Country suffers from ‘complete lack of integration’
By Dalila Mahdawi
Saturday, November 29, 2008
BEIRUT: Lebanon may not host the largest population of Palestinian refugees but it “is the most difficult place to be a Palestinian refugee.” That is the opinion of Zara Sejberg, Child Protection project manager at Save the Children Sweden, at least. Speaking ahead of the UN-designated “International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People” on Saturday.
Sejberg, who works to promote the rights of Lebanese and Palestinian refugee children and who has travelled widely throughout the Middle East, told The Daily Star that over 409,700 Palestinians living in squalid, overcrowded camps in Lebanon suffered from a “complete lack of integration,” inadequate services, harmful stereotypes, and discriminatory laws. Over 3000 Palestinians in Lebanon do not even have formal documentation, meaning they are not recognized by either the Lebanese state or UNRWA.
Refugees in Lebanon suffer from the highest levels of abject poverty of all Palestinian refugees, according to UNRWA. In accordance with the UN Refugee Convention of 1951, all refugees must be given the right to work and to own property. But Palestinians in Lebanon do not enjoy those rights. Nor are they entitled to state health care. Their status has long been an issue of bitter dispute between Lebanese political parties, many of whom argue that Palestinians are temporary guests and vehemently oppose the possibility of Palestinian naturalization.
In an address to the UN General Assembly Tuesday to mark the day of solidarity with the Palestinians, Lebanese Ambassador to the UN Nawwaf Salem said Lebanon “strictly opposes any sort of naturalization of the Palestinians, a matter which has been repeatedly emphasized by [President] Michel Sleiman.” Naturalization was “not feasible because it threatened the Lebanese state and identity, as well as the identity of Palestinian refugees,” Salem added.
For Sejberg, the debate over naturalization was pointless. The majority of Palestinians themselves have no interest in becoming Lebanese. Indeed, as recently as last Wednesday, Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad al-Maliki told An-Nahar newspaper that the naturalization of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon would not be tolerated. “I don’t even know why we’re bothering to talk about naturalization when that’s not the issue,” said Sejberg. “The issue is how to improve the life of these people who have been in Lebanon’s backyard since 1948.”
But according to former Ambassador Khalil Makkawi, president of the Lebanese-Palestinian Dialogue Committee (LPDC), which since 2005 has been working on the issue of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon under the guise of the Cabinet, responsibility for the Palestinians lay “not [with] Lebanon but UNRWA and the international community.”“I think it’s time to take a more proactive stance,” Sejberg said, suggesting Lebanon used UNRWA’s mandate over the Palestinians as a “convenient” tool to absolve itself of responsibility toward them.
Haifa Jammal, Human Rights and Advocacy program coordinator at Norwegian People’s Aid, which works with Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, likewise said that the Lebanese government was not working hard enough to improve the situation of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. “The government took the initiative to establish the LPDC, but that committee has not done nearly enough. Regarding the right of Palestinians to work or to own property, there has been nothing done yet.”
During his UN address, Salem said Lebanon’s “very limited resources” meant it was unable to adequately provide for Palestinian refugees. “I don’t think the problem is one of money,” said Jammal. “The Palestinians are asking for the right to work and not for aid. If they were allowed to work and to buy property, the Palestinians would be contributing to the Lebanese economy” and helping to build up the very resources Salem complained his country lacked, Jammal added.
According to Nadim Houry of Human Rights Watch, what the Lebanese government needed to do was “to show the political will and a true desire to improve the living conditions of Palestinians.” Some of the means to do that did not require financing, he said. “Lifting restrictions on employment opportunities and on construction permits require no expense. For the things that do require money, like the rebuilding of Nahr al-Bared, the international community needs to support Lebanon.” Houry was referring to the Palestinian refugee camp destroyed when the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) engaged militant group Fatah al-Islam between May and September 2007. The fighting killed 400 people, including 169 LAF soldiers and an unverified number of Palestinian camp residents.
When questioned Friday on LPDC efforts to change laws that discriminated against Palestinian refugees, Makkawi answered simply: “We are working on it.”