Today the Lebanese parliament approved a bill that liberalizes some employment conditions for Palestinian refugees. The Nadim Shehadi and I predicted yesterday on the PRRN blog, it is a rather watered-down version of proposals first put forward by Walid Jumblat back in June: while it does greatly facilitate the granting of employment authorization (which most refugees lacked, or didn’t bother to apply for in menial and temporary jobs), and proposes a limited social security fund to cover limited circumstances, it does not address the restrictions that prevent Palestinians from legally working in most professions, now does it redress the highly discriminatory aspects of the real estate law that prevent refugees from owning property.
I haven’t seen the text of the legislation yet, but some quick initial impressions based on media reports:
- The new legislation will have only limited effects, since it doesn’t address the most important issues. It is unfortunate that Palestinian refugees can have lived in Lebanon for three generations, yet not be able to own their own homes. It is also hard to see, despite the scaremongering, that allowing them to do so would somehow increase the prospects of tawteen (naturalization)–which is constitutionally prohibited in Lebanon in any case.
- It is equally disappointing that the restrictions on professional employment weren’t lifted. Lebanon’s professional syndicates, which have failed to push for this, are as at fault as is parliament.
- The new law will be useful if it is the first step to further reform. I fear, however, that it will forestall additional reform. Still, it is a modest improvement on the situation in Lebanon a decade ago, and it would have been unimaginable twenty years ago that Lebanese politicians would have even considered liberalizing Palestinian employment in the country.
- It is disappointing that the Christian parties couldn’t show greater flexibility. While the FPM was the most shrill in its tawteen paranoia, the Phalange and LF didn’t exactly offer a more progressive alternative vision.
- Neither Hizbullah nor the Future Movement really pushed the issue–both were worried about avoiding a major split with their respective Christian allies.
- Most refugees would like to return to Palestine, and most Lebanese would like them to do so. However, the breakthrough in the peace process that would be necessary for this to happen won’t happen any time soon, and how well or poorly Lebanon treats its Palestinians won’t speed, slow, or otherwise affect the process. The question for Lebanon, therefore, is: is it really in the country’s interest to have a quarter million or more alienated, impoverished, and marginalized refugees in its borders–thereby creating the conditions for another Nahr al-Barid? Extending civil and economic rights to the refugees–as the Arab League itself called for in the 1965 Casablanca Protocol–would reduce the risks of radicalization, and make it easier to sustain a dialogue on other issues (such as Palestinian arms in and outside the camps).