In 1948, one hundred thousand Palestinians fled from Palestine to find refuge in Lebanon. Provisional camps were built at that time to provide them with shelter. Their number has increased over the years to more than 400 000 refugees, 53% of them living in one of twelve camps throughout the country. Today, more than half a century later, they continue to be refugees, awaiting their return while living in the most degrading and demeaning human conditions. Their appalling socio-economic conditions are not only a violation of human rights but are also a danger to Lebanon's security and stability.
A visit to a refugee camp in Lebanon is itself sufficient to mirror the dire picture of Palestinians in Lebanon. Walking into the camp, the dreadful features of their living conditions are obvious. Small rotting buildings cross miniature streets sinking in sewage water. Rats and cockroaches are everywhere in the alleys. Houses often lack doors, they are open to the air, to the balmy, the hot and the cold winds, but always closed to the wind of change...The insides of a house are tiny, minuscule spaces barely making room for a person's moves. The buildings are moldering with the days, decaying as the Palestinian's cause decays with the years...
As you walk further, children come close to you with a smile, they scrutinize you, ask you questions. Children of different ages are playing with cans and kitchen pots, boys and girls, with little room to dream, hanging their dreams on void and unknown walls
Chronic health failure is reported by 19 percent of refugees in Lebanon, a rate higher than in Syria and Jordan. Palestinians rely more widely on UNRWA and NGOs for medical assistance than refugees elsewhere. But, UNRWA, the only safety net available to many refugees for basic health care, is beset by a lack of funds and available doctors.
It is estimated, that among refugees aged 15 to 24 years, more than 40 percent are unemployed.Lebanese law forbids Palestinians from working in 72 professions. These include private sector "free professions" like engineering, medicine, law and all public sector jobs. Even very low skilled jobs like garbage cleaning and guarding buildings have been added to the list of prohibitions. As for the remaining unskilled jobs, Palestinians need to obtain a work permit and very few permits have been issued.
Add to that, a law ratified by the Lebanese government that forbids Palestinians from buying and owning a property. Lebanese women married to a Palestinian are also banned from giving their children any property as an inheritance.
As for the degradation of the conditions of the camps, the Lebanese law impedes any renovation work by prohibiting the entry of any building equipments, like cement for example. Camps lack sewage systems, garbage collection, electricity and water.
The Lebanese argument to these legal exclusions is explained by the right of return and the fear of naturalization. The Lebanese believe that the refugees are temporarily in the camps and any normalization of the situation of the Palestinians can hinder their right of return and pave the way to permanent settlement. The other fear is a confessional one, any settlement of Palestinians threatens the demographic balance of the different confessions in the country since Palestinians are in their majority Sunnis and represent up to 10% of the total Lebanese population.
In addition, the Lebanese collective historical memory with the Palestinians is still marked by the wounds left from the civil war. .
UN resolution 194 calls for the Right of Return to of Palestinian refugees and their right to compensation but Israel continues to violate this as well as 67 other resolutions.
In light of the recent political developments in the region and the new policies of Netanyahu's' right wing government in Israel, the right of return seems to be impossible any time soon. But, Lebanon cannot keep neglecting the refugees' conditions for that long.
Starving Palestinians, fighting for food and basic necessities, are more likely to give up great causes like their right of return. Deprived Palestinians are easily keen to resort to violence. The state is right to refuse their naturalization but it should also fear social unrest in the camps as a result of deteriorating socio-economic conditions.
Lebanon has so far dealt with the Palestinian refugees exclusively from a narrow security angle ignoring the fact that Security also encompasses Economic Security. A large number of the Palestinians in the camps are armed and young unemployed Palestinians are encouraged to enroll in military factions that might engage in violence as a result of poverty and deprivation. This was already manifested in the violent clashes of the Nahr el Bared Camp in the summer of 2007, when hundreds of Lebanese soldiers died and thousands of refugees were displaced. Every week, new violence erupts in the camps around Lebanon threatening to destabilize the security of the camps and its surroundings.
UN Security Council 1559 called for a disbanding of all arms outside the Lebanese state's authority, Lebanese political parties agreed on the National Dialogue table to disarm Palestinians outside the camps and manage their weapons inside the camps.
But, can the Lebanese State succeed in achieving this goal without starting by granting refugees basic rights in return?
Dalal Mawad is currently working for the United Nations Development Program in Beirut . She previously worked for the National Democratic Institute as Liason Officer for the Institute's International Observation Mission for Lebanon's Parliamentary Elections in June 2009. She also worked for the Lebanese Permanent Mission at the United Nations in New York. Mawad holds a Bachelor degree in Economics and Political Science from the American University of Beirut, as well as a Masters' degree in International Political Economy from the London School of Economics and Political Science.