faced for more than 60 years precarious life conditions in Lebanon. They have no citizenship or civil rights and have limited access to the public health and education service. Majority depends completely on UNRWA’s assistance, which has 87 schools and 25 health centers spread through the 12 refugee camps existing in the country.
The same is not the case in the rest of the Arab world. “In Syria, the human rights situation in general is terrible, but the government has been generous with Palestinian refugees as a way of increasing their influence in the region, and in Jordan, they have full rights and are first-class citizens”, explains Houry.
Before becoming the first researcher in HRW, the attorney was a member of the UN investigation on the “Oil-for-Food” Program – established in 1995 to allow Iraq to sell oil in the international market in exchange for basic need items and which was the target of scandals after its dismantlement in 2003.
“Palestinian refugees are regarded as foreigners and are forbidden by law to work in 20 different professions. In Lebanon, there is a norm of reciprocity in effect for professional work, so Italian doctors, for instance, can work in the country, if Lebanese can work in Italy as well. However, the Palestinians do not have a State and thus remain on the side in the job market”, says Houry.
In practice, the search for work in the informal market prevails as an alternative for Palestinian refugees. “Due to the prohibitions, they end up looking for sub-jobs, working as bricklayers and cleaners and earn very low salaries”, explains Benjamin Schuetze, German college student in interchange with the American University of Beirut (AUB).
He taught English to Palestinians as a volunteer during the last six months in the Shatila refugee camp, in Beirut. In 1982, the place was the target of an attack by the Christian Phalangist forces during Israel’s invasion in Lebanon that resulted in over 2000 dead, majority of which were civilians, women and children. The same year, the General Meeting of the UN recognized the episode as genocide.
Twenty-seven years later, the situation of the camps remains chaotic. “Power outages are constant, there is water shortage, no tarred road and the youth are unemployed”, says Schuetze. Since 2005, the Lebanese government set up a Lebanese-Palestinian Dialogue Committee (LPDC) to promote improvement in the life conditions of the refugees, still without actual results.
The problem was approached in a recent report from the research center International Crisis Group as one of the biggest human rights violations in Lebanon. “Today, the issue of the refugees is intrinsically related to the Lebanese sect divisions. The Palestinians are mostly Sunni Muslims and there is the fear that they will cause an imbalance in the political scene if they are naturalized”, states the document titled “Cultivating instability: Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon”.
Day 7, Lebanon held parliamentary elections, known to be peaceful and of good standing by more than 200 international observers. It is the first time that the election takes place in one day, instead of extending for four weekends, as has always been the case. The scenario of tranquility was due to, above all, the victory of the government coalition on the alliance led by the Shiite group Hezbollah.
Since the assassination of first minister Rafik Hariri in 2005, Lebanon has faced frequent political crises and the fear of another Civil War (1975-90) is constant in the country divided among Christian, Shiite, Sunni and Druze political groups.
* Refugees United Special Reporter