A deep economic crisis has rocked Lebanon for many years. It reached a new level earlier this year as thousands took to the streets on October 16, 2019 protesting the high prices of goods and fuel, the high cost of living, deep corruption, nepotism, and illegal smuggling operations that have cost the state treasury huge sums of money. Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s government, not capable of resolving the crisis, was forced to resign on October 29, 2019. 

At the same time, Minister of Labor Kamil Abu Suleiman is continuing to enforce new labor regulations targeting Syrian refugees that implicitly include and therefore impact Palestinian refugees who have lived in Lebanon since the 1948 Nakba (catastrophe) and who have special refugee status concerning employment and other matters.

On June 3, 2019, Minister Abu Suleiman launched a plan to combat the problem of foreign undocumented workers to protect the Lebanese workforce. This was an attempt to restore national security and regain the Lebanese people’s trust in the country’s leadership. But it did so by blaming Palestinian and Syrian refugees for Lebanon’s unemployment problems.

Abu Suleiman’s plan included a series of procedures and actions, such as giving undocumented workers an opportunity to regularize their status through the Ministry of Labor. However, the plan was parsimonious in providing work permits and closed workplaces that employed workers who did not hold work permits issued by the ministry. 

The plan also required the Ministry of Social Affairs to supply the names of refugees who had registered with the United Nations Relief and Works for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) to the Ministry of Labor so that it could prevent them from getting work permits, in collaboration with local municipalities.

The statements of Abu Suleiman precipitated three months of protests by Palestinian refugees urging the government to reject his plan. They coincided with the “Manama Workshop—Peace to Prosperity” plan sponsored by the USA in the month of June of 2019 in Bahrain and sold by the US administration to the World as the “The Deal of The Century.” 

The “Deal” sought to resolve the problem of the Palestinian refugees by forcing them to settle in their current locations and forfeit their long-standing right of return to Palestine under international law.

Palestinians doubted Abu Suleiman’s plan because that “Deal” sought to resolve the problem of the Palestinian refugees by forcing them to settle in their current locations and forfeit their long-standing right of return to Palestine under international law.

Xenophobia or the Race to the Presidency? 

Many security and geopolitical factors have affected Lebanon’s economy. The Syrian civil war, for example, sent almost a million and a half Syrian refugees fleeing to Lebanon seeking peace, security, and stability.  This migration led to a negative GDP growth in Lebanon in 2018 estimated to be 0.2 percent according to the World Bank. This was a contributing factor that spurred the ministry of labor to enact laws to curtail foreigner labor.

The hidden agenda behind the political position of the Minister of Labor in combating foreign workers derives from the corruption of the government and its inability to solve social problems due to its political bias and sectarian affiliation. 

Abu Suleiman’s statements appear to have no legal basis. Rather, they reflect xenophobia. He apparently intended to ensure an early race towards the presidency of the Republic. Abu Suleiman was the first minister to actually enforce the labor laws and to restrict illegal employment, yet he has asserted that “there is no xenophobia in all this.” 

Yet as the rhetoric fuels fear, hate speech is inciting violence against people who are not Lebanese—as if the cause of the economic crisis in Lebanon is the Syrian and Palestinian populations in Lebanon, and not the failures of the Saad Hariri government.

Palestinian refugees are being used as a scapegoat for rivalries between Christian parties.

Palestinian refugees are being used as a scapegoat for rivalries between Christian parties. This is particularly true with regard to the Lebanese Forces Party to which Abu Suleiman belongs, and which is known for its massacres of Palestinians, and the Free Patriotic movement led by the Foreign Minister, Gibran Basil, the anticipated candidate for the presidential elections. 

There are nearly 475,000 Palestinian refugees registered with the UN refugee agency in Lebanon.  According to the agency, an estimated 270,000 of these actually reside inside the country, although the Lebanese government says the figure is only about 170,000.

In October, Palestinian refugees in Lebanon’s Ain El Helwe camp demonstrated, urging the UN General Assembly to renew the mandate of UNRWA. The organization was hard hit by the Trump administration’s announcement last year that it will no longer fund the agency.

Laws 128 and 129

The Lebanese government enacted laws “128” and “129” supposedly to improve the conditions of the Palestinians. The laws allowed them to join the social security funds and be exempt from work permit fees. However, the laws are not in effect yet, so the Palestinians conditions remain the same, and the refugee camps are still deplorable. 

UNRWA statistics show that as of 2010 56% of people in the refugee camps in Lebanon were suffering from chronic unemployment and jobless because they are denied access most professions (this includes 70 types of jobs), while the general poverty rate in the refugee camps is about 73%.

The laws that allow Palestinians to fill jobs in Lebanon are limited. One of the major flaws in the laws limiting Palestinian refugees’ right to work is that the minister is able to conflate the legal issues of the Palestinians with the status of Syrians. The two are very different things. 

Abu Suleiman defended his plan and his statements in a conference held at the Parliament in July 2019. He declared: “I gave my instructions to facilitate Palestinians’ work permissions within a short time and simplify their official papers, and this has become effective.” 

He added: “We did not take any decision to reverse it. The Ministry of Labor has devised a plan and we implemented it according to the law.” Indeed, the law gave him the power to pursue his plan to combat foreign undocumented workers despite the Palestinian protests and strikes.

The Lebanese government’s handling of the political crisis with Syria has affected the treatment of all refugees in Lebanon and specifically the Palestinians who are supposedly protected by Lebanese labor laws. 

The Lebanese government’s handling of the political crisis with Syria has affected the treatment of all refugees in Lebanon and specifically the Palestinians who are supposedly protected by Lebanese labor laws.  Many Palestinians are afraid of protesting, particularly after the resignation of Hariri. 

Palestinian Authority Set Aside Neutral Stand to Lobby Lebanese Government

The Palestinian government, known as the Palestinian Authority, has had a neutral stand of not interfering in Lebanese internal affairs that dates back to the 1980s when the Palestinian leaders were forced to leave Beirut after a long civil war that led to massacres of many Palestinians in the refugee camps. Notwithstanding this policy, the Authority sent a delegation to meet with Lebanon’s prime minister in July, 2019, regarding the impact of the new laws on Palestinian refugees, but it failed to resolve the crisis.  

The lack of a Palestinian statehood has had precarious implications for Palestinian refugees in Arab countries other than Lebanon. Palestinians are still unrecognized in those countries because the agreements between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (P.L.O.) have never included the rights of refugees. 

This lack of statehood has implications also because persons who do “not carry citizenship issued by a recognized state” cannot even own property in Lebanon. 

Although it does not refer to Palestinians explicitly, Article 1 of Presidential Decree 11614 of January 4, 1969, as modified by law 296 of April 3, 2001, states that no “non-Lebanese person, either natural or juridical, and also no Lebanese juridical person reputed by the present law to be alien, is entitled to acquire through a contract or any other legal deed concluded between living persons, any real property rights in Lebanese territory or any other real right from among the rights referred to in the present law, except after obtaining a permit granted by a decree issued by the Council of Ministers on the proposal of the Finance Minister.” 

The inability to own property has exacerbated the adverse impact of chronic unemployment.

Palestinians have been the principal contributors to the Lebanese economy to the tune of 340 million USD per year through their spending. 

Yet, studies have indicated that Palestinian jobs are actually complementing the jobs of the Lebanese people, not competing with them, and therefore having Palestinians in jobs is not a threat. On the contrary, Palestinians have been the principal contributors to the Lebanese economy to the tune of 340 million USD per year through their spending. 

Looking forward, the impact of the laws could render the economic conditions for Palestinians in the camps even more precarious than they have historically been. While conditions are bad enough now, if Palestinians must re-apply for work permits, inevitably that will lead to further increases in the already astronomical rate of unemployment in the camps.