Academic journal article Middle East Quarterly

Palestinian Refugees Languish in Lebanon

Academic journal article Middle East Quarterly

Palestinian Refugees Languish in Lebanon

Article excerpt

"In all but name, Lebanon today is a non-country," wrote the Lebanese historian Kamal Salibi in 1989.1 A weak state racked with sectarian and political divisions, there is little on which Lebanese people can agree. One rare issue on which they seemed to have formed an enduring consensus, however, is that of the Palestinians. While Sunnis, Shiites, Christians, and Druze alike condemn Israel and support the "liberation" of Palestine with alacrity, few of them have historically supported expanding rights and improving the dire conditions of the estimated 400,000 Palestinian refugees within Lebanese borders.2 Not only is discussion of tawtin - or settlement - of these refugees in Lebanon a taboo, since 1 990, it has also been unconstitutional. As one Palestinian wryly noted, the Lebanese "are all with Palestine, but against the Palestinians."3

With few if any local advocates, Palestinian refugees in Lebanon have come to depend on the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) as their sole source of support and protection. Unfortunately for them, UNRWA has not proved up to the task.


Created by the U.N. in December 1949, UNRWA's mission today is to "provide assistance, protection and advocacy for some 5 million registered Palestine refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and the occupied Palestinian territory, pending a solution to their plight."4

In Lebanon, the situation for Palestinians is desperate, and as such UNRWA - whose 2011 budget was nearly $75 million - assists with a great deal of service delivery. For example, within the twelve refugee camps in which it works, UNRWA operates twenty-nine primary health care facilities and twenty-one dental clinics, serving the 95 percent of refugees who rely on the organization for health services.5 It also runs seventy- four primary schools - seventeen of which educate in double shifts - and in the process, provides employment to 2,785 residents.6 Indeed, as of 2006, UNRWA was the largest employer of legal, skilled Palestinian labor in Lebanon.7 The organization also assists extensively with infrastructure and building rehabilitation, in particular in the Nahr el Bared camp, which was largely destroyed in 2007 in a fierce battle between the Syrian-supported al-Qaeda affiliate Fatah al-Islam and the Lebanese Armed Forces.

In terms of its protection and advocacy responsibilities toward the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, however, UNRWA's record is decidedly less successful. The organization defines protection as what it does to "safeguard and advance the rights of Palestine refugees and thereby achieve its vision of every refugee 'feeling assured that his or her rights are being protected, defended and preserved.'"8 In practice, according to UNRWA, this means promoting respect for Palestinian rights with the host government or authority in control by "monitoring, reporting, and intervention."9

While UNRWA has issued reports about the conditions of the refugee camps, the organization's interventions with the Lebanese government - to the degree they have occurred - have not achieved many critical human rights for the refugees. Most significantly, until 2006, Palestinians' ability to work in Lebanon, an activity that the U.N.'s own Universal Declaration of Human Rights includes as a "right," was significantly curtailed.

The consequences of this failing have proved devastating. Today, according to UNRWA's own statistics, only about 53,000 of the approximately 120,000-strong Palestinian labor force are employed.10 In the south (i.e., Saida and Tyre), some 8 1 percent of all refugees live in "abject poverty."1! Overall, among the states in which UNRWA operates, Lebanon has the dubious distinction of having the highest number of "special-hardship cases," i.e., the poor of the poor, some 30 percent of the Palestinian population.12

Alongside international criticism, UNRWA has also been the target of much local dissatisfaction. …

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