Palestinian refugees must not be forgotten

Palestinian refugees must not be forgotten
Comment: World Refugee Day will rightly focus on hotspots such as Syria, the Mediterranean and Burma. But we must not forget the case of Palestine, says Pam Bailey
5 min read
19 Jun, 2015
Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians live in camps in Lebanon [Getty]
World Refugee Day is this Saturday, and reports from organisations and in the media are focusing on people fleeing Syria, Burma and other hotspots.

However there is an almost total lack of attention on the five million Palestinians living in limbo in the Occupied Territories or as refugees elsewhere.

"This longest-in-history warehousing of human beings, more than 60 years, is a moral travesty and it is time to put it to an end," says a new report from the Euro-Med human rights group, which will be issued next week.

The UN body charged with assisting Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, announced this month it was facing a shortfall in funding of $100 million for core activities - such as schools for half a million children.

As a result, stipends for rent assistance, for example, are being cut, even though UNRWA aid is a desperately needed source of income for many Palestinian refugees. Protests have broken out in the Gaza Strip and Lebanon, where approximately 300,000 Palestinians live.

The Euro-Med report, The Refugee Tsunami, focuses on Lebanon because according to the UN refugee body UNHCR, it has 257 refugees per 1,000 inhabitants - more than any other country. The 'runner up', Jordan, is far behind, at 114 per 1,000.

Lebanon is also home to the oldest and largest population of what the agency calls "protracted" refugees. It has a population of more than 25,000 exiled from their country of origin for more than five years.

Researcher and author Rosemary Sayigh says that compared to refugees elsewhere, Palestinians in Lebanon live with a "unique degree of political, economic and social exclusion".

More than half of the estimated 300,000 Palestinian refugees currently living in Lebanon have no other choice but to live in densely crowded and poorly served camps, with the remainder in 27 "gatherings".

They are not allowed to own property and must live with numerous restrictions and social norms that severely limit where they go to school, work and get health care, if they can at all.

     Palestinians in Lebanon live with a 'unique degree of political, economic and social exclusion'.

Amnesty International calls these restrictions a violation of international law, including the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination; and the Convention on the Rights of the Child-all treaties signed by Lebanon.

Zeinab Hajj is a case in point. The young woman lives in Beirut's Shatila refugee camp, supporting both her mother and two sisters on her secretarial salary.

Initially, Hajj worked "informally" without a permit. She would hide when government inspectors visited. However, as the quality of her work led to increasing responsibilities and value to the company, a permit was eventually secured.

What did not change, however, was her title and pay level. After 10 years in the job, Hajj is doing the work of an executive secretary, but she can rise no further than the ceiling imposed by her status as a Palestinian refugee.

"I have no chance for promotion, despite the fact that I am already doing a higher job," she says. "But what can I do? I have to live."

Instead, Hajj is working to help Palestinian youths from her refugee camp have better prospects themselves.

She is the volunteer executive director of the Sabra-Shatila Scholarship programme, launched in 2013 at Martyrs Square, the burial place for many of the individuals who were slaughtered in the camp by Israeli-backed Christian Phalangists three decades ago.

Since its inception, the programme has awarded 539 tuition grants to Palestinian students accepted into university in Lebanon.

Another Palestinian now in Lebanon, Safa Hammoud, arrived in the nearby Bourj Al-Barajneh camp two and a half years ago and is struggling just to survive. She says she had a "very beautiful life" in Yarmouk camp before Syria was torn apart by war.

She had a home, a husband who was a house painter and four children. But then the bombing started, and her children lived in a constant state of fright.

One day it got so bad they left their home, taking only some papers, the keys to their house and mementos. They found shelter in a mosque. An hour and a half later, they received word their house had been destroyed.

Hammoud and her husband lived in the mosque for a week, until that too was targeted and they fled to the nearby home of some relatives. But the house was too full and they soon moved to Lebanon, where other relatives lived.

Safa Hammoud with her housing deeds [Pam Bailey]

However, she is finding that life is harder there. Their meagre home in the Lebanese camp costs $350 a month. They also have to pay $100 a month for medicine for her husband, who has developed seizures and struggles with a deep depression. The medicine makes him constantly drowsy. Her $200-a-month income as a cleaner for a school is nowhere near enough to cover the expenses.

"It is like the Nakba all over again," she says.

UN General Assembly Resolution 194 states that refugees wishing to return to their homes and live in peace should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for the loss of or damage to that property.

In its report, Euro-Med calls for the UN and its member countries to finally honour this resolution, demand that Israel offer a fair response and, if it is not forthcoming, impose sanctions.

Meanwhile, however, the Palestinians in Lebanon must be given basic human rights, adds Euro-Med. Tawteen - the naturalisation of Palestinians in Lebanon - has been explicitly prohibited by the Lebanese constitution since the Taif agreement of 1989.

However, Palestinian groups throughout the country are virtually unanimous in agreeing they would forego citizenship in return for civil rights such as the freedom to work in every profession and to be treated and compensated in line with Lebanese employees.

Surveys conducted by the International Labour Organisation estimate that Palestinian refugees in Lebanon contribute more than $300 million a year to the Lebanese economy, with a particular benefit in rural areas, where most Palestinians live. This is in spite of the strict limitations that suppress their earning potential.

"It is time for the international community to offer the government of Lebanon the support it needs to do what is morally right: allow the Palestinians to live productive, fulfilled lives as they wait for the status they deserve in their rightful homeland," the report concludes.