"All 12 official refugee camps in [Lebanon] suffer from serious problems - no proper infrastructure, overcrowding, poverty and unemployment. [Lebanon] has the highest percentage of Palestine refugees who are living in abject poverty and who are registered with the Agency's 'special hardship' programme." - UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), 2007(1)
Today, some 300,000 Palestinian refugees reside in Lebanon and constitute nearly a tenth of the country's population.(2) Most are people and their descendants who were expelled from or otherwise fled their homes and lands nearly 60 years ago during the events surrounding the creation of the state of Israel and the Arab-Israeli war of 1948(3). They constitute one of the world's most long-established refugee populations and they remain in a form of limbo. They have virtually no prospect in the foreseeable future of being allowed to return to their lands and homes located primarily in what is now Israel, and to a much smaller extent in the Israeli-Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT), even though they have a well-established right to return under international law. They also remain subject to various restrictions in the host country, Lebanon, which places them in a situation akin to that of second class citizens and denies them access to their full range of human rights, even though most of them were born and raised in Lebanon. Thousands have been further displaced even while in exile in Lebanon: some 30,000 remain displaced by the May-September 2007 clashes between the Fatah al-Islam armed group and Lebanese armed forces at the Nahr al-Bared camp. Just over half - some 53 percent - of Palestinian refugees who live in Lebanon, reside in war-torn, decaying and poverty-stricken camps. The conditions for those living outside the camps in towns, "gatherings", villages and rural areas, are also poor.
The appalling social and economic conditions of these refugees demonstrate forcefully the failure of successive governments in Israel, Lebanon, other regional states and the wider international community to respect and protect their rights and to find a sustainable and just solution to their plight over a period that now stretches to almost six decades. The refugees who continue to live in the camps and in less formal "gatherings" have paid a heavy price for this failure of international leadership. They are not only unable to return to the homes from which they were expelled or fled, but they are prevented too from exercising some of their basic rights in Lebanon, the country in which they obtained refuge.
For these Palestinians, the pain associated with their expulsion and the decades of living in exile is being aggravated by the systematic discrimination they suffer in Lebanon. The life is being choked out of their communities, forcing the young and healthy to seek jobs abroad and condemning the rest to a daily struggle for survival.
Most Palestinian refugees in Lebanon have had little choice but to live in overcrowded and deteriorating camps and informal gatherings that lack basic infrastructure. The amount of land allocated to official refugee camps has barely changed since 1948, despite a fourfold increase in the registered refugee population. The residents have been forbidden by law from bringing building materials into some camps, preventing the repair, expansion or improvement of homes. Those who have defied the law have faced fines and imprisonment as well as demolition of the new structures. In camps where additional rooms or floors have been added to existing buildings, the alleyways have become even narrower and darker, the majority of homes receive no direct sunlight and, despite the best efforts of the inhabitants, the pervasive smells of rubbish and sewage are at times overwhelming.
For most Palestinians in Lebanon, this has been the only life they have ever known; born there as refugees, they have lived all of their lives in Lebanon.
The ghettoization of Palestinians is intensified by the constant military presence around the camps in southern Lebanon. Each time refugees want to leave or return to their homes, they have to pass an army checkpoint and show their documents, reinforcing a perception that they are outsiders and a potential threat, rather than refugees in need of protection.
The discrimination and marginalization they suffer is compounded by the restrictions they face in the labour market, which contribute to high levels of unemployment, low wages and poor working conditions. Until 2005, more than 70 jobs were barred to Palestinians - around 20 still are. The resultant poverty is exacerbated by restrictions placed on their access to state education and social services.
Much of the discriminatory treatment Palestinians face is rooted in their statelessness, which has been used by the Lebanese authorities to deny them equal rights not only with the Lebanese population but also with other foreign residents of Lebanon.
Periodic conflicts and violence in Lebanon and elsewhere in the region have worsened the plight of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. These include the Lebanese civil war from 1975 to 1990, Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon followed by its occupation of the south until 2000, and the Israeli-Hizbullah conflict in 2006.
Among other events that have deeply affected the refugees were the 1982 expulsion of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) from the country, which was quickly followed by a massacre of Palestinian refugees, as well as Lebanese residents, in the Sabra and Shatila camps,(4) and the 1984 "war of the camps" in which hundreds of Palestinians were killed and thousands faced starvation. In addition, the Gulf War of 1990 slashed remittances sent home to their families by Palestinians working in the Gulf states. Attacks by Israeli forces during the July-August 2006 conflict with Hizbullah destroyed much of the country's infrastructure and economy, and littered with cluster bombs, land on which some Palestinians had worked.
The desperate plight of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon was thrown into the international spotlight from 20 May 2007, when fighting that had erupted in Tripoli, north Lebanon, spread to the nearby Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp. The clashes were between members of Fatah al-Islam, an Islamist armed group that had recently moved into the camp and established armed positions within it, thereby putting the security of the local population at risk, and Lebanese army forces. At least 23 Palestinian civilians and scores of others were injured in the first 12 days of the fighting(5) which witnessed some heavy and possibly indiscriminate artillery shelling by the Lebanese army. Fighting continued for 15 weeks until 2 September, when the Lebanese armed forces seized control of the camp. The battle resulted in the deaths of 166 Lebanese army soldiers and 220 Fatah al-Islam militants, according to the Lebanese authorities, and at least 42 civilians. The camp was largely destroyed. The conflict caused the displacement of some 30,000 Palestinian refugees from Nahr al-Bared; most of these relocated to the Beddawi Palestinian refugee camp about 15 km away. There they took up shelter in schools, empty shops, abandoned buildings and in houses of the local refugee population - swelling the camp and putting extra strain on its infrastructure.
With increased tension during the first few weeks of fighting, Amnesty International received reports of tens of Palestinian civilians being threatened and abused by soldiers at checkpoints on account of their identity. Fear of being so harassed discouraged Palestinians from travelling to their places of work and elsewhere, causing a further drop in their already precarious standard of living. With few perceived opportunities for highlighting any such abuse or for seeking redress, the episode underlined Palestinians' economic, political and legal weakness in the country.(6) On 10 September Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora appealed to international donors for almost $400 million to rebuild Nahr al-Bared camp and surrounding areas and to help care for the displaced until they are able to return to their homes in the refugee camp.
Amnesty International recognizes the efforts made by the Lebanese authorities over the past six decades to accommodate hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees and the heavy cost - economically and in other ways - that this has imposed on Lebanon and its people. It also recognizes that the responsibility for the suffering of Palestinian refugees goes beyond Lebanon, suffering that is rooted in the Palestinian exodus of 1948. For nearly 60 years, the international community has excluded Palestinians from the international system set up to protect refugees. Israel and the international community have also failed to find an adequate, durable and sustainable solution, consistent with international law, to the problems of the millions of Palestinian refugees scattered around the world.
Amnesty International also recognizes that the current Lebanese government has shown greater interest than its predecessors in seeking to ameliorate the conditions of the Palestinian refugees. In 2005 the authorities relaxed some of the restrictions on Palestinian refugees, notably by opening up the possibility of Palestinians gaining employment in a wider range of jobs though they determined that some jobs should remain denied to them. The authorities have also sought to engage in efforts to improve housing conditions, and have expressed an interest in finding a solution for non-ID Palestinians - an estimated 3,000 - 5,000 refugees - who are not registered with either UNRWA or the Lebanese authorities - whose conditions are the most precarious.
In this report, Amnesty International is encouraging the Lebanese authorities to go further. After some 60 years, it is high time that the Lebanese authorities take concrete action to address the marginalization of the Palestinian refugee community and sweep away the restrictions that prevent Palestinian refugees from exercising their economic, social and cultural rights. To this end, Amnesty International urges the Lebanese government to take immediate measures to eliminate all forms of discrimination against Palestinian refugees, including by:
- repealing or revising all discriminatory laws;
- ending all unreasonable restrictions on the right of Palestinian refugees to repair or improve their homes;
- ensuring that all Palestinian refugees have security of tenure to protect them from the threat of forced eviction or intimidation;
- ending the restrictions facing Palestinians in the labour market and ensuring their rights at work are respected;
- granting Palestinians access to social security;
- ensuring that all children have equal access to education;
- taking all necessary steps to regularize the status of non-ID Palestinian refugees, including by providing them with official identification documents.
In accordance with the principle of international co-operation and burden and responsibility-sharing,(7) Amnesty International also urges the international community to provide technical and financial assistance to Lebanon to enable it to extend the highest possible level of enjoyment of human rights protection to its refugee population.(8)
(1) http://www.un.org/unrwa/refugees/lebanon.html, visited on 14 September 2007
(2) While over 400,000 Palestinian refugees are registered with UNRWA in Lebanon, the actual figure is probably around 300,000 because up to 100,000 Palestinians are believed to have left Lebanon in search of a livelihood elsewhere.
(3) There were 127,600 UNRWA-registered Palestinian refugees in Lebanon in 1950. Most had lived in the northern and coastal areas of Mandate Palestine in and around Haifa, Yaffa (Jaffa), Acre, Safad and Nazareth, all of which became part of the new state of Israel in May 1948. It is estimated that the Palestinian refugees, and their descendants, who fled to Lebanon from the West Bank and Gaza Strip that Israel occupied in the 1967 Israeli-Arab war now number between 13,000 and 40,000.
(4) The 16-18 September 1982 massacre was carried out by the Lebanese Forces militia and facilitated by the Israeli army. The report of an international commission into reported violations of international law by Israel during its invasion of Lebanon concluded that 2,750 people in the camps had been killed.
(5) Palestinian Red Crescent Society, 31 May 2007.
(6) See Amnesty International, Lebanon: Concerns on fighting between army and Fatah al-Islam group, MDE 18/003/2007, 23 May 2007; Lebanon: Fears for thousands of refugees caught up in intense fighting, MDE 18/005/2007, 5 June 2007; and Lebanon: Amid reports of harassment at army checkpoints, continuing concern for civilians affected by fighting at Palestinian refugee camp, MDE 18/007/2007, 12 July 2007.
(7) See the Preamble to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.
(8) International human rights law calls on states to provide "international assistance and co-operation, especially economic and technical" to assist in the realization of economic, social and cultural rights, ICESCR, Article 2(1).