Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon: The Neglected Crisis

This article is adapted from a report written for Sharq.org, titled “Lebanon Livelihoods: Economic Challenges for Palestinians and Lebanese in the Shadow of the Syrian Crisis”; The interviews were conducted by the team at Sharq.org in various locations in Lebanon in August 2017.

Lebanon has long hosted refugee populations. In 1948 Palestinians began arriving fleeing violence due to the formation of the Israeli state. The Syrian refugee crisis has resulted in yet another wave of refugees into Lebanon. Due to the unprecedented scale of the displacement, the Syrian refugee crisis has captured international attention. Yet, this has been at the expense of other crises and vulnerable populations.

There is no doubt that the conflict in Syria has had a significant economic, social, political and security impact on an already fragile Lebanese system. It has created severe demographic and economic shocks across the country, negatively affecting tourism, foreign investments and demand on government services. Public services have been stretched, including infrastructure, national health and education, unable to cope with the large numbers of new arrivals. Poverty and unemployment have risen, as has the overall the number of poor and unemployed in the country.

The impact of the crisis has been more profoundly felt on already vulnerable segments of the society.  This is especially the case for Palestinian refugees. With international attention focused on the plight of Syrian refugees, this group has become a forgotten minority. According to United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), “Palestinian refugees in Lebanon continue to face acute socioeconomic deprivation and legal barriers to their full enjoyment of a broad range of human rights.”[2] Their pre-existing hardships have been exacerbated by the Syrian conflict, causing the situation for the established Palestinian refugees to steadily deteriorate.

Palestinians in Lebanon

While exact numbers are difficult to ascertain, it is estimated that there are between 260,000 and 280,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.[3] This estimate is significantly lower than the 500,000 registered with United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), possibly due to high migration rates.[4] There are an additional 3,000 to 5,000 Palestinians who are not registered with UNRWA (non-ID), and 32,000 Palestinians who have fled Syria.[5]

Lebanese law treats Palestinian refugees as a special group of foreigners, denying them the same rights granted to other foreigners.

Palestinian refugees are scattered among twelve camps and forty-two gatherings across the country. These camps and gatherings are often described as urban ghettos, comprised of concrete blocks with corrugated roofs, narrow alleys with sewage and water pipes and covered with a maze of makeshift electric wires. The camps are surrounded by checkpoints and, in some cases, security walls and barbed wire.

Lebanese law treats Palestinian refugees as a special group of foreigners, denying them the same rights granted to other foreigners.[6] This not only deprives Palestinian refugees of the basic rights enjoyed by Lebanese and other foreigners, but also denies them rights as refugees under international conventions.[7] While allowed the freedom to move throughout the country, Palestinians often face entry and exit controls to the camps and these are often tightened depending on security concerns.[8] Palestinians are prohibited from legally acquiring, transferring or inheriting property in Lebanon.[9] They are even prevented from making repairs to their homes because the entry of building materials into Palestinian refugee camps is prohibited.[10] Palestinians are dependent on UNRWA and other NGOs for most aspects of their life due to their inability to access public (Lebanese) education, public health and social services.[11]

The overall profile of the Palestinian workforce is one that is poorly educated, young and lacking in skills. It is estimated that only 42% of Palestinians are economically active (15% for women). Most Palestinians are engaged in menial, low-paying jobs in the informal sector[12] (over 85% of Palestinians work informally[13] and about 50% among Lebanese)[14] concentrated in commerce and construction.[15] It is estimated that 36% are employed in elementary occupations such as agricultural labourers, sales, service workers and cleaners.[16] Informal labour renders Palestinians more vulnerable to exploitative working conditions. Most receive no health coverage, and 87% receive no paid holiday or sick leave. Because of their informality, they are also not entitled to a pension or end-of-service indemnity.

Palestinians are allowed to work in the formal sector, but require an annual work permit, which can be obtained at no cost, and an employment contract. It is estimated that only 14% of the Palestinian labour force have an employment contract,[17] while only 2% have work permits.[18] Obtaining a work permit involves a lengthy administrative process, and often depends on the goodwill of the employer.[19] Yet, even when employers apply for work permits, they are often not granted. As stated by one interviewee:

A number of laws have been issued that prioritise the employment of Lebanese, especially in senior positions. Often, when Palestinians apply to the Ministry of Labour for work permits, they are not granted.[20]

Palestinians who work in the formal sector are obliged to pay into Lebanon’s social security fund, yet have no access to social security services, such as family, illness and maternity allowances.[21] The exception to this is the end-of-service indemnities, to which, according to a 2010 law, they are now entitled.[22]

Palestinians lack the right to work in the public sector and in thirty-six specified professions.[23] This includes professional jobs such as medicine, law and engineering, as well as other skilled and semi-skilled jobs such as farming and fishery, and public transportation. Palestinians are, however, allowed to work in these professions inside the twelve camps.  Several interviewees articulated the difficulty of finding work as a Palestinian. According to one:

Palestinians are restricted from many professions, such as medicine and engineering. This has meant that many have become less ambitious. Yet, others still pursue university majors that they can’t practice as professions, and accept jobs that don’t match their level of education level, working as mechanics or construction workers.[24]

For Palestinian professionals working in the Lebanese economy, informality is also the norm. One interviewee explained his experience working as an engineer, also a prohibited profession for Palestinians:

When making a contract with a contracting company, the engineer registers himself as an individual institution, registers with the treasury, pays taxes and provides engineering services to the company contracted by it as a service provider, but avoids using the term engineer explicitly, which is against Labour Law.[25]

Discriminatory employment practices also extend to the wages that Palestinians receive. The average monthly income of Palestinian workers is US$356, considerably below Lebanon’s official minimum wage of US$447, and 20% less than the average monthly income of Lebanese workers. It is important to note that half of the employed Palestinians earn less than US$330 a month.[26] This is due to prevalence of informal labour among Palestinian workers. In general, they do not receive equal remuneration as their Lebanese counterparts for equivalent jobs.[27] An interviewee noted:

My salary was very lower compared to that of my Lebanese colleagues with the same specialization in the same company.[28]

These work restrictions have an impact on education prospects among Palestinians. This is particularly true for options for tertiary education. This is thought to be due to “the worsening socio-economic conditions of Palestinians in Lebanon, as well as to the fact that Palestinians, remarkably for a people once renowned for their hunger for education, no longer see the benefits of an education, given the work restrictions the Lebanese government had imposed for so long.”[29] The frustration about the lack of choice of university studies is evident among the Palestinian community:

Palestinians do not choose university majors according to interest. I wanted to study veterinary medicine, but I did not because I am a Palestinian, and we are not allowed to work in this profession in Lebanon.[30]

Even those who do pursue university education, find that their employment opportunities are limited upon graduation:

After graduating from university, I joined the Islamic orphanage as a volunteer and worked there for six months, during which I received excellent reviews. However, my Palestinian identity prevented me from being employed full time.[31]

During university semesters and the summer vacations, I worked part-time jobs that do not require a contract or work permit, such as a rescue worker in marine parks, at swimming pools, in restaurants or cafes. However, when I graduated it was very difficult to find a job because I have Palestinian identity.[32]

Yet, tertiary education (vocational and university) increases the chances or employment, particularly for women.[33] In general, better education is correlated with less exploitative working conditions, higher wages, fewer hours, more benefits and enhanced protection.[34] Palestinians who manage to become skilled professionals, such as doctors, lawyers or teachers, via access to higher education, often have better working status and less exploitative employment.

Impact of the Syrian Crisis

As of December 2017, approximately one million Syrians had registered with UNHCR in Lebanon,[35] while unofficial estimates are that there are as many as 1.5 million.[36] In addition to the Palestinians living in Lebanon prior to the Syrian conflict, there is now a second category of Palestinians in Lebanon; those who have been refugees in Syria but have fled to Lebanon. Taking into account the 5.8 million Lebanese citizens[37] and the Syrian and Palestinian refugee populations (together numbering close to 2 million), it is estimated that currently about one in every four people in Lebanon is a refugee.

Lebanon’s pre-existent socio-economic challenges, characterised by low economic activity rates, high youth unemployment and a large informal economy, have all been aggravated by the Syrian crisis. Between 2012 and 2015, real per capita GDP decreased by 8.3%, representing a total loss of US$726 million.[38] Public debt has soared, reaching almost US$70 billion, or about 145% of GDP, now among the highest in the world.[39] Public spending has also increased by US$1 billion over the period 2012 to 2014, with a shortfall in revenues estimated at $1.1 billion and overall losses related to the crisis totalled US$7.5 billion during this period.[40]

The Syrian crisis has had a profound impact on unemployment, poverty and inequality. Increased competition for services, jobs and accommodation has had a severe impact on the pre-existing population and disproportionately affected the most vulnerable. Unemployment among Palestinian refugees in Lebanon rose to 23% in 2015, compared to 8% at the start of the Syrian crisis.[41] This is due to the willingness of the new arrivals to work for less and under more unfavourable conditions. These factors have also resulted in an increase in poverty rates. Currently, 90% of Palestinian refugees from Syria and 68% of pre-existing Palestinian refugees live below Lebanon’s poverty line of US$3.84 per day[42] while 6% of Palestinian refugees from Syria[43] in Lebanon live in extreme poverty.

Due to their lack of legal status, Palestinian refugees from Syria are particularly vulnerable. They are at risk of detention and fines, and/or deportation to Syria.[44] They experience restricted access to basic services and civil documentation. Palestinian refugees from Syria can access healthcare and education through UNRWA schools, as well as humanitarian assistance;[45] however, their lack of legal status and up-to-date registration documents, as well as restrictions on movement, makes access to these services very difficult.[46] Their extremely limited access to employment opportunities increases their vulnerability, and many struggle with providing food and shelter to their families and end up in debt.

Conclusion

This year, 2018, marks seventy years of exile for Palestinians. As the government of Lebanon struggles to cope with the large numbers of Syrian refugees, the situation for Palestinians has steadily deteriorated. Their rights as refugees continue to be disrespected and discrimination against this group continues. Ending discriminatory practices against Palestinians, though politically sensitive, needs to be considered as a way to ensure that this segment of the population is not only able to live in dignity, but also able to contribute to the overall growth of the Lebanese economy. It is in the interest of country that all segments of the population have access to better and formal employment in order to increase resilience. Moreover, limiting the vast informal economy would also improve economic opportunities for all segments of the population. It has become urgent to address the economic challenges so that not only Palestinians, but and also Syrians and Lebanese citizens can have access to dignified livelihoods.

Lorraine Charles is Research Associate for the Centre for Business Research, University of Cambridge, Lead Consultant at UrbanEmerge and Director of Development, GCC for ReBootKAMP.  She has worked on issues surrounding the Syrian crisis since 2011 and continues to conduct research, mostly focusing on education and livelihoods, as well as working with INGOs and NGO toward improved education and economic opportunities for refugees.

REFERENCES:

[1] This article is adapted from a report written for Sharq.org, titled “Lebanon Livelihoods: Economic Challenges for Palestinians and Lebanese in the Shadow of the Syrian Crisis”, https://insight.jbs.cam.ac.uk/assets/cbr-sharq-lebanon-livlihoods-report.pdf; The interviews were conducted by the team at Sharq.org in various locations in Lebanon in August 2017.

[2] UNHCR (2016) The Situation of Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon, UNHCR, http://www.refworld.org/pdfid/56cc95484.pdf.

[3] UNDP. The Right to work for Palestinians, http://www.undp.org.lb/unv/WorkForPalestinian.cfm; Government of Lebanon and the United Nations (2017) Lebanon Crisis Response Plan 2017-2020. http://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/2017_2020_LCRP_ENG-1.pdf.

[4] United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) Figures as of January 2016.

[5] UNHCR (2016) The Situation of Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon, UNHCR, http://www.refworld.org/pdfid/56cc95484.pdf.

[6] Canada: Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada (2011) Lebanon: Treatment of Palestinian refugees, including information on identity documents, mobility rights, property rights, access to social services, education and employment, and living conditions. UNHCR. Available: http://www.refworld.org/docid/507553bd2.html.

[7] ILO (2014) Policy Brief: The work of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon is a right and a common interest. http://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—arabstates/—ro-beirut/documents/publication/wcms_248434.pdf.

[8] UN Development Group (2015) UPR submission of the UNCT in Lebanon, http://www.refworld.org/docid/56cabfaf4.html.

[9] United States Department of State (2015) 2014 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices – Lebanon. UNHCR. http://www.refworld.org/docid/559bd55a12.html.

[10]  Amnesty International (2006) Lebanon: Rights of Palestinian Refugee Children. 4 June 2006; Index: MDE 18/004/2006; https://www.amnesty.org/download/Documents/76000/mde180042006en.pdf.

[11] Canada: Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada (2011) Lebanon: Treatment of Palestinian refugees, including information on identity documents, mobility rights, property rights, access to social services, education and employment, and living conditions. UNHCR. http://www.refworld.org/docid/507553bd2.html.

[12] Due to insufficient data the exact size of the informal sector is difficult to ascertain (IMF 2017, Lebanon country report).

[13] UNRWA (2017) Protection brief Palestine refugees living in Lebanon; https://www.unrwa.org/sites/default/files/lebanon_protection_brief_october_2017.pdf.

[14] ILO (2015) Towards Decent Work in Lebanon: Issues and Challenges in Light of the Syrian Refugee Crisis http://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—arabstates/—ro-beirut/documents/publication/wcms_374826.pdf.

[15] UNDG (2015) UPR Submission of the UNCT in Lebanon, http://www.refworld.org/docid/56cabfaf4.html.

[16] UNRWA (2017) Protection brief Palestine refugees living in Lebanon; https://www.unrwa.org/sites/default/files/lebanon_protection_brief_october_2017.pdf.

[17] UNRWA (2017) Protection brief Palestine refugees living in Lebanon; https://www.unrwa.org/sites/default/files/lebanon_protection_brief_october_2017.pdf.

[18] ILO (2012) Palestinian Employment in Lebanon;  Nada Al-Ashif, Samir El-Khory. Available: http://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—arabstates/—ro-beirut/documents/publication/wcms_236502.pdf.

[19] UN Development Group (2015) UPR submission of the UNCT in Lebanon, http://www.refworld.org/docid/56cabfaf4.html.

[20] Interview with Palestinian male with a Bachelors degree, August 2017, Lebanon.

[21] ILO (2012) Palestinian Employment in Lebanon; Nada Al-Ashif, Samir El-Khory. Available: http://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—arabstates/—ro-beirut/documents/publication/wcms_236502.pdf.

[22] Palestinian Refugee Social Service, http://www.lpdc.gov.lb/social-security/the-benefit-of-thepalestinian-refugee-from-the-ns/35/en.

[23] Professions of Restricted Access for Palestine Refugees in Lebanon, https://careerguidance.unrwa.org/CGU/uploads/pdfs/20151112%20-%20Professions%20of%20Restricted%20Access%20for%20Palestine%20Refugees%20in%20Lebanon%20-%20Bilingual.pdf.

[24] Interview with Palestinian-Lebanese female with a Masters degree, August 2017, Lebanon.

[25] Interview with Palestinian male with a Bachelors degree, August 2017, Lebanon.

[26] ILO (2012) Palestinian Employment in Lebanon, Available: http://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—arabstates/—ro-beirut/documents/publication/wcms_236502.pdf.

[27] DIS, Stateless Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon, October 2014.

[28] Interview with Palestinian male with a Bachelors degree, August 2017, Lebanon.

[29] UNICEF (2010) The Situation of Palestinian Children in The Occupied Palestinian Territory, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.

[30] Interview conducted with Palestinian male with a Bachelors Degree, August 2017, Lebanon.

[31] Interview with Palestinian-Lebanese female with a Masters degree, August 2017, Lebanon.

[32] Interview with Palestinian male with Bachelors degree, August 2017, Lebanon.

[33] Chaaban, J., Ghattas, H., Habib, R., Hanafi, S.,Sahyoun, N., Salti, N., Seyfert, K., Naamani, N. (2010). Socio-Economic Survey of Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon, Report by the American University of Beirut (AUB) and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).

[34] ILO (2012) Palestinian Employment in Lebanon, http://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—arabstates/—ro-beirut/documents/publication/wcms_236502.pdf.

[35] UNHCR (last updated 2017) Syria Regional Refugee Response, http://data.unhcr.org/syrianrefugees/country.php?id=122.

[36] European Parliament (2017) Syrian crisis: Impact on Lebanon. http://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/BRIE/2017/599379/EPRS_BRI(2017)599379_EN.pdf.

[37] The World Bank Lebanon, http://data.worldbank.org/country/lebanon.

[38] The World Bank (2015) Lebanon Economic Monitor, http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/560211478178124830/pdf/109738-WP-PUBLIC-on-November-8-9-AM-The-World-Bank-LEM-Fall-2016.pdf.

[39] IMF (2017) Country Report No. 17/19, https://www.imf.org/~/media/Files/Publications/CR/2017/cr1719.ashx.

[40] Chronicle (2015) Lebanon: Syrian Refugees Cost the Economy $4.5 Billion Every Year. https://chronicle.fanack.com/lebanon/economy/lebanon-syrian-refugees-cost-the-economy-4-5-billion-every-year/.

[41] Government of Lebanon and the United Nations (2017) Lebanon Crisis Response Plan 2017-2020 http://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/2017_2020_LCRP_ENG-1.pdf.

[42] European Parliament (2017) Syrian Crisis: Impact on Lebanon. Beatrix Immenkamp, http://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/BRIE/2017/599379/EPRS_BRI(2017)599379_EN.pdf.

[43] UNHCR (2016) Vulnerability Assessment of Syrian Refugees in Lebanon 2016, http://www.refworld.org/docid/586f59c94.html; Government of Lebanon and the United Nations (2017) Lebanon Crisis Response Plan 2017-2020. http://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/2017_2020_LCRP_ENG-1.pdf.

[44] UNHCR (2016) The Situation of Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon, UNHCR, http://www.refworld.org/pdfid/56cc95484.pdf.

[45] US Department of State (2015) 2014 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices – Lebanon, http://www.refworld.org/docid/559bd55a12.html.

[46] UNRWA (2015) 2015 Syria Crisis Response Progress Report. http://bit.ly/1i5jtvS.

Photo: “The alphabet” ©Omar Chatriwala. Arabic letters and images painted on a wall at the UNWRA-run girls school at Jerash Palestinian refugee camp in Jordan.

One thought on “Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon: The Neglected Crisis

  1. Pingback: Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon: The Neglected Crisis « Middle Eastern Eye

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