Refugee boss urges better deal for Palestinians

13 Nov

Crippling restrictions breed ‘radicalism’ and ‘militancy’ in Lebanon’s camps
By Dalila Mahdawi
Daily Star staff
Friday, November 13, 2009
BEIRUT: The deprivation faced by Palestinian refugees in Lebanon should be eased to allow for a greater sense of security and prosperity among the extremely marginalized community, the chief of the United Nations Palestinian relief agency said Thursday. Karen AbuZayd, Commissioner General of the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, said the extreme poverty and desperation endured by Palestinian refugees pushed disaffected youth into the clutches of militancy.

While Palestinian refugees in Jordan and Syria are seen as “enjoying the broadest spectrum of freedoms,” those in Lebanon face considerably more difficulties, she said.

“Here, the currents of vulnerability are very much in evidence,” said AbuZayd.

There are 422,188 registered Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, as well as an unknown number of non-registered Palestinians who fall outside of the scope of UNRWA. An additional 40,000 Palestinians reside in 42 so-called “gatherings,” or ghettoized neighborhoods consisting of 25 or more Palestinian houses.

The memory of the role Palestinians played in Lebanon’s devastating 1975-90 Civil War, the fragility of Lebanon’s sectarian and political system, the susceptibility of the country’s 12 refugee camps to foreign actors, and factional splits within the camps only exacerbated divisions between the Lebanese and Palestinians, and the Palestinians themselves, AbuZayd argued.

“In the years since the early 1990s, there has been a progressive isolation of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, both in a physical sense of limiting their presence to the camps, and in terms of the constrictions and scope of economic and civil rights they enjoy,” she said.

Unlike their compatriots in Jordan, Palestinians in Lebanon do not enjoy legal status and have little access to medical, education and social services outside the provisions of UNWRA. The refugees are subject to severe restrictions of movement, forbidden from owning or repairing property and are barred from all but the most menial professions. An unknown number of Palestinians without formal identification are even more vulnerable to chronic poverty.

But AbuZayd said there were clear advantages to granting the Palestinian refugees greater rights.

“Marginalization and entrenched poverty have never served the ends of security and stability,” she said. “Restrictions breed radicalism and create an atmosphere in which disaffected youth become receptive to the call of militancy and violence.”

Boosting economic activity, raising living standards and expanding the currently limited choices afforded to Palestinians “are goals whose benefits will expand beyond the camps boundaries,” AbuZayd argued.

The existence of Palestinian and other refugees also lays a burden of duty upon the international community to uphold basic human rights during periods of asylum, she said.

So long as refugees are unable to return to their homes, the global community and host countries are “duty bound” to ensure the displaced enjoy their human rights and have access to social services and other provisions, said AbuZayd.

Her remarks came weeks before she is due to step down from her position, held since June 2005. A US national, AbuZayd has 28 years of professional experience in refugee work and previously served as an assistant secretary general of the UN and deputy commissioner-general of UNRWA.

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