Lebanon: a life in limbo for Palestinians

The location of the Lebanese Republic—bordered by Syria to the north and east and Israel to the south, placing it at the crossroads of the Mediterranean Basin and the Arabian hinterland—has shaped its rich and contentious history.  In addition to hosting a stew of different religions, it is a natural magnet for refugees fleeing conflict in neighboring countries. In fact, at the end of 2014, Lebanon hosted the largest number of refugees in relation to its national population, with 232 per 1,000 inhabitants.

Precise numbers are hard to come by when it comes to how many Palestinians currently live in Lebanon and when they came. However, it is generally agreed that about 129,000 were forced to flee to Lebanon in 1948-49, when Israel was created by UN fiat.

According to the United Nations Relief & Works Agency (UNRWA), approximately 455,000 Palestinians are registered with the agency in Lebanon. However, its statistics do not include undocumented Palestinians who made it in later, such as in the wake of the Jordanian civil war in 1970 (when the Palestine Liberation Organization was forced out by the latter and moved its base of operations to Lebanon). Overall, it’s estimated that about 300,000 Palestinians actually live in Lebanon (the remainder have managed to travel abroad to study or work), accounting for approximately 10 percent of Lebanon’s population.

Unfortunately, Lebanon is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, and “what began as a varied experience eventually became a hostile, “othering” situation. Researcher and author Rosemary Sayigh says that compared to Palestinian refugees elsewhere, those who ended up in Lebanon live with a “unique degree of political, economic and social exclusion.”

Palestinian camps in Lebanon (Source: UNRWA)

Fifty-60 percent of Palestinians have no other choice but to live in densely crowded and poorly served camps, with the remainder in 42 “gatherings.” They are not allowed to own property and must live with numerous restrictions and social norms that severely limit where they go to school, work and get health care (if they can at all). Amnesty International calls these restrictions a violation of international law, including the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination; and the Convention on the Rights of the Child—all treaties signed by Lebanon. For more detail, read the detailed report from the Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor on refugees in Lebanon, “Life in Limbo.” 

Shatila refugee camp, Lebanon
Shatila refugee camp (photo by Pam Bailey)