Palestinians rush for confirmation they exist

BEIRUT, 29 January - The Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) headquarters in the posh neighborhood of the now closed Summerland Hotel in Beirut is buzzing with activity. A few men in black, Kalashnikovs firmly in their hands, guard the entrance to the elegant building. A handful of women and older men carrying papers scurry past them up the stairs to the PLO offices.

In the waiting room, al-Jazeera news channel is showing footage of Palestinians in Gaza storming into Egypt, and carrying back baskets of food and consumer goods. They are trying to beat the Israeli blockade that has cut off basic supplies.

Some people in the room express outrage. Otherwise, it’s business as usual. Employees gather documents of hundreds of “non-ID” Palestinians as they are called, following the announcement that their status would now be legalized by the Lebanese government.

Non-ID Palestinians suffer an uncommon plight: not only did they flee their land decades ago, rooted out eventually by establishment of the Israeli state in 1948, but they have been left with no legal status in Lebanon, their current land of refuge. There are an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 “non-IDs” still in Lebanon, and this has only recently led the government to announce legalization of their status.

Non-ID Palestinians came in the late 1960s, after the initial wave of Palestinian refugees in 1948 who were granted asylum as well as official refugee status. “Most came from Egypt or Jordan and were unable to renew their documents after they expired,” says PLO consul Mahmoud Assadi. “Others entered the country illegally and got married in Lebanon, passing down their illegal status to their children.”

The consul points to a document before him on a wooden desk. “The non-ID mentioned on this document has been able to renew his Jordanian identification, which will allow him to hopefully legalize his children’s status in Lebanon. This is an exceptional turn of events! Non-IDs have little chance of changing their status when the male parent — generally the root of the illegal status problem — dies, leaving his children with no proof of kinship.”

But most non-ID refugees hold some proof of identity that could facilitate legalization of their situation, because their Palestinian identity can be traced back to an authority once responsible for their documentation — usually Jordan or Egypt.

There are approximately 400,000 refugees living in Lebanon. But among them the “non-IDs” are not registered with either the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) or the Lebanese authorities. They are therefore unable to benefit from services granted to refugees by UNRWA, such as access to higher education and healthcare.

These refugees also face restrictions on movement outside the camps, and often fail to graduate from school because they lack proper identification papers. For some, legalization of their marriage vows is an unattainable dream, and this illegality is then inherited by their descendants.

It is only now that they are beginning to get documentation in Lebanon. “This is actually the first time that we deal with a government that is serious about addressing the issue, which is after all a 40-year-old problem,” says Assadi.

“We are motivated by humanitarian as well as security concerns regarding non-IDS,” says a government source. “The situation of Palestinian refugees is already extremely difficult and leaves such groups even more vulnerable to outside pressures, as was the case with the Nahr al-Bared camp [where the Lebanese army engaged in a three-month battle against the Fatah al-Islam militant group].” According to the source, the PLO and the Lebanese Security General are working with NGOs to process thousands of files.

“We asked the PLO to prepare files relating to non-IDs that will be presented to the government and processed within a specified time frame. We need to set a closing date for the overall procedure in order to ensure better control and avoid any exploitation,” says ambassador Khalil Makkawi from the Lebanese Palestinian Dialogue Committee, the government body in charge of the project.

Assadi says the PLO is still unsure whether non-IDS who have legalized their status will enjoy the same rights as other refugees, especially regarding marriage registration and access to UNRWA services. But, according to Makkawi, access to such services will not be a problem.

“I don’t see why non-ID Palestinians should not be allowed the same rights as other refugees, including marriage registration, free movement and access to higher education. The only difference between their identity cards and ones held by other Palestinians is that theirs will not mention the word ‘refugee,’” he says. Fadi Fares from UNRWA says NGOs such as the Danish Refugee Council and the Palestinian Human Rights Organisation are also preparing files to avoid any corruption. “Decisions will be made on a case-by-case basis for each individual,” says Fares.

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