By: Prof. Dr. Mohsen Mohammad Saleh.
The document published by the Lebanese Palestinian Dialogue Committee (LPDC), which is attached to the office of the Lebanese Presidency of the Council of Ministers, is considered one of the most important documents in which the Lebanese of almost all political affiliations made a common approach on how to deal with Palestinian refugees. It was published in January 2017, and was entitled, “A Unified Lebanese Vision For the Palestinian Refugees Affairs In Lebanon.” This was the fruit of over 50 meetings held by the Working Group formed by LPDC, along almost two years.
The importance of this document lies in its comprehensive, dealing objectively with most of the issues of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, and that most Lebanese political forces approved it and ratified it. These are the Future Movement, the Progressive Socialist Party, Hizbullah, Amal Movement, Free Patriotic Movement, the Lebanese Forces, and even the Lebanese Phalanges Party, which has approved most of its articles, but did not sign it. Hence, the document practically represents an overwhelming majority, of all sects (Sunni, Shiites, Christians, Druze…), making it easier for its recommendations to be converted into laws and resolutions. However, two years since its launch, no practical procedure was taken to alleviate many aspects of the sufferings that the document admitted and has offered reasonable approaches to deal with them.
It is noteworthy to mention that this document was preceded by another, issued by the Lebanese-Palestinian Dialogue Forum of the Common Space Initiative, in which representatives of several major Lebanese parties, and a number of Lebanese and Palestinian specialists, participated. After a labor of two years, and on 29/10/2013, this document was issued, offering good solutions and approaches for the treatment of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.
The aggravation of the Palestinian refugee crisis, their continuous suffering over many years, their deprivation of several human, civil, social and economic rights—guaranteed in international human rights systems and treaties, along with the slow and disruptive pace of solution procedures—even those agreed upon, form a phenomena that characterizes the situation of Palestinian refuge in Lebanon.
The Palestinians in Lebanon are deprived from their right to work in many jobs, professions and disciplines, hence they have a hard time to earn their living, including most of those with university majors. This suffering began in 1963, and over time more procedures were enacted, complicating and aggravating it, especially in 1982 and afterwards. Then, some Lebanese forces tried to solve the issue, however, the procedures remained few and easily disrupted.
In 2005, the then Labour Minister Trad Hamadah announced the easing of work permit restrictions on Palestinians, and in 2010, the Lebanese parliament granted Palestinian refugees the right to work and claim free work permits for employment in the private sector, and to claim retirement indemnities. But despite paying their full contributions to the social security fund (23% for foreigners including Palestinians, and 7% for the Lebanese), the new amendments did not include health coverage, maternity benefits or family allowances. They also did not lift the ban on the syndicated professions in Lebanon, and they are many (medicine, engineering, law, accounting… and others), where only the Lebanese could apply. Consequently, the Palestinians actually did not apply for work permits and social security… and most of them continued to work illegally, if they found an opportunity to work in the first place.
In 2001, this problem was aggravated when the Lebanese parliament issued a law denying the Palestinians the right to own property in Lebanon. Consequently, they have become unable to bequeath their property (that was already owned before 2001) to their heirs.
This suffering led to a mass emigration drain in the Palestinian refugee society in Lebanon. Many emigrated, especially university graduates and professionals, in search of livelihood, decreasing their numbers in Lebanon. The number of UNRWA registered refugees in Lebanon is about 550 thousand, whereas their actual number barely approaches half this number (250 thousand). It should be noted here that in 2017, the Lebanese census of Palestinian refugees residents in Lebanon is officially 175 thousand.
The suffering of Palestinian refugee camps (RCs) was aggravated by the strict measures taken by the Lebanese authorities under the pretext of maintaining security and preventing unauthorized construction…, they tightened the entry and exit controls, and prohibited the entry of building materials except in some very rare cases. This was implemented at a time when the RCs were suffering from serious overcrowding, poor housing conditions and insufficient infrastructure. The measures caused further increase in unemployment rates leading to the widespread poverty, and attempts by various parties to recruit the refugees in order to disrupt the security and stability of the country.
It is noteworthy to say that security and sectarianism were at the core of dealing with the refugees on the ground. Moreover, the lack of proper regulation of work has led the Lebanese state to lose many sources of income, for the refugees were not integrated into the official system of work to ensure their natural rights, and to receive from them the appropriate taxes and fees.
The LPDC document has tackled most of the problems mentioned above, and has adopted four reference frameworks: Committing to the Lebanese Constitution and the National Accord Document, guaranteeing the Lebanese greater national interests, committing to the Human Rights system, and confirming the values of sovereignty, independence, and coexistence. It introduced suitable definitions of the Palestinian refugee and resettlement, which were controversial among the Lebanese. The definition of refugees included the refugees of 1948, who are registered with the UNRWA in Lebanon; those registered at the Ministry of Interior and Municipalities; and undocumented Palestinian refugees identified by the Lebanese authorities within the Non-ID category. As for the resettlement of refugees, it was defined as granting Palestinian refugees the Lebanese nationality collectively, or individually, by virtue of an imposed decision in the context of a regional or international settlement.
The document rejected resettlement (as did the Palestinians), believed in preserving the human rights of Palestinian refugees, granting them their economic and social rights, enhancing the RCs conditions, and “humanizing” security procedures, where dealing with RCs should not be limited to the security aspect, but must also include political matters, services and human right issues. The Working Group agreed on the Palestinians’ right to work and have social security, which would cover medical treatment and other services, and on the need to address the right to own property, without providing full and clear details of this approach.
The document positively agreed on the Palestinian refugees’ right of peaceful political action, and called for facilitating the activity of civil society organizations working to enhance the Palestinian national identity within legal frameworks. It supported the existence of representative committees in RCs that would provide services to the refugees.
It was pointed out in the document that these rights must be granted as long as they take into account Lebanon’s greater interest, human rights conventions, the interests of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, and the Lebanese realistic abilities.
It is clear that various Lebanese sides feel the dangers of resettlement and the need to coordinate with the Palestinians to confront it. They know, as well, the deficiencies in the Lebanese laws and regulations concerning the Palestinians, and the ensuing problems that negatively affected the Lebanese environment itself, whether politically, economically, socially or security wise. As a result, this document was designed to present suitable solutions to many issues.
As for the Lebanese state of affairs, it is burdened with its own concerns, problems, internal balances and external interventions, thus making the Palestinian refugees’ case of least priority, placing it on a long waiting list to reach the parliament. One notes that the agreement on a president took more than two years, the prime minister-designate could not form the government even after nine months has passed since the elections, and “collecting the trash” took months of negotiations and bargains, and the same case applies on electricity… and applies on others. Consequently, those concerned with the Palestinian refugees must know that they are dealing with a system that is slow, having sects and parties that are politically and materially sensitive, and affected by regional and international factors.
In such a system, it is easy for any party to obstruct procedures under different pretexts, in a country that is basically based on consensus and on building internal alliances in which some parties are forced to respond to the requests or concerns of their partners and political allies, albeit contrary to their own convictions. Experience has shown that many parties speak individually of their support of refugees and about alleviating their suffering, but do not take any effective steps in the Parliament in that regard.
The document has stated that one of the criteria to be committed to Palestinian rights is taking into consideration Lebanese realistic abilities. This is a correct statement, however, assessing these abilities is controversial, for some parties may be strict in their interpretation of the document thus emptying it of its content. Furthermore, the ministers exercise broad powers in their ministries, and as a result, they can disrupt any procedure or reduce its impact, according to the positions of their parties, their own interpretation of the text (which has many interpretations), and by exploiting loopholes in the texts.
It’s important to emphasize that the issue of the rights of Palestinian refugees is no longer an issue that can be postponed or shelved, and that it is in the interest of the Lebanese and Palestinian parties to solve it. In addition, the sufferings of the Palestinian refugee community have negative impact on the whole Lebanese community.
At the same time, the Palestinians in Lebanon and all those who support their rights, must not stop their initiatives, follow ups, and hard work, in order to bring the Palestinian refugees issue to the fore of the agendas in Lebanon. Secondly, they must build trust with Lebanese parties that have their own concerns, by presenting facts and information that would ease these concerns and overcome the negative historical legacy. Thirdly, the refugee issue can be presented within the context of searching for the common ground that is in the interests of all parties. Fourthly, there’s nothing wrong if one starts with consensus issues and those which can be easily implemented, and then move to more complex issues. Fifthly, crystallizing procedures into laws and the unequivocal drafting of legislations is very important to prevent the use of ambiguity or loopholes to disrupt or impede the integrity and smooth implementation.