Illegal discrimination against Palestinians in Lebanon

Lebanese soldiers checking papers and searching vehicles of Palestinians attempting to re-enter Nahr al-Bared refugee camp in northern Lebanon. (Hugh Macleod/IRIN)

BEIRUT, 17 October 2007 (IRIN) - The Lebanese government’s practices against Palestinian refugees continue to breach the country’s obligations under international human rights law and should be repealed immediately, according to a report released here on 17 October by Amnesty International (AI).

“The continuing restrictions which deny Palestinian refugees access to their rights to work, education and adequate housing and health are wholly unjustified and should be lifted without further procrastination or delay,” the report by the London-based international human rights group said.

Lebanon has the highest percentage of all Palestinian refugees living in abject poverty, according to the UN’s Palestinian relief organization, UNRWA. According to the AI report, disgraceful living conditions, continued restrictions on employment and lack of access to social services 60 years after their parents were driven from Palestine by the creation of the state of Israel, has left Lebanon’s 400,000 officially registered refugees facing a daily struggle for survival.

The 30-page report — the result of research visits by AI to Lebanon over four years — called on the Lebanese government to end restrictions facing Palestinians in the labour market. A law passed in 1995 prevented Palestinians — considered as foreigners living temporarily in Lebanon — from working in over 70 jobs, including professional, mercantile and administrative.

“The right to work and to social security are internationally recognized rights that the Lebanese authorities recognize and are legally bound to enforce,” said Neil Sammonds, Lebanon researcher at AI, speaking at a press conference in Beirut to launch the report.

Though a 2005 amendment lifted the ban on some 50 of these administrative and mercantile jobs (including cooks, drivers, barbers), uptake among Palestinians for work permits has been minimal.

Work permits

In 2005, of 109,000 work permits applied for by foreigners only 270 were applications from Palestinians, AI noted. The following year that number dropped to just 39. A work permit costs $700 (US), expensive by Lebanese standards, and Palestinian workers with a permit are required to pay tax for social services, despite being barred from receiving them.

The AI report calls on the government to amend its reciprocity law — whereby foreigners in Lebanon are accorded the same labor rights as Lebanese are in the foreigner’s home country — arguing Palestinians should be exempted from the law since they no longer have a home country.

Sammond expressed cautious optimism that the Labor Ministry would extend the lifting of job restrictions for Palestinians. The Ministry is believed to be considering allowing Palestinians to work in professional jobs, such as doctors and lawyers, employment from which they are currently barred.

“Poverty-stricken camps”

Just over half of Lebanon’s Palestinians — which though registered as 400,000 actually number around 300,000 residents, according to the report — live in what AI described as “war-torn, decaying and poverty-stricken camps.”

The report reprimanded the government that the amount of land allocated to the 12 official refugee camps has barely changed since 1948, when the first Palestinians arrived in Lebanon, despite a four fold increase in the registered refugee population. Palestinian residents have been forbidden by law from bringing materials into some camps, preventing the repair, expansion, or improvement of homes.

“Years of restrictions by the Lebanese authorities have meant that hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have been living for decades in makeshift or crumbling structures, crammed into camps that lack basic facilities and infrastructure,” the report said. “The right of these Palestinians to basic housing is being violated on a grand scale.”

Muted reaction

Though praising the current Lebanese government for going further than any of its predecessors in seeking to better living conditions for Palestinian refugees, AI played down any expectations of an immediate breakthrough.

“There is cautious optimism about extending the lifting of job restrictions,” AI’s Sammond told IRIN. “Both the government and Palestinian leadership welcome their political dialogue, but recognize the timing for reform is not good, given the current political deadlock.”

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