On August 17, Lebanese parliamentarians are scheduled to vote on draft legislation that would extend the economic rights of Palestinian refugees in the country. Whether there is indeed a vote—and what exactly might be agreed—is far from clear. However, what is clear is that ever since draft legislation was introduced by Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblat in June, the issue of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon has come under renewed scrutiny.
According to the United Nation Relief and Works Agency there are more than 425,000 registered Palestinian refugees in the country. With many of these working and living abroad, however, the actual number is considered to be closer to 250,000. Over half of these live in one of twelve official refugee camps. Conditions there are worse than in any other UNRWA area of operations, except Gaza— a function both of the legacies of past conflict and of continued socio-economic exclusion.
The refugee issue is a sensitive one in Lebanon. It is still haunted, in part, by the ghosts of the civil war. Many Lebanese resent the fact that Palestinian groups are armed and that the camps remain outside Lebanese control. In a divided country where sectarian demographics assume a fundamental role in politics, Christians in particular are often deeply suspicious of any efforts to integrate the largely Sunni refugees. Indeed, tawteen—the naturalization of Palestinians in Lebanon—has been explicitly prohibited by the Lebanese constitution since the Taif Agreement of 1989. It remains one of the most inflammatory issues in Lebanese politics. That both Lebanon and the refugees have no control over the outcome of the peace process only increases their respective feelings of vulnerability.
Palestinian refugees face a number of legal restrictions. Although procedures for gaining a work permit were eased in 2005, they remain effectively barred from employment in many professions. They are also prohibited from owning real estate. While in some cases the restrictions apply to all non-nationals, in other case they are based on reciprocity clauses that link the treatment of non-citizens to the national policy in their own state. Stateless Palestinians, therefore, are effectively excluded. In the case of the real estate law the discrimination is even more obvious, with parliament having introduced deliberate restrictions on the refugees when the law was amended in 2001. There is also some local employment protectionism at work too—many of the professional syndicates are not enthusiastic about opening their ranks to increased Palestinian competition.
Palestinians in Lebanon and the Lebanese alike ultimately look for a broader regional solution to the refugee issue, one that would allow the refugees to return to Israel, repatriate to a Palestinian state, or otherwise gain Palestinian citizenship. However, with such a breakthrough unlikely any time soon, current conditions need urgent attention. The PLO itself has made it clear that it sees any improvement as positive, and not somehow coming at the expense of the refugees’ right of return.
The imperative for improving conditions is not only a humanitarian one, moreover—as important as that is. It also has security implications as well. As the 2007 fighting at Nahr al-Barid refugee camp highlighted, Lebanon is ill-served by the current poverty and alienation in the camps.
The original reform legislation introduced by Jumblat in June called for ending of all restrictions on employment and property ownership, as well as the extension of some social security benefits to Palestinian workers. While a number of conspiracy theories emerged to explain both the timing of the issue and the subsequent manoeuvring, the reality is that the debate rapidly became caught up in the usual dynamics of Lebanese politics. Initial Christian concerns at the reform measures—concerns that were likely exacerbated by the rather provocative way Jumblat introduced his proposals—soon deteriorated into a competition between the March 14 Christian parties (the Phalange and Lebanese Forces) and the rival Free Patriotic Movement of Michel Aoun, with each worried that the other would gain at their expense by taking a tougher anti-tawteen stance. Related to this, other political factors soon made themselves felt. Although Hizbullah has traditionally been more supportive of Palestinian civil rights than many in Lebanon, it is not about to generate a substantial rift with its FPM allies over the issue. The party’s support for reform has therefore been quite muted. Although Prime Minister Saad Hariri has publicly endorsed reform, opinions within his own Future Movement are divided on how far this should go. A number of politicians—notably former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora who had himself initiated a more positive policy on the refugees when he first took office in 2005—have sought compromise so as to prevent a sectarian rift over the issue.
As a result of this, any bill that comes before parliament for possible adoption is likely to be watered-down, addressing only the limited issues of work permits and social security and not the larger issues of property ownership and professional employment. Some might see all of this as a step in the right direction, and in some ways it is. However, in the end such a result is unsatisfactory and disappointing. On the ground it would make little difference in the daily lives of most refugees. Some might even be worse off because the laws restricting Palestinians were not always fully enforced in the past. Perhaps most dangerous of all, limited measures would likely lead Lebanese politicians to once more close the refugee “file” for many more years, arguing that they’ve already adopted reforms. Given this, moving quickly to achieve minor gains would be less useful than moving more slowly in the hopes of assuaging current fears and building a larger coalition for more substantial legislation.