Jobs clampdown stirs unrest in Lebanon’s camps

Two boys are next to several large blue plastic water canisters.

Two boys are getting ready to distribute clean water in Beirut’s Shatila refugee camp. Stricter employment regulations have seen Palestinian refugees in Lebanon protest a second-class status that leaves them unable to seek work in 36 professions outside of refugee camps.

Susanna D’Aliesio ZUMA Press

It is not normal for a Palestinian refugee in Lebanon to have a bank account.

It’s also not easy to get.

It was not until I started working for a non-local news website that I needed a bank account. Three banks refused me. In all three cases, I requested to meet the manager. All three managers explicitly told me they were not allowed to open accounts for Palestinians because we are considered “foreigners.”

Yet, people of other nationalities residing in Lebanon are allowed to open their own bank accounts.

I confronted the bank managers with this and argued that there is no law that deprives Palestinian refugees the right to have a bank account. All three were apologetic but were not to be budged. It seemed they were unwilling to have any kind of trouble with the government.

In the end, I managed to open an account at a bank that is owned by a Palestinian refugee who now has Lebanese citizenship.

Such casual racism against Palestinian refugees in Lebanon comes in all forms, big and small. In May, Palestinian refugees in Lebanon were reportedly barred from watching an Asia Cup qualification game of soccer between the Nejmeh team from Lebanon and the Jordanian al-Wihdat squad.

Al-Wihdat is a team famously made up mostly of Palestinian refugees from Jordan’s al-Wihdat refugee camp. And while Jordanian supporters were allowed into the game, refugees in Lebanon were not, apparently to prevent them from cheering the Jordanian team.

“We don’t hire Palestinians”

I remember as a teenager trying to get a job at a local grocery store. The moment I showed my ID, the woman who was handing me the application took it right back. “We do not employ Palestinian refugees,” she said.

Again, no law, in theory, stopped them from employing me for a menial, part-time job.

That is not to say there is no “legal” discrimination against Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.

UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestine refugees, was established in 1949 and Lebanon became host to Palestinian refugees who had fled or were forced to flee persecution by Zionist militias or Israel’s military during the establishment of Israel. Their ability to work in the country has been severely circumscribed ever since.

In 2005, the Lebanese government partially eased these restrictions, allowing Palestinian refugees the right to practice 70 professions previously denied them.

But it is still illegal for these refugees to work in 36 professions, including the medical, legal, engineering and public sectors to oddly random and specific jobs like wholesale sales of tobacco.

Hiba Salman, 29, is from the Burj al-Shemali refugee camp in the south of the country. She has a bachelor’s degree in nutrition and is a trained dietitian. In order to graduate, she had to sit a ministry exam required for her to work in the field. She earned a high grade. Even so, she is not allowed to work or have her own clinic outside the refugee camps.

“All my friends now have clinics of their own. They are doing fine. But not me. I am a Palestinian. I feel I wasted the money I paid in my university years,” Hiba said.

Hiba said she now works as a dietitian in a pharmacy outside the camp even though it is against the law. She has agreed to an arrangement with the owner, who takes a share of her earnings.

“It is not easy to have a clinic in the camp. People have low incomes and seeing a dietitian is a luxury not many refugees can afford. That’s why I am working in the pharmacy. That’s the only way I can do what I love.”

Zeina Safadi, 21, lives in the Burj al-Barajne refugee camp in the southern outskirts of Beirut. Zeina had applied for a job with a local nongovernmental organization when she was called and told they wanted to see her for an interview. She was thrilled until her sister advised her to call them back to tell them she’s Palestinian.

“She said it was less humiliating to be rejected over the phone than in person,” Zeina remembered. “I called and the answer came right away: ‘We do not employ Palestinians.’”

Raed Mousa, 28, from the Ein al-Hilweh refugee camp, also in Lebanon’s south, has experienced discrimination since childhood.

A mathematics graduate, he is struggling to find employment as a teacher. At a recent interview at one school in Lebanon’s south, he told The Electronic Intifada, all had gone well. The interviewers were impressed with his qualifications.

But when the time came to fill in the application, “I had to write I was Palestinian. They were no longer impressed. ‘Sorry, we don’t hire Palestinians.’”

Raed said he had encountered such discrimination as a student as well.

“One day, the principal called on all Lebanese students to go to the office to get their school books. When they came back, we, the Palestinians who stayed, went to get our books. Of course, we were left with the ones no one else wanted, the old books, the ripped pages. It was humiliating. We were just kids.”

Love Palestine, hate Palestinians

Ein al-Hilweh camp was the location of recent protests by refugees against restrictions on their employment. For two days in July, and on subsequent Fridays, demonstrators closed entrances to the camp and demanded that a government clampdown on employers hiring “foreign” workers without permits be eased.

The official warning to companies and other employers is often portrayed as meant to target Syrian refugees in the country, but Palestinians have also been negatively affected.

And it comes as Lebanon experiences its own wave of right-wing xenophobic sentiment in a country that, after the bitter experience of civil war, has long been careful to contain and manage competing sectarian interests.

Earlier in July, people saw labor ministry billboards erected that warned – or perhaps urged – entrepreneurs that “your business moves forward only by the hands of your country’s sons.”

In other words, a Lebanese business owner will find prosperity only by employing Lebanese workers.

The Lebanese foreign minister and head of the Lebanese Free Patriotic Movement, Gebran Bassil, meanwhile, has faced a backlash over tweets similarly encouraging Lebanese business owners not to employ Palestinian or Syrian refugees. The tweets were derided as anti-refugee and racist.

I have always found it hard to explain the complicated relationship between Palestinian refugees and Lebanese governments. Although Lebanese governments generally claim to be supporters of the Palestinian cause and the Palestinian right of return, most politicians are implacably opposed to any attempt for Palestinians to have equal civil rights in Lebanon.

It is for this reason that Lebanese governments are known among Palestinian refugees as governments that love Palestine, but hate Palestinians.

Resettlement scarecrow

The Ein al-Hilweh demonstrations continue, but largely petered out in August after clashes broke out among rival armed groups in the camp over an unrelated matter. Three died in tit-for-tat killings that took the wind out of the protests.

However, discontent with restrictions on Palestinian refugees’ ability to work and their general situation continues to simmer.

The country’s historic position on refugees has everything to do with Lebanon’s sectarian balance. Successive governments, themselves composed according to sectarian lines, support a Palestinian right of return in part to avoid any chance of their mass resettlement in Lebanon.

The official addition of Palestinian refugees, almost exclusively Sunni Muslim, would dramatically alter the demographic reality in Lebanon and inevitably tip the balance of power in an uncertain direction.

Lebanese officials use the specter of resettlement to ward off any attempts to secure civil rights for Palestinian refugees. Civil rights, they claim, would lead to internal Palestinian resettlement, which would undermine the Palestinian right of return.

Both parts of that argument are wrong. Moreover, it puts Lebanon on the wrong side of international law which asserts the civil, political, economic and social rights of refugees without discrimination.

Nevertheless, it chimes with popular sentiment among refugees, who also worry that resettlement in Lebanon would see them cede their right of return.

Now, that argument has been superseded by fears that the US administration under President Donald Trump with its “ultimate deal” is simply going to take away the Palestinian right of return and demand that host countries resettle refugees permanently.

It is partly this heightened sense of tension brought on by the Trump administration’s bluster on Palestine that has left Palestinian refugees in Lebanon feeling a resurgence of anti-Palestinian sentiment.

And this in a country that since 1969 has restricted refugees from owning property outside refugee camps, a policy that was refined in 2001.

It is a country where, in 2004, Palestinians were barred from bringing building materials into refugee camps to improve their ramshackle homes – thus necessitating army checkpoints outside six of the country’s 12 Palestinian refugee camps.

Checkpoints have proven to be particular flashpoints in the current climate. Palestinians have long complained about their treatment there, where stories like videographer Tawfiq Ali’s attempt to film a wedding one evening are normal.

“The moment they saw my blue ID, it was like the doors of hell opened,” said Tawfiq, 27, who lives in the Shatila refugee camp.

“The officer started insulting me and interrogating me. It was obvious I was there for work. I was holding all of my equipment. The soldiers did not allow me to leave and held me there for the rest of the night. Then their main boss came yelling at me, saying if he sees me there again I would ‘rot in jail.’”

Amena ElAshkar is a journalist and photographer based in Burj al-Barajne refugee camp in Beirut.