The Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon: Victims of Legal and Social Discrimination

What do the famous singer Majida Al Rumi, Fatah commander Sultan Abu Al Aineen and Hanan Ashrawi have in common? They are Palestinians but have key differences. Majida al Rumi is the child of a naturalized Palestinian refugee and has become a major singer who sings patriotic Lebanese songs. Sultan Abu Al Aineen is a Fatah commander and a Palestinian refugee residing in Lebanon. Hanan Ashrawi is a Palestinian from the West Bank and Gaza and a member of the Palestinian parliament.
Hanan Ashrawi lives under occupation and has lived under occupation since 1967 when Israel occupied and began the process of colonization of the West Bank and Gaza. Majida Al Rumi is a well off and accepted Lebanese citizen who makes a good living singing classic music and patriotic Lebanese songs. Sultan Abu Al Aineen is a Palestinian refugee denied of the most basic of human rights in the democratic republic of Lebanon.
An estimated 400,000 Palestinian refugees live in Lebanon. They live in a number of refugee camps facing legal and social discrimination. A number of laws discriminate against them. The US State department 2007 Lebanon human rights report states:
"Most Palestinian refugees were unable to obtain citizenship and were subject to governmental and societal discrimination, particularly in the area of employment; however, Palestinian women who married Lebanese men could obtain citizenship. According to a credible international human rights group, Palestinian refugees faced severe restrictions in their access to work opportunities and diminished protection of their rights at work. Very few Palestinians received work permits, and those who found work usually were directed into unskilled occupations. Some Palestinian refugees worked in the informal sector, particularly in agriculture and construction. Palestinian incomes continued to decline. In 2005 the minister of labor issued a memorandum authorizing Palestinian nationals born in the country and duly registered with the MOI to work in 50 (out of 72) professions banned to foreigners. However, there were no indications that this memorandum was implemented consistently." According to Wadie Said "they represent the poorest sector in all of Lebanese society and the poorest grouping of Palestinian refugees in any Arab country." This is the result of de facto and de jure discrimination by Lebanon. Wadie Said writes:"The Lebanese work permit requirement does not merely impose an onerous burden on Palestinian refugees looking for work in Lebanon. In actuality, it effectively rules out their prospects for employment, except within the narrow sphere of employment permissible without a work permit—UNRWA, the Palestinian Red Crescent (the PLO's medical relief service), NGOs and fields not requiring official permission (“agriculture, animal husbandry, or small enterprises within the camps,” according to the statute). In 1994, 4.86 percent of a potential workforce of 218,173 worked in these fields. A mere 0.14 percent of the workforce—an estimated 350 workers—obtained work permits. The remaining 95 percent were unemployed or temporarily employed in the informal sector, which is characterized by unsteady, low-paying, dangerous, and non-regulated work in such fields as construction and seasonal agriculture." One can appeal for ending discrimination against the refugees in the name of Islamic solidarity or pan Arabism. After all, the Palestinian cause has been used by Islamists and nationalists alike to promote their ideology. However, as Lebanese human rights activist and Swiss citizen Suha Bishara observed to the Lebanese paper al- Safir, there is a curious lack of attention to this matter from those who claim a love of Palestine. Ideology aside, ending discrimination fulfills an obligation of Lebanon under international law. Said writes:" In 1972, Lebanon became a party both to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and to the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. While not specific on the issue of the refugees' right to work, the former recognizes “the right to work, which includes the right of everyone to gain his living by work which he freely chooses or accepts, and [that the states that are party to the covenant] will take appropriate steps to safeguard this right” (Article 6). The Convention guarantees the right to “work … [and] form and join trade unions” (Article 5). By virtue of becoming a party to the treaty, Lebanon has a duty, if not a legal obligation, to preserve and afford the right of employment to “everyone,” refugees included."

Samaa Abu Sharar conducted a field study of the Palestinian refugees. She wrote:
"There is a general feeling that reigns amongst the Palestinian refugees that the
Lebanese state has no intention of improving their conditions. This feeling of skepticism is
the result (as we understood from our long conversations in the camps) from long years of
intentional negligence as they say, practiced by the Lebanese state towards them. A
commonly heard phrase was that “The Lebanese state never felt we are its responsibility,
the UNRWA was the one in charge when it came to solving our problems. But at the same
time, the state always restricted the UNRWA with the limitations it imposed on the
international organization to solve these problems since the UNRWA does not always have
the final say in solving them.”
The Economist of May 8, 2008 noted that Lebanon denies the refugees "the right to own property or to work in dozens of white-collar professions" and even "the third-generation refugees in Lebanon" run the "risk losing their right to re-entry if they stay abroad longer than six months." The Economist explains that this ill treatment is result of the fear that "naturalising the country's 350,000 Palestinians, most of them Sunni Muslims, would tip the delicate sectarian power balance." But a work permit, the right to own property and move freely, are not the same as citizenship as surely the Lebanese government would know. The only reasonable explanation for this ill treatment is that these restrictions are callously designed to compel the refugees to leave Lebanon seeking a better life elsewhere.
It's nothing short of a scandal how the Palestinian refugees live in Lebanon. Arab Americans and Palestinian Americans need to mobilize to change this reality.


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