Palestinian Refugees and Lebanon’s Disgrace

Maybe it was the really loud celebratory Ak-47 Kalashnikov and small arms gunfire and fireworks in my South Beirut neighborhood that triggered the intense New Years eve nightmare.  Or I guess it could have been, just below my bedroom window, the seemingly launched RPG-7’s  which followed minutes past midnight on January 1, 2011.

Anyhow, in my News Years dream, I was back in my childhood home, Milwaukie, Oregon, nearly half a century ago. Our farming and lumber  town  on the  Willamette River had a population of  around 2000 in those much simpler and less crowded days.  I dreamt it was Saturday afternoon and as we always did during our middle school years, my best friend and Lake Road neighbor,  David Inabnit and I went to our town’s decaying WW II era movie  theatre called the Victory, at exactly 1 p.m.  We stood in line to watch the Saturday Matinee, paid the 20 cents for admission , used the dime his sainted mother Martha always gave us for spending money and bought either Milk Duds or Good ‘n Plenty candies and settled into the comfortable over stuffed seats.

We always  enjoyed the afternoon complete with Realtone News, a bunch of cartoons, the latest episode of an action serial like Dick Tracy, Hopalong Cassidy  or the Cisco Kid,  and  usually a  Cowboys and Indians movie.  Or sometimes, my favorite childhood action hero,  “Tarzan, King of the Jungle”. Tarzan’s every pleasant friend Jane, who always seemed to twist her ankle and had to be carried by Tarzan, swinging  on vines through the treetops. Jane reminded me of Miss Whitehead, our Milwaukie Grammar School 4th Grade teacher, who  was quite pretty.

My New Year’s nightmare was centered on one of those terrifying  scenes that still  upsets me a lot.  It was a quicksand pit scene where the victims would sink out of sight and disappear forever while flailing their arms and screaming–swallowed up by the shifting and  sinking sand.

 In my nightmare this vast quicksand pit kept getting wider and broader. David and I were high up in the treetops watching the  swirling deathtrap,  cork-screwing downward as it expanded. To our horror, futilely struggling to extricate and save themselves, were thousands of soon-to-be-suffocated Palestinian refugees, some of whom I recognized from today’s refugee camps in Lebanon.

 Tarzan was nowhere to be seen  and we kept looking for him to swing down from the overhead vines.  He never came.

I admit to possessing a fragile and perhaps nightmare-susceptible  psych these days, after long observing  the lives  of friends in Palestinian camps in Lebanon.  But it is one thing to study the statistics, read well-meaning NGO studies, attend three dozen or so Palestinian Rights ‘Workshops/Conferences of one kind or another over the past few years.  It’s quite another to  share greatly valued personal relationships with some of those whose life experiences  provide the sociological data.

2011 statistical update:   Lebanon’s  “lowest of the lows”

In Lebanon this past summer, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), conducted a socio-economic survey of  2,600 Palestinian refugee households.

The survey results are not encouraging. As bad, if not worse than in Gaza, the data reveal a  social,  moral, political and perhaps literal time bomb.

The data graphically illustrate the need for immediate Lebanese  and global governmental and civil society advocacy and political pressure to encourage Lebanon’s parliament  to enact internationally mandated elementary human rights for Palestinian refugees.

Both the international community and Lebanon have created and  \perpetuated the quicksand death pit tragedy unfolding in Lebanon’s camps. The good news is that either can fairly quickly end the nightmare, if they can be motivated to develop the political will.

Half of the population is under 25 years old. Two-thirds of the Palestinians live shoehorned inside camps the square footage of which has not appreciably increased over the past six decades but whose population has more than quadrupled.  One-third live in gatherings mainly near one of the 12  camps’ vicinity. Nearly 7 per cent  are extremely poor meaning they cannot meet their essential daily food needs, five times the percentage for the poorest Lebanese. Nearly 67 per cent of Palestine refugees in Lebanon are poor and cannot  meet their basic food and non-food needs. This is double the number for the Lebanese poor and one of the highest in the world.

Nearly 56 per cent of Palestinians are jobless. Two-thirds of Palestinians employed in elementary occupations ( i. e.  street vendors, construction  or  agriculture workers) are poor. A major part of Palestinian refugee problems in Lebanon are caused by the fact that Lebanon’s government refuses to grant them the internationally mandated rights required and enjoyed by all the world’s refugees.  These include the right to work and to own a home.

 Less than  half of young people of secondary school age (16-18 years old) are  even enrolled in schools or vocational training centers.  As 2011 begins, eight per cent of the Palestine refugee population of school age (7-15 years old) are not enrolled in any school. Only 6 per cent of Palestinians refugees in Lebanon are university degree holders whereas in the Diaspora the figure is often in the 80-90 percentile for Palestinians.

Formerly one of a Palestinian refugee’s characteristics was a strong educational background.  This proud attribute has now vanished in Lebanon’s camps. High dropout rates and insufficient skills combined with multi-barriers established by the  Lebanese government  severely limit the refugees’ ability to find even menial ‘informal economy’ or ‘black market’  jobs.

Sixty three per cent  of Lebanon’s  Palestinians experience  food insecurity and 15 per cent of Palestinians are severely food insecure and are in acute need of food assistance. Approximately 25 per cent of refugee households consume inadequate amounts of fruit, vegetables, dairy and meat and one-third of the population is not meeting  micronutrient requirements.  According to the authors of the UNWRA survey, micronutrient deficiencies cause stunting, poor cognitive and psychomotor development of children

Unhealthy dietary habits are common among Lebanon’s refugees.  Fifty-seven per cent have unhealthy dietary habits including the excessive consumption of  sweets.  Sixty-eight per cent consume sweetened drinks which directly increases the burden of chronic diseases

Chronic illnesses affects close to a third of  Lebanon’s Palestinian refugees.  All Palestinian households with a disabled head of household live in extreme poverty.  Twenty one per cent of Lebanon’s Palestinian refugees attest to experiencing  depression, anxiety, or distress.  Ninety five per cent of the population is without medical insurance but UNRWA, which is again being targeted for dissolution by the US Congressional Israeli lobby,  does its best to provide primary and secondary health care. 100 percent of the camps’ and gatherings’ potable water is polluted.

Sixty-six  per cent of the houses suffer from dampness and leakage which often results in psychological and chronic illnesses. Eight per cent of households live in shelters where the roof and/or walls are made of corrugated iron, wood or asbestos. Eight per cent live in overcrowded conditions (more than three people in one room) while as many as seven to a room is not uncommon.

Every group and political party in Lebanon has failed the Palestinian refugees — including their leadership. The best of the Palestinians are those struggling to survive in the Camps and it is their young people who will likely take the Palestinian struggle to survive and to return to Palestine to the next level if necessary.

A 2011 solution from the international community?

It would take Lebanon’s Parliament just two hours to fix half of the problem and  to abolish the racist 2001 law that forbids Palestinians from owning a home.  Unfortunately its author, who is currently Minster of Labor, has not altered his mindset a decade later. Indeed, he has just submitted to Parliament a draft law that would outlaw  Christians selling any property at all in Lebanon to Muslims (read: Hezbollah supporting Shia)  for the next 15 years under penalty of ten years in jail  and a fine double the sale price. He has declared such a law  is “necessary in order to advance sectarian harmony” while denying that he favors building medieval walls around the 18 sects’ land holdings.

It would take roughly the same amount of time  for Parliament to declare that Palestinians shall be allowed the full right to work.  Not the mockery of the August 17, 2010 public relations  feel-good “cancellation of  the work permit fee” gesture that likely has not and will not help one refugee secure a job, the same right that all other foreigners have.

By way of contrast to Lebanon inaction, the Palestinian’s arch enemy Israel, as if to taunt Lebanon, announced this week that  Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has instructed  Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer to increase the number of Palestinians from the West Bank allowed to work in Israel. Ben-Eliezer is to allocate 5,000 more work permits for Palestinians from the West Bank.  So at the beginning of 2011 the score might be said to be:  5000 Israeli work permits for Palestinians.  Zero from Lebanon.

Increasingly, political analysts  are concluding that  Lebanon’s politicians are simply not capable — given this country’s virulent sectarianism and civil war memories, and despite occasional sweet words about the 1949 Universal Declaration of the Human Rights being partly authored by a Lebanese gentleman — of granting internationally mandated elementary civil rights to Palestinians. This despite the fact the those who came to Lebanon 63 years ago were forced here by Zionist ethnic cleansing.

On the other hand, it would require of  President Obama,  President Ahmadinejad, the European Union or any one of a number of other heads of major powers only the time required to send the right communication to Lebanon’s three key politicians to correct this long injustice. The UN and the international community must politely  demand that Lebanon  end this unacceptable discrimination against their sisters and brothers  because it is no longer  internationally tolerable.  They must make clear that  all foreign aid to Lebanon will be suspended until Parliament meets its internationally mandated humanitarian obligations toward Palestinian refugees.

Were the international community to cease averting its eyes and actually give some meaning to the more than 100 UN Resolutions on Palestine and the more than 500 conference declarations over the past half century dealing with Palestinian refugees,  Lebanon’s  six decades of shame would be lifted. More importantly, the implementation of the Right of Return to Palestine, and the refugees departure from Lebanon, would be advanced as the warehoused refugees gain some economic strength to pursue their inalienable right and responsibility to regain Palestine. A win-win formula  for Lebanon and humanity if ever there was one.

Hopefully, all of Lebanon’s politicians and parties, along with the international community, will assure that 2011,  is not just the year of the Rabbit, but the year that Palestinian refugees in Lebanon secured the  internationally mandated elementary rights to work and to own a home.

FRANKLIN LAMB is doing research in Lebanon and is reachable at  fplamb@gmail.com


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Franklin Lamb volunteers with the Lebanon, France, and USA based Meals for Syrian Refugee Children Lebanon (MSRCL) which seeks to provide hot nutritional meals to Syrian and other refugee children in Lebanon. http://mealsforsyrianrefugeechildrenlebanon.com. He is reachable c/o fplamb@gmail.com.

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