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Persecution faced by Palestinian refugees in Lebanon


After 56 years of exile, Palestinians living in Lebanon continue to be explicitly and systematically deprived of their civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights and liberties.





Right of Return

Palestinians were forced to flee or were expelled from their homes and lands at the time of the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 and again when Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967. Many of them took refuge in Lebanon, where they remain today, together with their descendents. There are today about 400,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and the majority of them live in refugee camps run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). [1]

The Palestinians' right to return is clearly recognized and upheld in international law. However, over 50 years have already elapsed since the start of the Palestinian refugee problem and the right to return has yet to be realized.[2]

For the past 56 years, Palestinian refugees in Lebanon continue to live in horrific conditions inside refugee camps. Their right to return to the homes they fled in 1948 continues to be completely denied by Israel, in direct violation of the following international legal instruments:


·         UN General Assembly Resolution 194, re-affirmed over 110 times by the United Nations General Assembly since 1948;

·         UN General Assembly Resolution 3236 and 52/62;

·         The Universal Declaration of Human Rights;

·         The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights;

·         The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, and;

·         The 4th Geneva Convention.


The denial of this individual and inalienable right has led stateless Palestinian refugees into a life of misery in refugee camps throughout neighboring host countries. 



Violations of International Human Rights Conventions


The treatment of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon has been recognized to constitute a violation of a plethora of basic human rights. Amnesty International[3] reported in 2003 that the Lebanese treatment of stateless Palestinians is in violation of:


·         The International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights;

·         The International Covenant on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination;

·         The Convention on the Rights of the Child;

·         The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights;

·         The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, and;

·         The Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.


Canada has either ratified or acceded to each of these instruments.


Systematic Discrimination


  • Palestinians in Lebanon face systematic discrimination that jeopardizes their capacity to attain the essentials of a safe and healthy existence. Amnesty International has made the following unequivocal observations:

Discrimination levied against Palestinians in relation to the rights to own and inherit property and the right to work, creates conditions where Palestinians refugees cannot enjoy an adequate standard of living. […] The conditions that Palestinian refugees live in, including their lack of access to adequate housing, food and clothing, lead to a situation where Palestinian refugees do not enjoy the right to an adequate standard of living.[4]


  • Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria have the largest Palestinian refugee populations. Those in Lebanon probably suffer the most out of these three communities. For them, the pain associated with the loss of their homes, the decades of exile in foreign countries is aggravated by a policy of systematic discrimination against them.[5]


  • Lebanon is a country with a small population and very diverse ethnic and religious communities. It has suffered through a long civil war and severe sectarian tensions, to which the Palestinians were inextricably linked. The involvement of Palestinian factions in the civil war is cited as one of the main reasons why Palestinians are the victims of discrimination in Lebanon. This does not excuse the systematic discrimination against them or the violation of their fundamental human rights.[6]


Right to Employment & Abject Poverty


  • Palestinians in Lebanon are de jure and de facto discriminated against in relation to other non-citizens with regards to the right to work and the right to social security.[7]


  • The Lebanese government applies a policy of reciprocity of treatment when it comes to granting work permits; it will grant the right to work to foreign nationals to the extent that their state grants the right to Lebanese nationals. Palestinians are at a particular disadvantage in relation to other foreign nationals as they do not have a state that could provide reciprocal treatment to Lebanese nationals.[8]


  • Palestinians face severe restrictions in their access to work and to opportunities to gain their living by work. Palestinian refugees are barred de jure from practicing several professions such as law, medicine, pharmacy, and journalism due to a requirement of possessing Lebanese citizenship or to having reciprocal treatment in the country of the foreign national wishing to practice this profession.[9]


  • A Ministerial Decree issued on 15 December 1995 lists trades and vocations that are restricted to Lebanese nationals; this includes a non-exhaustive listing of dozens of trades and vocations restricted to Lebanese employees or employers.[10]


  • Lebanese laws (resolution 621/1, decree 6812 of 1995, and decree 17561 of 1964) clearly restrict foreigners from working in over 70 professions in Lebanon.  Only 1% of the Palestinians in Lebanon manage to secure the mandatory work permit required by the Lebanese government, in order to benefit from regular jobs.[11]


  • The majority of Palestinians are forced to work illegally, and in unskilled labor, mostly in manual, irregular and daily – either paid, or in petty commerce in the camps. The average individual income (44$) is a quarter of the Lebanese minimum wage (161$).[12]


  • UNRWA has estimated that 60% of Palestinians in Lebanon live below the poverty line.  Other studies have indicated that proportions have risen to 80%, with 56% living in extreme poverty.[13]


  • Very few Palestinians received work permits, and those who found work usually were directed into unskilled occupations. Palestinian incomes continued to decline. The law prohibits Palestinian refugees from working in 72 professions.[14]


  • According to UNRWA, the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon have the highest rate of people living in "abject poverty" of all the Palestinian refugee communities they serve. [15]


  • The Popular Committee, an administrative committee representing different political factions in the 'Ayn al-Hilwah’ camp, Lebanon's largest Palestinian refugee camp, says that the rate of unemployment is 80%. It mainly attributes this to laws discriminating against Palestinian refugees in their ability to seek work.[16]


Right to Adequate Housing & Property


·         Palestinians in Lebanon are de jure and de facto discriminated against as compared with other non-citizens with regards to the rights to own and inherit property.[17]


·         Palestinians in Lebanon are restricted from rebuilding or redeveloping refugee camps due to government-imposed restrictions.[18]


·         Recent passing by Parliament of revisions to the law concerning ownership of property by foreigners, a new level of exclusion has been reached by forbidding "anyone who does not have citizenship in a recognized state" from owning property. Though not named explicitly, Palestinians are clearly meant by this roundabout phrasing. Those Palestinians who already own property, moreover, will not be able to pass on their homes to their children.[19]


·         Palestinian refugees do not have the right to own property in the country. Palestinians no longer may purchase property and those who owned property prior to 2001 will be prohibited from passing it on to their children.[20]


·         The law does not explicitly target Palestinian refugees, but bars those who are not "bearer[s] of nationality of a recognized state" from owning property; in practice, this means only the Palestinians.[21]


·         The number of Palestinians in Lebanon has tripled due to demographic growth and Palestinians returning from the Gulf States (especially Kuwait, during the Gulf War).  Because of unemployment and restricted access to work, most Palestinians have no choice but to live in concentrated areas such as the refugee camps.[22]


·         No new camps have been allowed since the war of 1975/76 when three camps in Lebanese Forces-dominated areas were overrun; existing camp boundaries are non-expandable; building inside most camps is restricted; and repairs as well as building new structures have been forbidden in all the Southern camps since 1991.[23]


·        Most Palestinian refugees lived in overpopulated camps that suffered repeated heavy damage as a result of fighting during the civil war, during the Israeli invasion of the country, and during on-going camp feuds. The Government generally prohibited the construction of permanent structures in the camps on the grounds that such construction encouraged the notion of permanent refugee settlement in the country.[24]

“Khaled Abu Hamid, a seventeen-year-old youth suffered a bullet injury in his lower extremity when he was standing on the mounds that surround Buss camp (Tyre Area) on 1st of July 2002. Fire was opened on him by Lebanese security that were in "hot pursuit" of some Palestinian Refugee youth trying to "smuggle" some building material on a motorcycle into the Buss camp. A motorcycle load of building material becomes a target for security men and its driver becomes a smuggler prone either to legal action (including being sued in military courts) or -worse still- to becoming a target to official firearms if he tries to evade the Lebanese checkpoints.” [25]









·        Camp space is insufficient, and environmental conditions – lack of electricity, over-crowding, polluted water, sewage-seepage – are hazardous to the health of its inhabitants. [26]


·         Public construction schemes threaten several camps with complete or partial demolition.[27]


·     The department for Palestinian Affairs in Lebanon acknowledges that some 200,000 Palestinian refugees live in camps that are capable of holding up to 50,000.[28]



Freedom of Expression & Political Rights


  • Freedom of expression is conditioned on the presence of Lebanese security forces and the Syrian army, who control exits and entrances of most camps.  Many Palestinians have been arrested and transferred to either prisons in Lebanon or Syria.


  • For fear of reprisals, Palestinians are afraid to express their opinions, not only due to the controls of Syrian and Lebanese security, but also due to the different rivaling political factions within the same camps.[29]


  • Palestinian refugees have no political rights. An estimated 17 Palestinian factions operate in Lebanon, generally organized around prominent individuals. Most Palestinians live in refugee camps controlled by one or more factions. The leaders of the refugees are not elected, nor are there any democratically organized institutions in the camps.[30]


  • Palestinian refugees were subject to arrest, detention, and harassment by state security forces, Syrian forces, and rival Palestinians. For example, Palestinian refugees living in camps are not allowed to bring in construction material to repair damaged houses. Lebanese security services use this as leverage to recruit informers and buy their allegiance.[31]


  • Palestinian groups in refugee camps maintain a separate, arbitrary system of justice for other Palestinians. Members of the various Palestinian groups that control the camps tortured and detained their Palestinian rivals.[32]


  • In the Palestinian camp of Ayn al Hilweh assassination of opponents is more common than their arrest.[33]


  • Many armed political factions compete for control of the camps and factional fighting is a common feature of life in some of the camps.[34]


Freedom of Association


  • Under Lebanese law, all associations and NGOs must be registered by Lebanese Citizens, thus, Palestinians are not permitted to organize and form associations, unless through a Lebanese citizen.


  • Where authorities discover that the associations are not Lebanese, they are forced to cease activities.[35]


Freedom of Movement


  • Those waiting to go in and out of the camps may be subject to identity checks by the Lebanese or Syrian army.


  • On 22nd September, 1995, the Lebanese authorities forbade Palestinians (mainly working in Gulf States) outside Lebanon to re-enter without a re-entry visa; at the same time their embassy would not issue any new travel documents, without pre-authorization of the Ministry of the Interior.  Because of these restrictions many Palestinians working in the Gulf States who were expelled by these countries after the Gulf War were unable to return to either country.  Many others did not want to risk leaving Lebanon, for fear of not being permitted re-entry to see their families.


  • In 1999 the Lebanese government cancelled the requirement for entry/exit visas.  However, as the majority of Palestinians were affected after the Gulf War, they were compelled to seek asylum elsewhere.


  • Palestinians are forbidden from living in the areas near the frontiers, where they can only go with prior authorization.[36]


  • Some of the Palestinian refugee camps in the south of Lebanon might easily be mistaken for military zones. The camps are isolated from the outside world by fences and are guarded by Lebanese soldiers that control and vet access to and exit from the camps.[37]


Right to Education


  • Although Palestinians are entitled to the same education as Lebanese, when Lebanese schools and universities enroll their students, they give priority to Lebanese candidates.  Moreover, private education is unaffordable to most Palestinians.  According to the Department of Palestinian Affairs, around 20% of the Palestinian refugees have had access to Lebanese education. [38]


  • UNRWA provides education in 75 schools (70 primary and 5 secondary).  UNRWA education is free, and attended by approximately 39000 students.  42% of UNRWA schools in Lebanon were built in the 1950s and 1960s, and today are in a state of disrepair.  Moreover, the number of schools does not match the growing population, resulting in a system of double shifts, where classes are taught to one group in the morning and another in the afternoon.  In each small classroom there are around 40 students. [39]


  • Because of overcrowding, students graduate from elementary school automatically, to free up space for new students.  Failure rates are around 40-50%, which also reflects the poor teaching they receive, due to the fact that salaries for teachers are extremely poor, while hours are long.[40]


  • Because living conditions are so poor, many young people give up school to work illegally, in order to secure income for their families.  Others use drugs, crime or join politico-religious factions to gain income.[41]


  • Palestinian children reportedly were forced to leave school at an early age to help earn income. The U.N. estimated that 18 percent of street children in the country were Palestinian.[42]



Right to Healthcare


  • In Lebanon, public hospitals are largely insufficient, and the majority of the population relies on private hospitals, which cost too much for most Palestinians.  UNRWA provides medical services in 24 private general hospitals, and one maternity and child care center.  Basic services are offered only in the areas of maternity, child care, family planning and control of infectious and non-infectious disease.[43]


  • Due to high levels of demand, UNRWA doctors have had to see from 150-200 patients per day, and therefore cannot provide quality services. [44]


  • UNRWA is barely able to meet the basic needs of the Palestinian population; partial reimbursement (25% of the cost of hospital treatment) is one of the coping mechanisms, which has resulted in cases of Palestinians who have not been able to leave hospitals because they cannot pay the costs of their stay. [45]


  • Due to increasing populations and decreasing funds, UNRWA has had to restrict its services, included suspending subsidies for certain emergency treatments and medical staff, and reducing medical equipment and maintenance.[46]


Right to Social Security


  • Palestinians in Lebanon are de jure and de facto discriminated against in relation to other non-citizens with regards to the right to work and the right to social security;[47]


  • The Lebanese law on social security (26/09/63) relating to foreigners, states that only foreigners who hold a work permit and are from a State which applies the principal of reciprocity may claim social security.  As a result, Palestinian workers are excluded, even when they have a work permit, as they cannot meet the principal of reciprocity criteria because they are Stateless.[48]


Lack of UNRWA funding


  • United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), Amnesty International and the Palestinian Human Rights Organization have recognized that, as a result of this systematic discrimination, Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon are almost entirely dependent on UNRWA for basic services.


  • UNRWA is, however, unable to provide these services, due to budget constraints. In their 2003 report to the UN General Assembly, UNRWA describes the situation succinctly:


209. Demand for food aid and cash for food assistance continued to rise as legal restrictions on employment of Palestine refugees in Lebanon remained in force and prevailing socio-economic conditions limited income-earning opportunities for refugees.[49]


  • Since 1994, UNRWA has been facing serious budget shortages which have affected the quality and scope of the services it renders.[50]


Statelessness: No United Nations Protection or any other form of protection


  • Palestinian Refugees are the only refugees in the world to exist solely under the mandate of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) and therefore outside the realm of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in their host countries. The consequence of this fact is one many do not comprehend.  The Palestinian Refugees become sidelined and marginalized, without hope for any form of protection.


  • For over 50 years, [Palestinian refugees] have been excluded from the international system for the protection of refugees.[51]


  • The lack of adequate assistance is only one of the failures of the international community towards Palestinian refugees living in UNRWA's area of operation. Unlike other refugees, they are not protected by the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees or the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Both the 1951 Convention and the Statute of UNHCR exclude Palestinian refugees from international protection.  Ironically, like the Lebanese law barring [Palestinian refugees] from owning property in Lebanon, the Convention and the Statute do not explicitly exclude Palestinian refugees; rather, they exclude anyone who receives assistance from other organs of the United Nations. Here again, Palestinian refugees find themselves singled out.[52]


  • Thus, because of their unique situation, Palestinian refugees in Lebanon have been denied virtually every available means of securing their basic rights:


The exceptional condition of Palestinian statelessness and Palestinian dispersal extends itself to all political, economic, social and humanitarian spheres. UNRWA's mandate does not provide protection for Palestinian refugees nor can they appeal to the assistance of UNHCR whose mandate specifically exempts them from its protection. This aberration is particularly significant, not only for refugees living under Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza, but also for those Palestinian refugees who are temporary residents in various countries, mainly Lebanon, Syria and Jordan (1). Thus, UNRWA's operations in these countries, the refugees' legal status and their rights are subject to host government policies without recourse to international agreements delineating refugee rights.[53]




No Improvement in Sight


  • Harsh discriminatory practices by the Lebanese government and the incapacity of lack of UNRWA to fulfill its mandate have driven Palestinian refugees into a situation characterized by abject poverty, isolation, and persecution.[54]


  • This deplorable situation is also highly unlikely to improve in the foreseeable future.  Sherifa Sherfie noted that as recently as…


…the 18th of April 2003, during the meeting of the newly formed Lebanese cabinet, President Lahoud stressed that Lebanon will not back down on its insistence that Israel complies with the right of return of the Palestinian refugees, and that it (Lebanon) rejects any plans for their resettlement in Lebanon (tawteen)…At present, any resettlement (tawteen) of Palestinian refugees is forbidden by the Lebanese Constitution.[55]


This attitude is reflective of the official Lebanese government position that Lebanon cannot and therefore will not accommodate Palestinian refugees.



[1] Amnesty International, “Refugees feature: Palestinian refugees - a legacy of shame”, online at


[2] Ibid.

[3] Amnesty International, “Lebanon: Economic and Social Rights of Palestinian Refugees”, 2003 Report, online at <>

[4] Ibid.

[5] Supra note 1.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Supra note 3.

[8] Supra note 1.

[9] Supra note 3.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Tahri, M. and De Donato, M.  “Refugees also Have Rights!”, Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network (Sept. 2000).

[12] Zakharia, L. Poverty Intensification Strategies: The Case of Palestinian Refugees”, FOFOGNET, Digest, 3 March 1997. 

[13] Ibid.

[14] U.S. Department of State, Lebanon Report on Human Rights Practices for 2003, released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (February 25 2004) online at <>

[15] Supra note 1.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Supra note 3.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Sayigh, R.  “Palestinians In Lebanon:  Pawns on a Tilted Chessboard”, Between the Lines, June 2001.

[20] Supra note 14.

[21] Supra note 1.

[22] Supra note 11.

[23] Sayigh, R.  “Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon”, FOFOGNET, Digest, 28 June - 3 July 1996.

[24] Supra note 14.

[25] Palestinian Human Rights Organization, “Ban on Building Materials Continues:  Refugee Shot Near Buss Camp” online at <>.

[26] Supra note 23.

[27] Ibid.


[28] Supra note 11.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Supra note 14.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid; and U.S Department of State, Lebanon Report on Human Rights Practices for 1997.  Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (January 30, 1998).

[33] Foundation for Human and Humanitarian Rights, The State of Human Rights in Lebanon, 1999:  An Overview, Lebanon, February 2000.

[34] Supra note 1.

[35] Supra note 11.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Supra note 1.

[38] Supra note 11.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Supra note 23.

[42] Supra note 14.

[43] Supra note 11.

[44] Ibid.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Supra note 23.

[47] Supra note 3.

[48] Supra note 11.

[49] UNRWA, UNRWA’s 2003 Report to the United Nations General Assembly, online at <>

[50] Sherifa Shafie, Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon”, Forced Migration Online Research Guide (2003), online at <>.

[51] Supra note 1.

[52] Ibid.

[53] Supra note 12.

[54] Supra note 50.

[55] Julie M. Peteet, “Lebanon: Palestinian Refugees in the Post-War Period”, online at <>