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Amid Economic Hardship, Palestinian Refugees Flee Lebanon For Europe
A pupil stands at the entrance of a school run by United Nations Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) in the Balata refugee camp in the West Bank. (Jaafar Ashtiyeh/AFP/Getty Images)

Amid Economic Hardship, Palestinian Refugees Flee Lebanon For Europe

Palestinians are not allowed to apply for Lebanese citizenship and are banned from professions ranging from medicine to farming

Palestinian refugees are leaving Lebanon in droves, heading for Europe due to dire economic conditions exacerbated by the United States’ recent decision to cut hundreds of millions of dollars in funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).

UNRWA, established in 1949 to support Palestinians who fled or were driven out of their homes during the war following the creation of the State of Israel, is already under increased strain in Lebanon due to the influx of more than 32,000 Palestinian refugees and hundreds of thousands of others seeking refuge from the civil war in neighboring Syria.

“The situation in Lebanon is untenable for Palestinian refugees as their presence impacts the services they receive,” Dawn Chatty, Professor Emerita of Anthropology and Forced Migration and former director of the Refugees Studies Center at the University of Oxford, told The Media Line.

A census conducted by the Lebanese Palestinian Dialogue Committee found that nearly 175,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon live across 12 camps and other “gatherings,” which are defined as areas with at least 15 Palestinian households. UNRWA’s own numbers are significantly higher, with some 450,000 Palestinian refugees registered in Lebanon.

The Norwegian Refugee Council puts Lebanon as the country with the highest number of refugees per capita in the world—about one in four. Their plight is compounded by the fact that Beirut never signed the 1951 Refugee Convention delineating the rights of refugees in host nations.

Palestinian refugees in the country, for example, are denied access to dozens of professions such as medicine, law, engineering and even farming, nor are they allowed to apply for Lebanese citizenship and therefore do not enjoy the same protections under the law. Palestinians also are barred from owning property and are barred from receiving state-funded education and healthcare, services normally provided exclusively by UNRWA.

“In Lebanon, refugees remain cut off from government services, from most formal employment. Poverty is driving them into despair and some once more are taking the risk to Europe,” Pierre Krahenbuhl, Commissioner-General of UNRWA, revealed in a November statement.

The Lebanese government has little to no involvement with the country’s Palestinian refugees. “The camps up until 1982 were run by the [Palestine Liberation Organization] and after that they were self-governing,” Professor Chatty explained. “The Lebanese government provides security checkpoints but that is essentially it.”

The “right of return,” one of the core disputes in the Israel-Palestinian conflict, is a Palestinian demand for millions of refugees, many descendants of those who fled the fighting in 1948, to return to their ancestral homes in what is today Israel. “But with the conflict more intractable than ever, a solution to the Palestinian refugee question is not in the cards in the near future,” UNRWA spokesman Sami Mshasha conveyed to The Media Line.

The result is that many Palestinian refugees in Lebanon feel they have no choice but to seek better lives in Europe.

“[UNRWA] is aware of refugees from different nationalities seeking to emigrate from Lebanon by air and by sea to Europe and elsewhere, sometimes risking their lives when they attempt to cross the sea towards Cyprus,” Mshasha said. “Palestine refugees, especially the youth, often tell us that they wish to emigrate given the lack of prospects of any meaningful political solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the dire socio-economic conditions in which they live in Lebanon.”

Europe is the first choice for displaced Palestinians since the chances of being granted asylum are higher there than in other parts of the world.

From 2011-2016, almost 85,000 Palestinian refugees worldwide sought resettlement on the continent. According to the joint Lebanese-Palestinian census, overall the “main destinations for Palestinian refugees’ international migrants were Germany (27.3%) followed by United Arab Emirates (16.7%) and then Denmark (8.4%) and Sweden by (7.5%).”

(Tara Kavaler is an intern in The Media Line’s Press and Policy Student Program)


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