BEIRUT: In the history of the Palestinian rights struggle in Lebanon, Aug. 17, 2010, was supposed to mark a turning point. Issued on that date, Law 129 amended Article 59 of the Labor Law and thus revoked two major obstacles to Palestinians in Lebanon accessing employment, namely the work permit fee and the reciprocity condition (Palestinians here can’t be treated like Lebanese working in Palestine, because there is no Palestinian state).
But almost three years later, these revisions remain unimplemented, and with the unfolding implications of the Syrian conflict in Lebanon many Palestinian rights advocates now say neither the political nor social climate is favorable to progress on the issue.
The two main Palestinian rights campaigns – to secure the right to work and restore the right to property ownership, reneged in 2001 – remain active, with advocacy groups continuing to hold meetings and events, but the expectations are low that they will bear fruit any time soon.
“I feel that because of the bad situation in Lebanon and in the region ... everything is frozen, not only concerning Palestinians in Lebanon, but concerning everything. ... Even the [parliamentary] election was postponed because of the security issue and because of the political tension,” said Khaldoun Sharif, the chairman of the Lebanese Palestinian Dialogue Committee, in evaluating the current status of the rights campaign.
While the LPDC remains involved in several rights campaigns, in coordination with the International Labor Organization and the Committee for Employment of Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon, communications officer Lina Hamdan admits its focus has been elsewhere of late.
“Although the workshops and meetings are ongoing, the influx of Palestinian refugees coming from Syria ... imposed urgent needs that have to be tackled to deal with the social complications, security and humanitarian problems,” she said.
But Mennatallah Omar, advocacy coordinator with Najdeh, a Lebanese non-governmental organization that has worked with the Palestinian community since 1976, posits that even though the government showed an interest in Palestinian refugee rights when it amended the Labor Law in 2010, it is now using the present tensions in the country to avoid the issue.
“The government doesn’t express the needed interest under the pretext that the government has a lot of problems to solve concerning the security situation and the internal problems, she told The Daily Star.
“As for the advocacy campaigns, the government considered that the priority is actually the Syrian crisis and the refugees coming from Syria, and so this is not the time to talk about Palestinian refugee rights,” Omar added.
According to the United Nations, more than half a million Syrian refugees and some 57,000 Palestinians from Syria, have flooded across Lebanon’s border. Meanwhile the involvement of various Lebanese factions on opposite sides of the civil war next door has manifested itself in increasingly regular security incidents on Lebanese territory.
Omar also noted that the arrival of Palestinians from Syria may prove a setback to the rights campaign because, fearful of increasing numbers of Palestinians remaining permanently in Lebanon, some members of the government are afraid to approve rights for Palestinian refugees.
The contention that the present security circumstances offer a convenient excuse rather than a sincere explanation for putting work on Palestinian rights on the long finger is also supported by remarks from American University of Beirut professor, Sawsan Abdulrahim.
Abdulrahim, who is professor in the department of health promotion and community health, has conducted research inside Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee camps and has previously spoken in public on the rights campaign. She describes the present political environment as “very hostile” toward the issue.
“The political moment is not very conducive to advocacy on this front,” she said, explaining that since the appointment of Salim Jreissati as labor minister in February last year “achievements on the right to work for Palestinians in Lebanon have been put on hold.”
The amendments to the labor law, although signed by Jreissati’s predecessor Charbel Nahhas, have not been implemented, she said.
Omar is also clear that progress has been made on actualizing the 2010 changes: “After [the] 2010 amendments to the Labor Law, the Lebanese government hasn’t issued ... any ministerial decree to execute these amendments.”
Today Palestinians remain barred from working in dozens of syndicated professions, which are permitted to stipulate that membership only be granted to Lebanese citizens or under the reciprocity principle whereby foreigners are only allowed to work if their home country grants Lebanese the same right. Also, despite having lived in the country for six-and-a-half decades, Palestinians are still treated as foreigners when it comes to obtaining a work permit.
Omar notes just two small advances on Palestinian access to work since 2010: Last year the Lebanese Order of Nurses agreed to admit Palestinians, once they had a work permit from the Labor Ministry and a permit to practice issued by the Health Ministry, and earlier this year Jreissati signed a decision exempting Palestinians from the medical tests and insurance policy usually required before a work permit is issued.
But these fall a long way short of the campaign’s objectives: the abolition of the work permit for Palestinians, and the enrollment of Palestinians in professional associations.
Yet, although Omar emphasizes that Palestinians today are “more interested and more active in the different campaigns,” in these trying times the securing of human rights appears to have tumbled down the refugees’ list of priorities.
As Palestinians from Syria flock to already overcrowded and underserviced refugee camps in Lebanon, more basic concerns have risen to the top of the pile.
“I don’t believe people are concentrating on rights now; they are concentrating on basics: water, food, etc.,” Sharif said.
Likewise, Abdulrahim said, “The crisis mode of dealing with the Syrian situation has put the right to work and the right to property ownership campaigns on the back burner. Currently everyone is more concerned about water, food and immunization rather than economic rights.”
Omar also notes that since the arrival of families from Syria the economic and social situation in the camps has become more difficult.
UNRWA, the United Nations agency under whose remit the provision of services to Palestinian refugees falls, was suffering a funding shortage even prior to the Syria crisis, and now finds itself under increased pressure as it struggles to meet the additional needs of new arrivals from Syria.
Indeed, UNRWA has met with increased hostility from the population it services in Lebanon, something the LPDC’s Sharif acknowledges. “Now Palestinians are protesting against UNRWA,” he said.
This dissatisfaction was immediately apparent when The Daily Star raised the issue of the rights campaign with one resident of Burj al-Barajneh camp.
“We are forgotten by UNRWA because of Syria,” she said.
“Everyone has rights in the country except the Palestinians.”
Omar was critical of the UNRWA on rights issue. “UNRWA is not doing enough on the right to work or other economic, social and civil rights,” she said.
When contacted for comment on the current status of the rights campaign in light of the Syria crisis, UNRWA’s public information officer Hoda Samra told The Daily Star she had “no public statement to make regarding this particular issue.”
However, the LPDC’s Sharif expressed sympathy for the position the U.N. body finds itself in.
UNRWA is “doing its best,” he said, explaining that the body was caught between the demands of its donors, the host country Lebanon and the refugees living inside the camps.
Likewise, while the rights campaign is not perhaps independently topping the agenda at the LPDC, Sharif was adamant that his body was working hard at present toward the creation of a “national policy” on Palestinian refugees, one which would address, in addition to rights, the issues of the refugee camps, disarmament and Palestinians without identification papers.
Meanwhile, at Najdeh work on the rights campaign continues unabated. “We consider it’s always the right time to claim our rights,” Omar said.