BEIRUT: Granting Palestinian refugees the right to work remains a political hot potato in Lebanon, as a conference on Monday proved.
The Committee for Employment of Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon (CEP), with support from Norwegian People’s Aid, gathered representatives from major political parties, labor unions, international organizations and the Palestinian community to debate how to grant the refugee population greater employment rights.
Until recently, over 70 professions were off limits to Palestinians. An amendment in 2005 allowed them to obtain work permits for low-level clerical and manual labor but maintained a veto on fields like medicine, law or engineering. Very few Palestinians have work permits, forcing them into unsecure jobs where they could face unlawful dismissal or lower wages than their Lebanese counterparts.
Lebanon’s estimated 400,000 Palestinian refugees suffer from “double discrimination,” Lebanese Information Minister Tarek Mitri said.
Because Lebanon’s labor laws are based on the principle of reciprocity, Palestinians are viewed as foreigners and yet not afforded the rights granted to other foreigners who belong to recognized states.
Although many at the conference agreed on the need to grant Palestinians the right to work, Lebanese Forces representative Fadi Zarifeh said his party, which fought Palestinians during the 1975-90 Civil War, remained hostile to the idea. “The Lebanese state should first take care of its own citizens and not others,” he said, adding that his party was the one “farthest away” from approving greater rights for Palestinian refugees.
Those critical of granting the refugee body greater rights often claim it would pave the way for their naturalization.
But there is no link “between the right to work, resettlement and the right of return,” Mitri said, noting that even the Palestinians had stated categorically their wish not to be resettled.
Lebanon is legally bound to grant Palestinians working rights, said Fateh Azzam, Middle East regional representative of the UN Office of the Higher Commissioner for Human Rights in Beirut.
Lebanon is constitutionally bound to several international rights conventions, including the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights which guarantees the right to work. Paragraph (b) of the preamble to Lebanon’s Constitution reaffirms this bond, saying “the government shall embody [the declaration’s principles] in all fields and areas without exception.”
Lebanon must “translate all these commitments into legislation,” Azzam said.
The conference comes shortly after the Palestine Civil Rights Campaign and the Sabra Shatila Foundation issued a petition calling for greater civil and social rights for Palestinian refugees.
In January 2009 Palestinian nongovernmental organization, The Najdeh (Welfare) Association, published a report debunking the myth that Palestinians posed a threat to Lebanese workers, saying they contributed to “invigorating” the areas surrounding their camps by creating low-cost markets for other poor and marginalized communities.