In recent months, protests have erupted among Lebanon’s community of Palestinian refugees in response to new labor laws that many feel are discriminatory towards the group. Protesters have engaged in strike action, closed their shops and blocked the entrances to several refugee camps.
Rights groups are urging the international community to support the protesters and calling for the government in Lebanon to amend new legislation that requires Palestinian refugees in the country to obtain work permits. The Lebanese government’s claims that it has been easing employment requirements for refugees have been met with considerable skepticism – The Palestinian Monitoring Committee (PMC) has called the claims “deceptive.” The PMC called upon the Ministry of Labor to scrap the law on the basis of a new “Palestinian-Lebanese vision.” The group also stressed that all relevant government bodies should engage in dialogue immediately, which it described as the only way to bring the protests to an end.
The legislation comes on top of existing employment restrictions faced by Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.
The new legislation applies not only to Palestinians but to all firms owned by or employing foreign nationals. Critics argue that the crackdown is actually aimed at Syrian refugees and designed to force them to return home. Following a one-month notice in June, the Lebanese government began shutting down businesses, with Palestinians the largest group affected. The legislation comes on top of existing employment restrictions faced by Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. They are already barred from some 70 professions, including medicine, law, and engineering.
In response to the early stages of the protests, speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri stated that the new requirements about work permits would not apply to Palestinians. But many activists continue to worry about how this will work in practice. 34 of the institutions that were shut down had significant numbers of Palestinian employees. “I cannot afford to pay $1000 dollars for a work permit,” Palestinian Refugee Abu Abdullah told Al Jazeera. “Already we are barely surviving.”
“Palestinians are not foreign workers, but rather refugees, forcibly living in Lebanon.”
Palestinian Authority Embassy Official Fathi Abu Ardat called upon the Lebanese government to be clear in exempting Palestinian Refugees from the new requirements. “Palestinians are not foreign workers, but rather refugees, forcibly living in Lebanon,” he said. Lebanon officially has a law that promises exactly this, passed in 2010, yet there is widespread skepticism that it will provide sufficient protection. Palestinian activists were not particularly reassured by the words of Camille Abu Sleiman, Minister of Labor, who recently said: “Laws should apply to everyone, but we will work on a law that takes into consideration the difficult situation of Palestinians.”
All of these factors have led to what many are describing as an unemployment crisis for Palestinians in Lebanon, a crisis that affects all age groups. Unemployment amongst the minority is at around 18 per cent and, in recent years, tens of thousands of Palestinians have left the country, unable to find work. According to UNRWA’s 2019 report, 36 per cent of all Palestinian youth are unemployed; this rises to 57 per cent among Lebanon’s 174,422 UN-registered Palestinian refugees (UNWRA estimates the true figure to be around 450,000). All of Lebanon’s 156 Palestinian communities are affected by the crisis.
Many Palestinian refugees have been in Lebanon since 1948, when they were forcibly removed from their homes upon the formation of the state of Israel.
It is testament to the solidarity of Palestinian refugees throughout Lebanon and the rest of the Middle East that people from many different areas and several different refugee camps across the country have come out in solidarity with the protests, which reached their peak on Friday, July 26 (the “Day of Anger”). Many Palestinian refugees have been in Lebanon since 1948, when they were forcibly removed from their homes upon the formation of the state of Israel. It is this sense of solidarity and tenacity, evident in these protests, that has kept this community going through the decades that have elapsed since their exile. Most Palestinian refugees in Lebanon have never been given citizenship.
Palestinian rights groups routinely point out that most Palestinian refugees do not want to settle in Lebanon but have been prevented by Israel from returning home ever since the Nakba. The new legislation therefore leaves many refugees stranded, unable to return home, yet unable to earn a living due to Lebanese employment restrictions designed to incentivize them to leave. With no sign that they will be able to return to Palestine in the near future, difficult times lie ahead for the Palestinian diaspora in Lebanon and the wider Middle-East.