Arabs, UN must move to swiftly protect the status of Palestinian refugees

‘Heinous racism,’ is how the Geneva-based Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor described a recent decision by Lebanese authorities to bar Palestinian refugee expats from returning to Lebanon.

Lebanon’s restrictions on its ever-diminishing population of Palestinian refugees is nothing new. However, this event is particularly alarming as it may be linked to a long-term official policy regarding the residency status of Palestinian refugees in this Arab country.

Many were taken aback by a recent Lebanese government’s order to its embassy in the United Arab Emirates, instructing it to prevent Palestinian refugees from returning to their homes in Lebanon.

Tariq Hajjar, a legal advisor to the Euro-Med Monitor said in a statement that “the circular includes heinous racial discrimination against Palestinian refugees holding Lebanese travel documents.”

Hajjar rightly insisted that “the holder of this document should receive similar treatment to the Lebanese citizen.”

Indeed they should, as has been the practice for many years. Otherwise, there is no other place where these refugees can possibly go, considering that Lebanon has been their home for decades, starting in 1948 when Israel forcefully expelled nearly a million Palestinians from their historic homeland.

Refugees, regardless of their race, ethnicity or religion, should be treated with respect and dignity, no matter the political complexity of their host countries. Palestinian refugees in Lebanon cannot be made an exception.

In April, the Palestinian Association for Human Rights called on the United Nations to provide financial assistance to Lebanon’s Palestinian refugees, indicating that due to the coronavirus pandemic, a whopping 90 percent of all Palestinian refugees in Lebanon have lost their jobs.

Under discriminatory Lebanese laws, Palestinian refugees are not allowed to practice 72 types of jobs that are available to Lebanese nationals. This is merely one of many other such restrictions. Thus, employed Palestinian refugees in Lebanon (the vast majority of whom are now unemployed) have been competing within a very limited work market.

A large number of those refugees have been employed at the various projects operated by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).

Many of those who were lucky enough to receive university degrees opted to leave the country altogether, mostly working in the teaching, engineering, banking, and medical sectors in Arab Gulf countries.

However, due to the coronavirus, the severe financial hardship suffered by UNRWA and to new Lebanese government regulations, all doors are now being shut in the face of Palestinian refugees.

For thousands of those refugees, the only remaining option is sailing the high seas in search for a better refugee status in Europe. Yet, sadly, tens of thousands of those refugees are now living a miserable life in European camps, or stranded in Turkey. Hundreds drowned while undertaking these perilous journeys.

According to a recent survey by  the Lebanese Central Administration of Statistics, conducted jointly with the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, only 175,000 (from nearly half a million) Palestinian refugees still reside in Lebanon.

That said, the Palestinian refugee tragedy in Lebanon is only a facet in a much larger ailment that is unique to the Palestinian refugee experience.

Syria’s Palestinian refugees arrived in the country in waves, starting with the Zionist ethnic cleansing of Palestine during the ‘Nakba’, or Catastrophe. Others fled the Golan Heights after the Israeli invasion in 1967. Many more fled Lebanon during the Israeli 1982 invasion.

The relatively safe Syrian haven was ruptured during the ongoing Syria war started in 2011. UNRWA’s mission, which allowed it to provide the nearly half a million Palestinian refugees in Syria with direct support was made nearly impossible because of the destructive war, and the fact that hundreds of thousands of Palestinians either fled the country or became internally displaced.

The devastating impact of the Syrian war on Palestinian refugees was almost an exact copy of what had transpired earlier during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and the American invasion of Iraq in 2003.

In the case of Iraq, where most of the country’s 35,000 refugees fled, the Palestinian refugee crisis was particularly compounded. While Palestinians enjoyed a permanent residence status (though no ownership rights) in Iraq before the war, they were still not recognized as refugees as per international standards, since UNRWA does not operate in Iraq. Post-2003 Iraqi governments exploited this fact to the fullest, leading to the displacement of the country’s Palestinian population.

Since its advent, the US administration of President Donald Trump has waged a financial war on the Palestinians, including the cutting of all aids to UNRWA. This infamous act has added layers of suffering to the existing hardships of refugees.

On May 5, UNRWA, somberly declared that it only has enough cash to sustain its operations until the end of the month.

The truth is that, long before Trump targeted the UN agency, UNRWA has functioned for over 70 years with an inherent vulnerability.

UNRWA was established exclusively with a UN mandate that provided the organization with a “separate and special status” to assist Palestinian refugees.

Arab governments, at the time, were keen for UNRWA to maintain this ‘special status’ based on their belief that lumping Palestinian refugees with the burgeoning world refugee crisis (resulting mostly from War World II) would downgrade the urgency of the Palestinian plight.

However, while that logic may have applied successfully in the immediate years following the ‘Nakba’, it proved costly in later years, as the status and definition of what constitute a Palestinian refugee remained historically linked to UNRWA’s scope of operations.

This became clear during the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, but, especially, since the start of political upheavals and subsequent wars in the Middle East in the last decade.

This is precisely why the US and Israel are keen on dismantling UNRWA, because, according to their logic, if UNRWA ceases to operate, the Palestinian refugee ceases to exist with any status that makes him/her unique.

Such precarious reality calls for an urgent and creative solution that should be spearheaded by Arab countries, UN-registered NGOs, and friends of Palestine everywhere.

What is needed today is a UN-adopted formula that would allow the legal status of Palestinian refugees under international law to remain active regardless of  UNRWA’s scope of operation, while providing Palestinian refugees with the material and financial support required for them to live with dignity until the Right of Return, in accordance to UN Resolution 194 of 1948, is finally enforced.

For the rights of Palestinian refugees to be maintained and for the Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria scenarios not to be repeated, the Arab League must work within the framework of international law as determined by the UN General Assembly to safeguard the Palestinian refugees’ legal status which is currently under an unprecedented attack.

Palestinian refugees must not have to choose between forfeiting their legal and unalienable right in their own homeland and accepting a life of perpetual degradation and uncertainty.

Ramzy Baroud is a journalist and the Editor of The Palestine Chronicle. He is the author of five books. His latest is “These Chains Will Be Broken: Palestinian Stories of Struggle and Defiance in Israeli Prisons” (Clarity Press, Atlanta). Dr. Baroud is a Non-resident Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Islam and Global Affairs (CIGA), Istanbul Zaim University (IZU). His website is www.ramzybaroud.net.

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