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LEBANON: Palestinian Refugees Face Systematic Discrimination

Simba Russeau

BEIRUT, Oct 26 2007 (IPS) - Denied access to social services, education, adequate housing and employment, Palestinian refugees in Lebanon continue to suffer discrimination and marginalisation.

More than half of the 400,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon have been forced to live in segregated ghettos since they were forced to flee their lands and homes after the creation of Israel in 1948.

“Palestinians just want security, freedom and justice,” says Fatima, a local resident of the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp in northern Lebanon. “What happened to my grandfather, my father and my brother is happening to us now. Do the youth have to experience the same situation as our parents?”

Daily life for Palestinians involves dealing with the pains of living in exile, and systematic discrimination.

“We are homeless, so let us live in freedom and safety. Is this treatment only for the Palestinian people? Is it because the Palestinians don’t have a leader? It’s a shame,” Fatima adds.

All 12 of the official refugee camps in Lebanon suffer from inadequate infrastructure, overcrowding, poverty and high unemployment.

“Lebanon has one of the highest percentage of Palestinian refugees, who are living in abject poverty and who are registered with the Agency’s ‘special hardship’ programme,” the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Rights in the Near East (UNRWA) has said.

Lebanon, as a member of the Arab League, officially recognises the State of Palestine. But the reciprocity law, which permits foreigners to work in Lebanon only if they are nationals of a state that opens its labour market to Lebanese nationals, has created obstacles for Palestinians in finding employment – they are stateless.

“The continuing restrictions which deny Palestinian refugees rights to work, education and adequate housing and health are wholly unjustified and should be lifted without further procrastination or delay,” says Amnesty International.

At a press conference in Beirut last week, Amnesty International (AI) released a 31-page report ‘Exiled and Suffering: Palestinian refugees in Lebanon’. Amnesty urged the Lebanese government to fully protect and uphold the basic human rights of Palestinian refugees.

“We urge the Lebanese government to take immediate measures to eliminate all forms of discrimination against Palestinian refugees in order to enable them to exercise their economic, social and cultural rights on the same basis as the rest of the population of Lebanon,” the report said.

In 2005, the Lebanese government lifted a ban on 50 of the 70 professions declared off-limits to Palestinians. But still, only a few can afford a work permit.

Since the 15-week Nahr al-Bared clashes, many Palestinians have reported being abused and threatened by soldiers at checkpoints.

Earlier this year, fighting broke out between the Lebanese Army and the Islamist group Fatah al-Islam at the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp. The conflict, which began May 20 and ended Sep. 2, left at least 400 people dead, including an unknown number of Palestinian civilians, and 169 Lebanese soldiers. Some 30,000 residents were forced to flee to the nearby Baddawi refugee camp in Tripoli in Lebanon. The infrastructure, water and sewage system at Nahr al-Bared were destroyed.

Speaking at a donor conference in Beirut last month, Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora requested 400 million dollars from international donors to rebuild Nahr al-Bared.

“Failing to rebuild Nahr al-Bared will mean catastrophic consequences,” said Siniora. “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.”

But that would still leave fundamental issues unresolved. “The Lebanese Army and the internal security forces are basically looking upon Palestinians as a threat,” says Rania Masri, assistant professor at the Faculty of Sciences at the University of Balamand in Lebanon.

Many Lebanese blame the Palestinians for allowing Fatah al-Islam into Nahr al-Bared, and say that it is reconstruction and their return that could re-ignite violence. But some analysts believe that there will be a renewed cooperation in the reconstruction effort.

“This is the first time that the Palestinian leadership is working with the Lebanese government to improve security in the camps. This should turn a new page in the history of Palestinian-Lebanese relations in Lebanon and ease hostilities of the civil war years,” says Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Centre. “This should also coax the Lebanese government to grant Palestinian refugees in Lebanon social and economic rights.”

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