Middle East Monitor / August 17, 2023
There are no official security forces in the 12 camps located throughout Lebanon. The Lebanese police, or military, have left the security in these camps to the Palestinian Al-Fatah Party, according to the Cairo Agreement signed in 1969. Although Lebanon withdrew from the agreement in 1987, Lebanese security forces entered the camps only to arrest specific individuals wanted for terrorism. The Fatah Party maintains relative security, with armed groups stationed in most camps. After enduring 75 years of exclusion from social interactions, the labour market, education and healthcare services, Palestinian refugees, particularly the younger generation, perceive joining terrorist organizations or armed gangs as a means to address their marginalization. For this reason, Palestinians are killed in many armed clashes inside and outside the camps, and some try to escape from the camps.
On 30 July, 2023, in Ain al-Hilweh, the largest Palestinian camp in Lebanon, clashes broke out between Fatah and Al-Shabaab, killing 11 people and causing more than 2,000 people to flee the camp. In times of conflict, the Lebanese authorities only take small steps to disarm the groups but de facto leave the camps insecure and lawless as autonomous zones. In 2016, the Lebanese government constructed a wall around the camp, complete with 15 watchtowers, a practice widely criticized for its inhumane nature. Such practices, reminiscent of the Jewish ghettos that existed in Medieval Europe, are often applied to Palestinians in Lebanon. In 2007, the Nahr al-Bared camp, where Lebanese people used to come and shop in the bazaar, was bombed to almost destruction in a clash between Fatah forces and the Lebanese Armed Forces, forcing tens of thousands of people to flee the camp. It was the only Palestinian camp controlled by Lebanese security forces. Despite the many international funds, the camp has not yet been restored.
The migrant problem in Lebanon
Lebanon has been a multicultural, multi-religious and multi-ethnic region before and after its independence in 1943. The multicultural environment brought about by the historical structure of the region turned out to be a misfortune rather than a fortune for Lebanon, and the country came to the point of collapse due to civil wars and external interventions. The country’s political stability, hanging by a thread between Sunnis, Shias, Druze, Christians, Orthodox and Catholics, is being challenged by Palestinian, Iraqi and Syrian refugees, whose numbers have reached 1.5 million since 2015. Considering the geographical size of the country and its population of 7 million, refugees constitute close to half of the population. The migration problem, affecting all institutions from demographic balance to economy, infrastructure to health, has forced Lebanese society towards social and institutional racism. While 90 per cent of Syrian refugees live below the poverty line, 60 per cent of Syrian children cannot go to school. The situation of the Palestinians, who have become the third and fourth generation, is also bleak.
Within the UN and international agreements framework, asylum-seeker status is supposed to be temporary. It is expected that policies should be put in place so that people or groups who seek asylum for certain reasons can return to their countries as soon as conditions improve. Let us suppose the conditions of displacement do not improve. In that case, it is a standard immigration policy in the world for asylum seekers to obtain refugee status in the destination countries, integrate into work, education, and social life and, ultimately, obtain immigrant status. For second and third-generation refugees, getting immigrant status and citizenship is extremely important regarding social cohesion and human rights. However, the Lebanese State has imposed many social and legal restrictions on Palestinians, most of whom have Sunni beliefs, because its social life is based on delicate ethnic balances. Since Palestinian citizenship would disrupt the demographic balance in Lebanon, even Palestinians who have reached the fourth generation still live as refugees. As a result of Israel’s expulsion and expansionist policies, Palestinians, who cannot return to their own lands, are stuck in Lebanese territory.
According to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), which was established in 1949 during the Arab-Israeli War, more than 1.5 million Palestinian refugees are in 58 camps in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. At the beginning of the war, the Agency was assisting 750,000 Palestinians, whereas now, according to its data, 5.9 million Palestinians are registered. According to the Agency’s data for March 2023, the number of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon is 489,292. However, since registration is voluntary, the data is not very reliable. The Agency cannot keep track of deaths, nor does it have access to information on those who have left Lebanon. However, the fact that some 200,000 people benefit from the Agency’s assistance each year may help estimate the number of Palestinian asylum seekers. Around 45 per cent of Palestinian refugees are estimated to live in 12 camps scattered throughout the country. A further 80 per cent of asylum seekers live below the poverty line. Lebanon’s economic and financial crisis has exacerbated the situation of Palestinian refugees. Despite UNRWA’s support, refugees cannot meet their health expenses and must spend more than 30 per cent of their income on food.
The situation in the camps
The Lebanese government leases state land or land leased from individuals to house Palestinians and make it available to UNRWA for camps. The refugees in the camps do not own the land, but only have the right to use it. There are Palestinian settlements around and close to the camps. UNRWA has no security or other initiative over the camps. The Agency only operates service providers and administrative facilities. All other responsibilities lie with the Lebanese government. However, the existing structural, institutional and social racism in Lebanon is a major obstacle to the integration of Palestinians into Lebanese society. Palestinians already suffer the hardship of being asylum seekers, but they can also be treated as second-class asylum seekers.
While camps in Jordan or Syria are now integrated with local neighbourhoods and have reached a similar socio-economic level, camps in Lebanon are easily distinguishable from other settlements in their surroundings by their under-developed superstructure and infrastructure.
Since no urbanisation or zoning law exists in the camp areas, tens of thousands of people must reside in a small space. With the Palestinian asylum seekers coming from Syria, the already narrow, deformed and distorted streets have become even thinner. The camp areas have not expanded with the new arrivals, but remained the same. In this situation, the housing need is solved by adding extra floors to the existing houses. In the camp areas without planning, it is impossible to think about green spaces, common areas and recreational facilities, and the camps have turned into unhealthy structures. Despite the increase in the number of asylum seekers, the Lebanese State does not allow the expansion of the camp areas or repair the buildings or infrastructure destroyed during the wars. Due to the infrastructural problems of the camps, sewers burst, there is no access to clean drinking water and the camps’ inhabitants are forced to use this water due to poverty. Due to the density, access to electricity is limited.
Palestinians who want to live in more humane conditions outside the camps face the constant threat of forced eviction. Those who find jobs and earn money, try to find housing in the cities. Although Palestinians have been in Lebanon for 75 years, they do not have the right to own property. They can only buy a house in the name of a Lebanese citizen and, if they have a dispute with this person, they lose their home. Palestinians do not have access to education and health institutions, and these services are provided minimally through UNRWA. UNRWA’s 64 schools educate 40,000 students and its 27 primary health care facilities provide more than 524,000 health services annually. Approximately 90 per cent of UNRWA’s workforce is comprised of Palestinians.
The Lebanese State prohibits Palestinians from working in many qualified professions, such as medicine, engineering and law. Palestinians working in permitted fields of work cannot benefit from fundamental social rights and services, such as salary payment in case of illness and maternity leave, even if they work with insurance. Thus, Palestinians are excluded from the labour market, and those who can find a job are forced to work for low wages without employment and insurance security.
Since the State of Israel does not allow the return of the Palestinians and their future generations who were expelled after 1948, Palestinian refugees are trapped between inhumane camp life, discrimination and societal and institutional racism. Other refugee groups might be given certain fundamental rights that are denied to Palestinians, which could worsen the living conditions of Palestinians. Thus, the hopes for the future of people born and raised on Lebanese soil are destroyed, and the incidents of participation in crime and terrorist organisations, drug addiction and violence in the camps due to poverty and lack of education do not end.
Soner Tauscher is a faculty member at Sakarya University’s International Relations Department (Turkey) and works at the Centre for Diaspora Studies