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Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Lebanon: Palestinian refugees can work



Lebanon: Palestinian refugees can work 
By GIL HOFFMAN AND AP

18/08/2010

Danny Ayalon hopes move is first step toward citizenship.



The Lebanese parliament voted on Tuesday to grant the country’s 400,000 Palestinian refugees the right to work in the same professions as other foreigners, lifting a decades-old ban that had relegated the refugees to the most menial jobs.

The bill was intended to transform Lebanese policies toward the refugees, although Palestinian leaders in Lebanon and human rights workers say it was only a first step that leaves significant stumbling blocks in place.

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The Palestinians living in Lebanon are isolated from the rest of the country in refugee camps to a higher degree than anywhere else in the Arab world.

“I was born in Lebanon and I have never known Palestine,” said Ahmed al- Mehdawi, 45, a taxi driver who lives in the Ein el- Hilweh refugee camp, which is notorious for its lawlessness.

“What we want is to live like Lebanese. We are human beings and we need civil rights.”

Ein el-Hilweh, the largest camp in Lebanon with about 70,000 inhabitants, is located on the outskirts of Sidon.

Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon (Israel Beiteinu) praised the Lebanese parliament’s decision and expressed hope that Lebanon and other Arab states would give the Palestinians living in their countries full rights.

There was no reason for them to be considered refugees after 62 years, he said.

“This is only a small step that is long overdue on the way to completely naturalizing them in Lebanon and in other places around the world that host Palestinians,” Ayalon said. “History shows that displaced people eventually get adopted where they live.”

Ayalon wrote an article that was published in The Wall Street Journal’s American, European and Asian editions on July 29 in which he highlighted the poor treatment of Palestinians in Lebanon at a time when a Lebanese flotilla was said to be bound for the Gaza Strip.

“Today, there are more than 400,000 Palestinians in Lebanon who are deprived of their most basic rights,” Ayalon wrote. “The Lebanese government has a list of tens of professions that a Palestinian is forbidden from being engaged in, including professions such as medicine, law and engineering. Palestinians are forbidden from owning property and need a special permit to leave their towns. Unlike all other foreign nationals in Lebanon, they are denied access to the health-care system.”

Ayalon said he could not assess whether his article and the international pressure on Lebanon it caused had a significant impact on the parliament’s decision, but he said that “even if the impact was marginal, I am satisfied.”

According to UN figures, around 4.7 million Palestinians claiming to be refugees – who fled or were driven from their homes during the 1948-9 and 1967 wars – and their descendants are scattered across the Middle East. They live mostly in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria.

Palestinian negotiators have demanded at least partial repatriation, but Israel has refused, saying an influx of refugees would dilute its Jewish majority and threaten the existence of the state.

Unlike in neighboring Syria and Jordan, where Palestinians enjoy more rights, the refugees in Lebanon live mostly on UN handouts and payments from the rival Palestinian factions. Those who do work are generally either employed by the UN agency UNRWA or as laborers at menial jobs such as construction.

Parliament on Tuesday lifted the restrictions that kept Palestinians almost entirely out of the formal labor market, although they are still subject to the same regulations as other foreign workers.

Lebanon’s National News agency said the lawmakers amended a segment of the labor law that dates back to 1946.

But the laws governing foreign workers in Lebanon pose a unique problem for Palestinians, who are stateless.

Lebanese law restricts some professions only to Lebanese, while many other professions – such as law, medicine and engineering – require the employees to be members of the relevant professional association.

But most of these associations say foreign membership depends on reciprocity in their home country – which effectively bars Palestinians, who don’t have one.

“If you’re a Palestinian born and raised in Lebanon and your dream is to become a doctor, you’re out of luck,” said Nadim Houry, the Beirut director at Human Rights Watch.






Houry said Tuesday’s vote was a welcome step, but more needed to be done.

Ali Hamdan, an aide to the speaker of Lebanon’s parliament, Nabih Berri, said Tuesday’s vote would legalize much of the work that many Palestinians already were doing and open up positions in fields such as insurance and banking.

“For the first time, Lebanon, which is a small country, is trying to solve a historic crisis for the Palestinian refugees,” Hamdan said.
Lebanon: Palestinian refugees can work

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