In Lebanon, pandemic provides no respite from anti-Palestinian racism

In Lebanon, pandemic provides no respite from anti-Palestinian racism
6 min read
08 May, 2020
The decision to bar Palestinians from returning to Lebanon amid a repatriation drive highlights entrenched discrimination in the country.
Palestinians have lived in Lebanon for generations as refugees but face institutionalised discrimination. [Getty]
Like many others from Lebanon stranded abroad as a result of the Covid-19 outbreak, Tarek Abu Taha signed up to be repatriated back home from the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Abu Taha was in Dubai, looking for work, as rampant unemployment continues to ravage Lebanon. But after paying for his plane ticket and getting on board the plane on 3 May, he did not expect what would happen next. 

An official from the General Security Organization (GSO) set him aside after seeing he carried Lebanese travel documents – not a passport. Tarek Abu Taha is Palestinian

Born and raised in the southern coastal city of Saida, Abu Taha has no pathway to Lebanese citizenship. His grandfather, he says, married a Lebanese woman, but nationality laws also restrict him from holding a passport. 

He was eventually kicked off the flight, having to wait indefinitely before he can see his wife and his three-year-old son. He wrote a heartfelt Facebook post later that night, lamenting what happened to him, notably the racist and belittling treatment from that security official on board.

Read more: Lebanon's uphill corruption battle against an 'untouchable

A GSO statement revealed that migrant domestic workers and Palestinians were to be barred from returns until a later unspecified period, but neither Abu Taha nor the Lebanese Embassy in the UAE were notified of it. 

"Honestly if I found work, I wouldn't have had a problem staying [in Dubai]," he told The New Arab. "But now I have no other option [than to wait]." 

Lebanon has been repatriating citizens stranded abroad in several countries in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East for a month.  While it has recorded just over 740 positive Covid-19 cases and 25 deaths thus far, there are concerns from medical officials that testing has been limited

Abu Taha's situation tells a story of what many describe as institutionally racist and discriminatory practices against Lebanon's Palestinian population, numbering around 200,000 people

"Systematic discrimination [towards Palestinians] is worsening," Nadine Kheshen, Lebanon Researcher at Synaps told The New Arab, adding that it especially hits hard when it comes to employment opportunities and labour rights. "They get blocked from any job that has a syndicate." 

Kheshen explained that a Palestinian she interviewed completing a degree in engineering would have to work as an assistant for far lower rates than what they would be qualified for.

Tarek Abu Taha's situation tells a story of what many describe as institutionally racist and discriminatory practices against Lebanon's Palestinian population

"We might as well be wrapping falafel with ours diplomas," she recalls him saying.

In June 2019, then-Labour Minister Camille Abousleiman proposed cracking down on informal foreign labour, especially Syrian refugees. Businesses were given a one-month grace period to register work permits. 

However, upon implementation of the crackdown, Palestinians felt they were especially being targeted, leading to protests. With Palestinians living in Lebanon for generations as refugees, they argue that there should be exemptions and ease of access to livelihoods for them. 

"All of a sudden, they found themselves almost completely blocked from the market," Kheshen added. Abousleiman in an op-ed said that the crackdown was not intended to target Palestinians and that labour law requires them to get a permit just like other non-Lebanese nationals.

Read more: Coronavirus heightens mental health crisis in Lebanon's claustrophobic Palestinian refugee camps

Lebanon has been suffering from arguably its worst economic crisis in its history. Its local currency has weakened by about 60 percent since September 2019. Its descent has only accelerated since the Covid-19 outbreak.

The country's economic pains have of course impacted its 12 UNRWA-administered Palestinian refugee camps. In a Zoom webinar with the press, Director of UNRWA Affairs in Lebanon said that unemployment among Palestinians is at over 90 percent. 

With Covid-19 testing not reaching Palestinian refugee camps, the first confirmed case came in late April from the Al-Jalil camp near Baalbek, after the patient showed symptoms and was taken to the Rafic Hariri University Hospital in Beirut. A team of medical professionals the following day conducted tests, confirming at least five other cases in the camp. 

On top of that, funding continues to be limited for UNRWA, which essentially runs the camps, as well as its facilities and services. Already limited in resources, the UN agency has especially staggered since United States President Donald Trump ended funding from Washington to the organisation in late August 2018. UNRWA has appealed for $1.4 billion in late January. 

Systematic discrimination towards Palestinians is worsening, especially when it comes to employment opportunities

Abu Taha's incident renewed conversations about these issues, but he appeared far from resentful. "One can't generalise about everyone – this was an individual's action," he told The New Arab. "A group of Lebanese provided me with a place to stay with food and everything, and thank God all is well." 

After the incident, independent MP Paula Yacoubian expressed her anger at the situation. "I cannot believe this ... some of us are racist to the extent of which they've lost their humanity and any sense of morality," she tweeted.

The following day, Yacoubian tweeted that she followed up with GSO chief Abbas Ibrahim on the matter and that he found the situation "unacceptable", vowing to follow up on the matter personally. 

Late on Wednesday, Tarek Abu Taha shared a video message thanking everyone who supported him, but also criticising people for trying to "create divisions between Lebanese and Palestinians."

Read more:  'Starving is worse': Syrian refugees pushed to the edge
of survival under Lebanon's lockdown

"Ms. Paula Yacoubian, a Lebanese, without discrimination, amplified my voice to the Lebanese government," he said. "The Lebanese Embassy in Dubai, knowing I was Palestinian, registered my name, and despite being 3,500 Lebanese registering, my name was on the list [for the flight] as I was one of the first sign up."

But for the long-term, is relying on the kindness and goodwill of a handful of people sustainable? Palestinian activist Sara Kaddoura tells The New Arab that it's about time for grassroots efforts to organise more robustly, and also work hand-in-hand with Lebanese counterparts.

"Most of the work was done by Palestinian groups when the demonstrations were taking place, particularly between youth clubs in the camps and parent committees [at the camps]," Kaddoura explained, adding that most Lebanese political groups were hesitant to be involved. "And traditional parties also only justified or separated themselves from the law."

During the labour crackdown, a campaign called 'The Country Has Room For Everyone' was formed of Lebanese, Palestinian, and Syrian activists, who campaigned for more inclusive labour policy. "They wanted to extend solidarity with the movement and shed light on what the labour law means for refugees," Kaddoura told The New Arab.

Kaddoura believe it's going to take bigger numbers and especially more support from Lebanese allies. Whether or not these developments will take place in the foreseeable future is to be seen. 

With that said, nationwide rampant unemployment and poverty could be the fertile ground for mutual understanding and - perhaps - cooperation.

Kareem Chehayeb is a Lebanese journalist based in Beirut. He leads investigations at The Public Source

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