first thoughts on Lebanon’s new refugee legislation

Posted: August 17, 2010 by Rex Brynen in Lebanon

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Neither Hizbullah nor the Future Movement really pushed the issue–both were worried about avoiding a major split with their respective Christian allies.
  6. 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).
  1. menso says:

    Yes, full citizenship rights would be good, but like you say, that could be a long time coming. Is this move likely to increase employment among Palestinians, at least?

  2. Rex Brynen says:

    I’m not suggesting full citizenship rights–that’s a non-starter in lebanon, politically and constitutionally. However, I’m not sure this bill will significantly increase unemployment (Palestinians, after all, have been working in Lebanon for six decades, one way or another), while I fear that it is more likely that it will delay the introduction of more substantial changes.

  3. Nadim Shehadi says:

    Hello Rex, your points highlight a flaw in the approach rather than in the details of the law and the attitudes of different actors. The fact is that Palestinians in Lebanon are not really discriminated against except in the property law. They are treated as ‘non citizen’ and hence their problem is that of status rather than that of individual laws discriminating against them. What parliament did was take the long route and is going through every law and every clause and making exceptions for the Palestinians. Of course this will take a long time and will raise a lot of controversy and will never be fully complete until all the laws are gone through. Parliament has set itself an impossible task. I think that a simple re-definition of the STATUS of Palestinians in the country giving them equal rights with Lebanese citizen and listing the exceptions like running for office, voting etc.. and listing what other matters they have equal rights with other non citizen like property ownership etc… This shortcut means that by re-defiing the status then all the laws will fal into place.
    Otherwise what happened is not surprising – imagine any parliament having to revise its whole body of legislations – it is bound to bring up all the internal political problems, challenge alliances and coalitions and be interminable.

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