Refugees in Lebanon
A-Definition of refugees
B-Lebanese official policy towards refugees
II-Historical background of refugee problem in Lebanon
A-1984 & 1967 Palestinian refugees
III-Violation of refugee rights in Lebanon
B-Violations specific to Palestinian refugees
1-Restrictions on space
IV-Politicization of the refugee problem
A-Political limitations on official policy
B-Bias in public opinion
The issue of refugees in Lebanon is one of the most sensitive issues with respect to national security policy of the country. Lebanon. Refugees in Lebanon are classified into two major groups, Palestinian and non-Palestinian refugees. The reason for this classification is that Palestinian refugees do not only constitute the majority of refugees in Lebanon, but the majority had also held the status of refugees, holding laissez-passez documents since 1948. By definition, a refugee is a person who has fled or been expelled from his or her country of origin because of natural catastrophe, war or military occupation, or fear of religious, racial, or political persecution (“Refugee”, Encyclopedia Encarta, p.1).
The official number of these refugees is more 350,000 and what adds to the sensitivity of the issue is that many were directly involved in the 17-year civil war between 1975 and 1991. Other refugees, on the other hand, come from various countries in the Middle East, and in recent years, these refugees have started to increase quickly in number, thus complicating the overall refugee situation in Lebanon. Despite its complicated refugee problem, Lebanon is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention. The major reason for Lebanon’s abstinence from signing this convention is the Lebanese rejection of naturalizing Palestinian refugees who had been in the country for several decades, which would ultimately disrupt the already sensitive sectarian and demographic balances in the country.
At the same time, Lebanon tolerates the temporary stay of UNHCR-registered refugees, but does not offer them permanent asylum. Thus, UNHCR pursues third-country resettlement for the refugees it registers, although resettlement out of Lebanon has lagged behind resettlement from other Middle Eastern countries.
Historical Background of the Refugee Problem in Lebanon
Following the 1948 war, apart from a small number who have returned under family reunification arrangements, most refugees have been unable to exercise their right of return. The state of Israel has consistently rejected the Palestinian right of return, except for a conditional offer to accept 100,000 refugees in the early 1950s which was later withdrawn. In 1950 the United Nations set up a special agency, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), to provide for relief services for the refugees scattered in camps throughout the region (“Country report: Lebanon, pp. 1-2).
In the 1967 war, some 350,000 Palestinians became refugees, many for the second time. In addition to the UNRWA-registered refugees, another 42,000 unregistered Palestinians live in Lebanon. About 22,000 of these trace their exile to the 1967 War, and therefore fall outside the UNRWA refugee definition. Another 20,000 are considered to be of Lebanese origin, but call themselves Palestinians (“Country report,” p.2).
Since Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) signed the Declaration of Principles in September 1993, the Lebanese government has often stated that it will not accept the permanent resettlement of Palestinians. The government told the Multilateral Working Group on Refugees that Palestinians could not be assimilated in Lebanon due to the delicate political situation there. The government proposed that Palestinians originally from the West Bank and Gaza Strip should return there, and that Palestinians should move to other neighboring states via family reunification. The remainder, the Lebanese government contends, should be resettled in countries willing to accept them. Lebanon has suggested that 25 to 30 percent of its resident Palestinians should go to the West Bank and Gaza Strip, 40 percent should go to the Gulf states, Iraq, and Syria, and the rest should emigrate to the United States, Canada, and Australia (“Country report,” p.3).
With respect to non-Palestinian refugees, UNHCR recognized 2,408 refugees in Lebanon in 1996. The majority, totaling 1,385, were Iraqis. UNHCR also registered as mandate refugees 550 Afghans, 214 Sudanese, 127 Somalis, and 132 of other nationalities. Only 13 percent of these were female. During the year, 86 refugees were resettled in third countries, including 77 Iraqis. UNHCR reported that in two cases, refugees voluntarily left Lebanon during the year, although neither returned to the country of origin. The government agency responsible for foreigners, the Securitfé General, not only issues passports and residency permits, but also runs a detention facility where hundreds of foreigners are held pending deportation. Conditions in the facility are poor. In 1998, 3,684 non-Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. However, by the end of 1998, about 178 Iraqi refugees were resettled in other countries. No non-Palestinian refugees were forced to leave the country, although it has been reported that Syrian intelligence services operating in Lebanon arrested some Iraqi refugees and transferred them to Syria, where they were detained (“Country report,” pp. 3-4).
Violation of Refugee Rights in Lebanon
The fact that Lebanon is not a signatory party to the United Nations Refugee Convention does not exempt the Lebanese government of its duties towards the refugees located on its territories. It is true that the Lebanese government is not obliged to seek a permanent relocation for these refugees, but basic humanitarian conditions should be met, and at the same time, the human rights of these refugees should be respected. Holders of Laissez-passez documents in Lebanon, it is worth mentioning, are all Palestinian refugees.
Palestinian refugees in Lebanon
The following rights of refugees are violated, especially with respect to Palestinians.
Refugees in Lebanon are denied a variety of civic rights. To start with, they are not allowed to work, and the majority are forced to work illegally without any work permits. Thus, once arrested at work, these refugees are detained by the authorities and immediately deported. Palestinian refugees are denied the right to work in a variety of fields such as medicine, engineering, public institutions and many others (Sayigh, p.1).
In addition to this, refugees are denied public services, specifically medical and educational services, in addition to social security. This also applies to Palestinian refugees. Refugees are also denied the right to travel freely, and once a refugee voluntarily leaves the country, he is not permitted to return. New travel restrictions were decreed on the right of Palestinians to travel after Libya deported some 3,000 Palestinians. Moreover, new regulations oblige refugees wishing to travel to apply for visas of exit and re-entry. More seriously, re-entry visas have to be renewed every six months, placing heavy burdens on Palestinians (with refugee status in Lebanon) who work abroad. The new regulations inhibit Palestinian travel through the high cost of visas and additional expenses, as well as through making other countries reluctant to allow Palestinians entry or employment (Sayigh, p.2).
In 1996 furthermore, Lebanon reportedly canceled Lebanese travel papers for Palestinian refugees from Lebanon who, while outside the country, had obtained passports from other countries for travel purposes. The Lebanese authorities canceled the records of about 16,500 such refugees, according to press reports. Palestinians with laissez-passez documents issued by the Lebanese government were allowed freedom of entry and exist only in January 1999, when the government revised and corrected its policy (Sha’ban, p.1).
In addition to the violations of refugee rights specified, Palestinian refugees in Lebanon suffer a number of violations at the hands of the authorities.
Restrictions on space
Lebanese authorities prohibit the establishment of new Palestinian camps in Lebanon and at the same time, prevents the reconstruction of camp housing. This has forced UNRWA to freeze improvement of public facilities. Camp space is insufficient, and environmental conditions are very poor due to the lack of public electricity, over-crowding, sewage-seepage, polluted drinking water all which are hazardous to health, particularly of children. In addition to this, public construction schemes threaten several camps with complete or partial demolition. All 12 camps for Palestinian refugees have suffered serious deterioration in environmental and proper living conditions in since 1995 (Horan, p.2). Moreover, the Lebanese government continuously interferes with any efforts to reconstruct damaged camp housing and infrastructure. The totally destroyed Palestinian refugee camps, such as Tel Za’atar, Jisr el Basha, Nabatiyeh, and upper Mieh Mieh remain deserted while other camps, especially Ayn el-Helweh in Saida and Rashideyyeh in Tyre are overcrowded. UNRWA is also forbidden to build houses on empty lots outside the camps (Sayigh, p.3).
Palestinian unemployment has always been higher in Lebanon than in other countries that host Palestinian refugees, mainly due to the restrictive Lebanese work laws that make it difficult for Palestinians to get jobs in the Lebanese workplace. The majority of Palestinian refugees are excluded from professional and skilled technical employment.
Thus, available work is mainly manual, irregular and daily-paid, or in petty commerce in camps. Such conditions have lowered the overall income of the Palestinian community in Lebanon and increased the incidence of ‘hardship cases’ reported to UNRWA, with negative effects on health, educational investment, skill levels, and morale (Sayigh, p.3).
Lack of proper public health services to the Palestinian refugees is considered one of the most serious problems facing Palestinian (and other) refugees in Lebanon. Refugees are thus excluded from state hospitals and at the same time, private hospitals are exceedingly expensive. Meanwhile, UNRWA’s subsidies for hospitalization have declined considerably leading to a deterioration in the health services available for Palestinian refugees. The government considers itself unconcerned with these problems (Sayigh, p.2).
Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are not allowed to send their children to public schools, and while private schools are quite expensive, UNRWA had been allowed in the pre-war and war periods to construct schools to accommodate Palestinian children. However, due to the increase in population needs, and with the lack of space or facilities, most UNRWA schools operate on double shifts. Nearly half of UNRWA schools were located on unsatisfactory rented properties, and UNRWA used prefabricated classrooms to cope with overcrowding (Sayigh, p.2).
Due to the rising crime rate among the Palestinian community, the Lebanese army and security forces have increased their crackdown on Palestinian individuals, usually applying discriminatory measures. This specifically happened as Abu-Mohjen, the head of a Palestinian splinter group known as the “Band of Supporters” were accused of involvement in a political assassination of a Sunni religious cleric in 1995 in addition to a number of assassinations in 1998 and 1999. Abu-Mohjen fled into the Ayn el-Hilweh refugee camp. In 1996, the Lebanese Council of Ministers said it would have the army enter the camp to arrest Abu-Mohjen, but no action was taken. As a result of these events, and due to the increasing violence inside the camp among Palestinian armed groups, the Lebanese security forces have doubled security measures at the entrances of the camp by multifold. Consequently, entering or leaving the camp has become exceedingly difficult, with individuals and cars subjective to search and humiliation on daily basis, especially after midnight (Sayigh, p.3).
In addition to these violations, Palestinians often complain that they are discriminated against by security forces and even in the legal forums, especially when their foes in the courts of law are Lebanese. No evidence however supports such claims, although the security restrictions against Palestinian refugees resident in Lebanon have increased in recent years (Sayigh, p.4).
It is worth mentioning that thousands of Palestinians were born in Lebanon. Many were also born to Lebanese mothers wed to Palestinian men. The right of these individuals to obtain the Lebanese citizenship is totally denied by the Lebanese government, a fact that stands as a serious violation of human rights of Palestinians. These restrictions are also extended to other refugees whose children born in Lebanon are not naturalized as Lebanese citizens.
Politicization of the Refugee Problem
In 1997, Assad Abdul Rahman, head of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s (PLO) Department of Refugee Affairs, declared the PLO’s opposition to the naturalization of Palestinian refugees in countries of asylum, stressing the need to prevent the naturalization of Palestinians in Lebanon. This came in part after several thousand Palestinians were reported to have been naturalized in 1996. In the years that followed, however, no Palestinians were naturalized (Sayigh, p.5).
Palestinian officials traditionally have opposed actions and policies that could imply a permanence or an acceptance of Palestinian refugee exile. They fear that such measures could imply a weakening resolve to settle the Palestinian refugee issue in accordance with UN General Assembly Resolution 194, which sets forth repatriation or compensation as the solutions for Palestinian refugees.
The Lebanese government, on the other hand, is not willing to naturalize the Palestinian refugees on its territories because this would disrupt the delicate demographic balance among the various religious groups in the country. In specific, the Christians and the Shiites strongly reject the naturalization prospects because this would significantly boost the Sunni population in the country (Hajjar, personal interview).
Lebanon has been taking harsher positions against the Palestinian refugees on its territories for a number of reasons. First of all, the Lebanese government is about to return to the peace process tables. The status of refugees is still a pending and imposing one, and the government does not want to be part of any settlement of the final status of refugees.
Lebanese officials believe that imposing more restrictions on Palestinian residents and at the same time refusing to negotiate their future status in Lebanon would relieve Lebanon of paying any conciliatory price during the Middle East peace settlement. Obviously, however, the price for this political situation is paid for by the Palestinian refugees resident in Lebanon, specifically as their various civil and human rights are violated on daily basis (Hajjar, personal interview).
Another reason for the Lebanese harsh official treatment of Palestinian refugees is the role the Palestinians played during the Lebanese civil war. The Lebanese government, still recovering from the consequences of this long and destructive war fears that the Palestinians, if allowed to reorganize and rebuild their social and political power, would eventually become an undermining factor in the already unstable country.
These fears are furthermore enhanced by the fact that most Palestinian camps, especially in South Lebanon remain “security islands” as the Lebanese official refer to them, since the Palestinian militias inside were not disarmed or disbanded. Such a situation has often been the issue of public debate, particularly whenever Palestinian individuals or groups are involved in violations of security laws in the country (Hajjar, personal interview).
More seriously, what provides the Lebanese government an impetus in violating the rights of Palestinian refugees is the public support that such violations receive every time the government cracks down on the Palestinians. One reason for this support results from the fact that the Palestinians enjoyed considerable power that often burdened and sometimes humiliated Lebanese civilians.
Accordingly, the Lebanese are not very sensitive about the violations of human rights of the Palestinian community, especially that the consequences of these violations are not visible to the average Lebanese citizen who resides in his village, town or city, but almost totally unaware of the life conditions in the Palestinian camps (Hajjar, personal interview).
This is not to mention that various communities in Lebanon re specifically hostile towards Palestinian refugees as a result of the positions that were taken during the Lebanese civil war. For example, Christians in general and the Shiite community do not favor any improvement in the life conditions of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon an in fact, many do not mind publicly demanding the deportation of Palestinian individuals at the slightest violation of Lebanese laws (Hajjar, personal interview).
Apparently, Lebanon is facing increasing pressures with respect to the refugee problem in Lebanon. Since 1948, Lebanon has been hosting several hundred thousand Palestinian refugees, and since 1991, the number of refugees from African and Middle Eastern countries has also increased considerably. These facts demand that Lebanon review its refugee policy.
A proposed solution is to join and ratify the UN Refugee Convention. However, such a step might not be possible at current, especially as Lebanon is not willing at any point to have the legal implications of this convention imposed upon it, mainly because the Lebanese government and people in general refuse settling the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon permanently.
Ultimately, no end for the troubling status of refugees in Lebanon or to the restrictive and inhuman policy of the Lebanese government towards refugees is possible in the foreseen future until the Palestinian refugee issue is finally resolved on the peace-talk tables. Once this issue is resolved, it is not clear how the Lebanese government will base its new policy towards refugees, but it is very probable that Lebanon will still refuse to join the UN Refugee Convention for fear that this would attract a large number of individuals seeking benefits from the refugee status in Lebanon, thus resulting in costs and obligations that the government cannot afford at present or in the near future.
The only solution that can be considered right now is to create public awareness of the degrading life conditions of the Palestinians in the camps as well as that of non-Palestinian refugees. Media coverage in this respect has been very negative, usually covering the events and incidents in which refugees and aliens (especially Palestinians) are involved in criminal activities. This has further mobilized public sentiments against foreigners and refugees in general, and Palestinians in particular. The May 1999 assassination of four judges in a court room in Saida, and later on the outbreak of violence in northern sectors of the country at the hands of Islamic fundamentalist groups including Palestinian members early in 2000 have lessened the possibility of reconciling the public opinion towards the conditions of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.
“Country report: Lebanon.” Worldwide Refugee Information online,
www.refugees.org/world/countryrpt/mideast/1998/Lebanon.htm, December 1999.
Hajjar, Sameer. Attorney at law. Personal Interview: December 22, 1999.
Horan, Deborah. “Refugees – Lebanon: The forgotten Palestinians of Chatila.”
www.oneworld.org/ips2/aug98/15_6_054.htm, August 1999.
Othman, Ahmad Ali. “Palestinian refugees: five years after Olso.” Online,
www.badil.org/Art74/1998/26h.htm, July 1998.
Sayigh, Rosemary. “Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.”
www.arts.mcgill.ca/MEPP/PrrN/papers/sayigh.html, July 3, 1999.
Sha’ban, Husein. “The nightmare of visas over.” www.shaml.org/publications/news15.htm,
November 11, 1999.