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Seventy+ Years of Suffocation | Amnesty International
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Smoke over black background

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Chapter 3: Lebanon

Lebanon

Burj Al-Barajneh

Jal Al-Bahr

During the 1948 Arab-Israeli war hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled or were expelled and displaced from their homes in what is now Israel. A large group of them sought refuge in neighboring Lebanon. Seven decades on, Palestinian refugees and their descendants, who are also considered refugees, still live in official and informal camps across the five governorates of the country. An official census conducted in 2017 recorded the number of Palestinian refugees resident in Lebanon as 174,422 individuals, living in 12 official camps and 156 informal camps. A much higher number of Palestinian refugees – some 450,000 – are registered in Lebanon with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), which runs the official camps, but the agency acknowledges that many of them live outside the country.

The amount of land allocated to official camps has barely changed over the years. Palestinian refugees have therefore been forced to expand the buildings in the camps upwards, which can lead to people living in unsafe structures. Conditions in the camps are overcrowded. Infrastructure and services such as sewage and electricity have been further strained since Palestinian refugees from Syria have been forced to flee the conflict and sought safety in Palestinian camps in Lebanon. By December 2016, there were 32,000 Palestinian refugees from Syria registered with UNRWA in Lebanon – with almost 90% of them living below the poverty line and 95% of them described as “food insecure”.

The Lebanese authorities impose severe restrictions on Palestinian refugees’ access to public services, such as medical treatment and education, as well as on their access to the Lebanese labour market, thereby contributing to high levels of unemployment, low wages and poor working conditions for this population. Successive Lebanese governments have claimed that removing such restrictions would lead to the assimilation of Palestinian refugees into Lebanese society and therefore impede their right to return.

Until 2005, Palestinian refugees in Lebanon were effectively barred from the formal job market and therefore forced to work in informal, generally low-paid, employment.

In June 2005, the Minister of Labour issued a memorandum allowing Palestinians born on Lebanese soil and officially registered with the Ministry of Interior and UNRWA to obtain work permits. The development followed a “right to work” campaign organized by the NGO Association Najdeh along with 45 other Lebanese civil society and Palestinian refugee grassroots organizations with the aim of lifting the discriminatory measures against Palestinian refugees. This gave Palestinian refugees access to 70 occupations that had previously been prohibited to them, although the cost of the work permits and the bureaucratic procedures required to obtain them continued to present significant obstacles. The continued application of this measure is subject to the discretion of each individual minister of labour.

In August 2010, the Lebanese parliament passed further amendments to labour and social security laws to facilitate Palestinian refugees’ access to work, including waiving the fees for work permits.

However, Palestinian refugees are still prohibited from practising over 30 professions in the fields of public service, health care, engineering, law, transport and fishing, among others. Access to these professions is controlled by syndicates. Some syndicates restrict membership and thus the practice of the profession to Lebanese citizens. Others, such as those of doctors, pharmacists and engineers, impose a condition of reciprocity of treatment, meaning that foreign nationals can only access the profession if Lebanese nationals have the right to practise that profession in their country. This condition remains impossible to meet in light of the current international status of the State of Palestine.

Even in occupations where Palestinian refugees are now entitled to work, they still face discrimination compared to Lebanese co-workers. While everyone is obliged to pay 23.5% of their salary to the National Social Security Fund, Palestinian refugees only benefit from it by gaining access to an end-of-service indemnity (equivalent to 8.5% of the value of the payments they have made). Unlike their Lebanese counterparts, they do not receive public health insurance as a consequence of their contributions. The cost of private health insurance falls on either the Palestinian refugee or their employer, who may be discouraged from hiring such an employee as a result. Many Palestinian refugees continue to work in the informal sector, where they are generally forced to accept harsh working conditions, low wages and no legal protection.

Amnesty International calls on Lebanon to recognize Palestinian refugees as refugees and guarantee their rights to work, health, education and housing. These refugees are unable to move to Israel or the Occupied Palestinian Territories given the Israeli authorities’ refusal to comply with UN General Assembly Resolution 194 protecting the right to return of Palestinian refugees, including those residing currently in Lebanon.

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The League of Red Cross Societies established the Burj Al-Barajneh camp in the southern suburbs of Beirut in 1948 to accommodate refugees who had fled from Galilee in northern Palestine. According to UNRWA, it is the most densely populated camp in Beirut and suffers from problems of overcrowding and inadequate basic infrastructure. Several years of restrictions imposed by the Lebanese authorities mean that many residents live in makeshift or crumbling structures with virtually no private space. Residents of Burj Al-Barajneh suffered immensely during the Lebanese civil war. The camp was almost entirely destroyed in the mid-1980s as a result of indiscriminate shelling, which also led to the displacement of nearly a quarter of the camp’s population.

According to the NGO Beit Atfal Assumoud, which has been active in the camp since 1985, the camp, which is around 1km2 in area, has around 40,000 residents, including some 28,000 Palestinian refugees from Lebanon, some 4,000 Palestinian refugees from Syria and some 8,000 people of other nationalities. Many of the men in the camp work as day labourers in construction and women there are employed mainly in sewing factories or as domestic workers.

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Jal Al-Bahr is an informal camp located on the coast at the northern entrance to the city of Tyr in southern Lebanon. Due to its unofficial status, there is no accurate data available on the population in Jal Al-Bahr. However, according to camp residents, the population stands at around 2,500 persons living in 240 housing units, the majority of them makeshift structures built out of zinc sheets. UNRWA does not manage the camp and therefore does not provide health or educational services there. Instead, refugees living in Jal Al-Bahr have to travel to the nearby El-Buss refugee camp, which is administered by UNRWA, in order to access these essential services. The very location of Jal Al-Bahr is a safety hazard for its inhabitants. In winter, the sea often floods homes in the camp. Fast-moving vehicles on the highway on the other side of the camp present a daily risk to residents who have to cross it to travel elsewhere, such as children whose families cannot afford the cost of transportation by bus to the UNRWA schools in El-Buss.

A socio-economic survey conducted in 2010 by the American University of Beirut, in collaboration with UNRWA, identified the largest concentration of extremely poor Palestinian refugees in Lebanon as living in the informal camps of Jal Al-Bahr and Qasmiyyeh in the south of the country. The majority of Jal Al-Bahr residents work in the fishing industry while others are day labourers in agriculture and construction. Unable to purchase proper fishing boats, Palestinian refugees in Jal Al-Bahr are forced to use makeshift floats made of rubber wheels to fish. The two needs residents of Jal Al-Bahr most frequently highlighted to Amnesty International were the to strengthen the foundations of their homes to protect them from the sea and to ensure children’s safe access to school.

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Suzan

Suzan

Holding the diploma in hand and her tears back, Suzan Hassan Ghazali, 25, stood dressed in her cap and gown looking in the mirror, but did not see the future she had always wanted for herself.

A few years back, Suzan and her mother were discussing future plans; she told her she wanted to be an architect. The look on her mother’s face was not what Suzan expected. Her mother knew that, because of restrictions imposed on them as Palestinian refugees in Lebanon by the Lebanese and syndicate law that limits them from working in a number of professions, her daughter would not be able to pursue her dream. Suzan eventually studied economics, which she thought would be the closest thing to architecture.

“At least I would still be able to enjoy mathematics in this major,” she told Amnesty International. Throughout her university years, Suzan had to continuously suppress the temptation to transfer to an architecture degree. She spent many sleepless nights crying, but had no choice but to accept this unfair reality. She described how she currently felt: “Worst of all, I still cannot find a job because I am Palestinian. I am always asked about my nationality at job interviews. When I tell employers that I am Palestinian, their immediate response is ‘we’ll call you later’, and no one ever calls back.”

Nonetheless, Suzan explained to Amnesty International that she had not given up on her dream: “I told my mom that I will pursue a degree in economics, but once I graduate and find employment, I will save up to pay for architecture school. I can be an architect in another country. People think I am cold-hearted for wanting to leave my parents to live and work abroad. But what they don’t know is that the first thing I want to do when I become an architect is build my mother’s dream house.”

Suzan was born in Burj Al-Barajneh camp in Lebanon, but her family is originally from Haifa in present-day Israel. Only 3,500 out of the original population of 70,000 Palestinians remained in Haifa after the 1948 conflict that saw the creation of the State of Israel; the rest fled or were expelled from their homes.

Mohammad

Mohammad

Mohammad Adnan Ali, 21, grew up hearing the statement "Palestinians don't have rights" frequently repeated in his presence. However he told Amnesty International that he never believed it until he experienced first hand restrictions on his right to work: “Ever since I was a little boy I would hear people saying that Palestinians don’t have rights. I realized it was true when I found out I couldn’t work as a dentist.”

According to Mohammad, if he wanted to work in dentistry, he had to either set up a clinic in the camp with no chance of ever registering it officially, and therefore operate illegally, or work as an assistant to a Lebanese dentist with no chance of career progression. He said:“I don’t want to stay in the camp. I want to leave. I hate it here, I am surrounded by poverty everywhere around me. I want to create a better life for myself, away from all of this misery.”
At a young age, Mohammad set his mind on obtaining a scholarship to university. He knew it was a way out of the camp and into the life he had imagined for himself. Mohammad’s hard work paid off; he won a scholarship to one of the most prestigious universities in Lebanon and is currently studying chemistry there. He now wants to pursue a master’s degree in the same subject.

“Lebanon made me hate dentistry; it is the dream I never had the chance to pursue. I want to travel to Turkey and pursue my masters in chemistry. I want to do anything but dentistry and live anywhere but Lebanon. I believe I have a bright future ahead of me, and I will not let the current obstacles stand in my way.”
Hamed
“Knowing what the law stipulates, I gave up on my dream of becoming a mechanical engineer. I had already been working at the local pharmacy for years, and I needed to support my family, so I decided to just continue on this path.”
“Knowing what the law stipulates, I gave up on my dream of becoming a mechanical engineer. I had already been working at the local pharmacy for years, and I needed to support my family, so I decided to just continue on this path.”

Hamed

Hassan, the owner of the pharmacy, and his mentor praised Hamed for his wit and ability to learn quickly, saying that the customers loved him. “I enjoy my job a lot. Hassan gave me a chance at a career and trusted me. I am currently pursuing a pharmacy degree so that I can be worthy of that trust. But I will never be able to be a pharmacist myself or open my own pharmacy, I will always be an assistant pharmacist.”
Pharmacy is one of the professions that the Lebanese Labor Law prohibits Palestinians from practicing.

Sara

Sara

Sara Akram Abu Shaker, 14, wants to be a medical doctor, but, for Palestinians like her, employment in a profession where she believes she could save lives is out of reach. She explained to Amnesty International: “My mother told me I can’t be a doctor because I am Palestinian. But I want to study medicine despite the Lebanese law. I am saddened by the situation of Palestinians both at home and in Lebanon. They are being killed every day in Palestine, and lack medical support. At the same time, in Lebanon, they don’t have proper access to medical care, they lack social security and cannot afford the high cost of hospitalization.”

Sara is part of a six-member household and her father suffers from a chronic disease. She said: “Even if I can’t be a doctor here, I could go to Palestine and help those in need particularly the underprivileged children. I want to save lives, I want to be like Razan Al Najjar.”

Razan al-Najjar was a 21-year-old paramedic in Gaza who was killed by Israeli forces on 1 June 2018 while trying to help injured protesters. To Sara, Razan is a symbol of resistance and inspiration; she wants to be like her, to listen and respond to the calls of those in need when nobody else does.

Hana

Hana

Despite having been unable to pursue a teaching degree, Hana Nazih Fattoum, 34, splits her time between teaching children with special needs and working with an aid organization, where she co-ordinates recreational activities for children with mental and physical disabilities.

From a young age, Hana wanted to be an Arabic teacher, but her family could not afford her tuition fees. She also knew that because she was Palestinian she was likely to earn less and have access to fewer benefits even if she were to find a teaching job. So, she decided not to pursue a career in teaching. Instead, Hana attended various workshops and training courses on child protection, the right to play and on children’s education, paving the way for her current work.

Hana sees her own children, Khalil, 14, and Bassel, seven, facing similar dilemmas. Khalil wants to be a lawyer, while Bassel wants to be an architect. They are determined to pursue their dreams despite the discriminatory Lebanese Labour Law. She told Amnesty International:

“Both of my sons want to be in professions that they are not allowed to work in. But, at the end of the day, I want them to study what they are passionate about. However, I still cannot comprehend how someone would study this hard and then not be able to work in their field. I wanted to be an Arabic teacher, but my family couldn’t afford it and so I did not go to university. I won’t let the same thing happen to my children. I am doing everything I can to ensure my children get a sold education. I want them to do what they love. It may even enable them to leave this country and live a better life.”

Nihal

Nihal

When she walks through the camp, Nihal, 27, does not see the dilapidated concrete buildings, the dangling wires or the poverty. She sees opportunity and a community so rich that it drives her every day to pursue her vision of an improved camp. Nihal comes from an all-female household; she is the third of five daughters, who were all born in the camp and brought up by their widowed mother, Siham. Nihal’s father passed away when she was a child and her mother had to take on the role of both parents, working as a data entry officer for an international organization. For several years, the family struggled to put bread on the table, but thanks to each other’s support, every single one of them has a higher education. She told Amnesty International: “I wanted to guarantee that each and every one of my children pursued a degree. As Palestinians, they will have no one but each other and their degrees to help them with life.”

Nihal had always wanted to be an architect and was keen on attending a prestigious university to obtain her degree, but her mother could not afford it. That did not stop Nihal or her mother from trying. Little by little, Nihal saved up to take the entrance exam for the Lebanese American University, to which she obtained a scholarship. Siham spent long nights every semester applying to NGOs that could provide additional grants to help with the tuition fees. Nihal said: “Every semester was a hassle. I would study hard to maintain my scholarship, and my mother would apply to NGOs so we would get $100 from here and another $100 from there. It was a lot to take in. We never were able to cover the full tuition fees through aid money, so my mother had to work hard to cover the rest.”

Nihal started seeing the world differently during her university years. She learned to see beyond the concrete buildings of the camp. She acknowledged: “Architecture was not what I was expecting, and I am so grateful for that. It helped me see the beauty in my camp and realize its limitations as well.”


Nihal started seeing the world differently during her university years. She learned to see beyond the concrete buildings of the camp. She acknowledged: “Architecture was not what I was expecting, and I am so grateful for that. It helped me see the beauty in my camp and realize its limitations as well.”

Nihal is currently working at a prestigious architecture company. Despite having to pay a monthly contribution to the National Social Security Fund, as a Palestinian refugee, she only benefits from the end-of-service indemnity rather than the full range of social security benefits, such as health insurance coverage, unlike her Lebanese co-workers. With her salary, she covers her sister’s university education, gives money to her mother and pays her car and education loans. This has been a struggle for her, but life’s hardships have not dimmed her desire to see the camp where she lives develop. Nihal is currently working with a professor in Sweden on a community development project, through which she believes she will be able to bring out the potential in the camp and improve people’s lives.

Aya

Aya

Aya Ahmad Al-Darwish, 22, remains motivated despite the continuous obstacles she has faced. She told Amnesty International about a formative experience that led her to develop a desire to became a nurse: “A few years back, my neighbour was having a heart attack. I called the ambulance and people tried to give him CPR, but did not know how. It was complete chaos. He died, and the ambulance never came. Right after that incident, all I could think about was that, if I were a nurse, I would have helped him, I could help everyone here.”

Aya managed to begin a university degree in nursing. However, when the time came for her to undertake practical training in a hospital, a mandatory condition for completing the degree, she had to drop out because her parents could not afford the additional expenses required. She changed course to study accounting and business administration, but did not find a job in these areas. Lebanese Labour Law forbids Palestinian refugees from working as professionals in institutions like banks and restricts them to roles such as cashiers, receptionists and secretaries. Aya is now studying English and volunteers as a teacher in the Jal Al-Bahr learning centre.
She said she had not given up on her dream of becoming a nurse and was planning to save enough money to continue her education in the future:

I want to continue my nursing degree, and then, in the far future, I want to be a cardiac doctor. I want to help the people in my country. When I see women like Ahed Tamimi and Razan Al Najjar, it inspires me to go back to Palestine and defend our land and people”.

“When we were young, my father could not afford to pay the tuition fees for all of us, and so he chose my brother because he believed that he was a priority. I was only able to finish high school. But now I want to make sure that my daughters get a higher education. Sadly, the Lebanese Labour Law limits Palestinians, forcing the youth to move abroad, but I don’t want my kids to leave. It saddens me to see Aya struggling, but I am confident in her abilities, and I know she will make it.”

Aya’s family is originally from the town of Tarshiha, north-east of Acre in modern-day Israel.
“When we were young, my father could not afford to pay the tuition fees for all of us, and so he chose my brother because he believed that he was a priority. I was only able to finish high school. But now I want to make sure that my daughters get a higher education. Sadly, the Lebanese Labour Law limits Palestinians, forcing the youth to move abroad, but I don’t want my kids to leave. It saddens me to see Aya struggling, but I am confident in her abilities, and I know she will make it.”

Aya’s family is originally from the town of Tarshiha, north-east of Acre in modern-day Israel.

Ahed Tamimi is a Palestinian activist who was arrested in December 2019 when aged 16 by Israeli forces and sentenced to eight months in prison for shoving, slapping and kicking two heavily armed soldiers wearing protective gear who entered the yard of her family’s house. Razan al-Najjar was a 21-year-old paramedic in Gaza who was killed by Israeli forces on 1 June 2018 while trying to help injured protesters. To Aya, Ahed and Razan are symbols of resistance and inspiration.

Fatheya, Aya’s 53-year-old mother, was part of the resistance against the 1982 Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon. But now, she is fighting a different battle.

Hussein

Hussein

Hussein Saleh Merei is 23 years old. His family is originally from the city of Acre in present-day Israel. He told Amnesty International:
“I am a creative person. My dream was to study art. But my parents did not support that. They wanted me to be an engineer… I’m indecisive about what I want to do… there are many obstacles. I can’t work in a bank, I can’t get a government job. But I am sure I want to leave Lebanon.”

Nisrin

Nisrin

A love of mathematics seems to run in the Al-Hassan family. When they were little, Nisrin Lamal Al-Hassan and her younger sister would run back home from school every day to finish their maths homework and prepare ahead of the class. Growing up, both Nisrin and her younger sister studied accounting. She told Amnesty International:

“I liked numbers ever since I was a little girl and wanted to study accounting. I thought I could work in a bank, but the law only allows me to be a cashier, I want to be more than just that. I also want to save up money to pursue my master’s degree, so it feels like my future is on hold.”
“I liked numbers ever since I was a little girl and wanted to study accounting. I thought I could work in a bank, but the law only allows me to be a cashier, I want to be more than just that. I also want to save up money to pursue my master’s degree, so it feels like my future is on hold.”

Nisrin, now 22, applied to various positions but never heard back from anyone, not even for an internship. She thought that she could kick off her career with a job at the local supermarket and hoped to grow from there. But even then, she said, the supermarket owner rejected her saying, “Go away, we don’t hire Palestinians.” Frustrated with the situation, Nisrin’s mother, 51-year-old Samira, explained:

“We were born and raised here. The Lebanese government must allow us to work, and open up job opportunities for us. We encourage our children to study whatever they like, despite the law. But it’s hard to see them excelling in their studies and becoming perfectly competent yet still not being able to find a job or pursue their master’s degree.”
Basant and Shiraz

Basnat and Shiraz

Basant Sharshara, 10, and her sister Shiraz, nine, are Palestinian refugees from Syria who fled from Yarmouk camp in Syria to Lebanon with their grandmother. Yarmouk is a highly built-up area south of Damascus. Before the armed conflict in Syria began, Yarmouk comprised some 180,00 Palestinian refugees who fled or were expelled from their homes during the 1948 conflict that saw the creation of the State of Israel or the subsequent war of 1967, when Israel invaded and occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Both Basant and Shiraz want to be Arabic teachers when they grow up.


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Of the 238000 registered Palestine refugees living in Lebanon, thousands were displaced as a result of the Israeli invasion in June 1982. Building destroyed or damaged included many belonging to UNRWA, which provide education, health and relief services for nearly two million refugees. Picture shows the acting director of UNRWA affairs in Lebanon, John Defrates,with a member of his staff inspecting damaged housing at Burj El Barajneh camp near Beirut. Credit: UNRWA By George Nehmeh, 1982
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Home for the refugee girl and her-little brother is a ramshackle but patched together from flattened oil drums, odd pieces of corrugated iron, scraps of wood and old sacking. It is typical of the shelters in Burj El Barajneh refugee camp on the outskirts of Beirut, the capital of Lebanon, just a few minutes drive from the luxury apartment blocks that crowd the city. Fortunately, shelters in Burj El Barajneh are not typical of those in the majority of the camps, located in the Gaza Strip, the occupied West Bank, east Jordan, Syrian and Lebanon, Credit: UNRWA
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Children at Burj EL Barajneh, Palestine refugee camp near Beirut, Lebanon, The play ground for these children living in Burj EL Barajneh refugee camp (population 8,000) is often a wet and muddy path. Though the refugees improve the camp as best as they can, the pathway are not paved. A typical home is a makeshift, but pieced togather from flattened oil drums, old pieces of course corrugated iron scraps of wood and old sacking. The camp which shelters Palestine refugees who fled from their homes in 1948 is located on the outskirts of Beirut, the capital of Lebanon. Before the hostilities of June 1967, UNRWA had hopes of receiving a special contribution with which to improve the worst of the camps in Lebanon. Today, however, the needs of thousands living in the emergency camps in the East Jordan are so great, that the likelihood of funds being available to improve conditions in the Beirut camps are more than over remote. Credit: UNRWA by Myrtle Winter Chaumeny, 1967
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Refugee Conditions, Burj El Barajneh, Lebanon. Credit: UNRWA
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Refugee Conditions, Burj El Barajneh, Lebanon. Credit: UNRWA
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Burj El Barajneh camp for Palestine refugees, Beirut, June 1985. Credit: UNRWA, 1985
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In Burj El Barajneh camp, The Palestine refugee camp in West Beirut which is served by UNRWA, a women who fled the camp with her son when the fighting broke out in 1986, returns to learn that a closed relative has been killed. Credit: UNRWA Photo by H. Haider, 1986
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Palestine refugee children amid the rubble of their homes in Burj El Barajneh camp, Lebanon. UNRWA does what it can to help the 950.000 or more people who live in the UNRWA refugee camps, but there is only so much that the Agency can do to heal the psychological wounds of the camp's inhabitants. 93994 Credit: UNRWA by Munir Naser, 1993
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Of the 238,000 registered Palestine refugees living in Lebanon, thousands were displaced as a result of the Israeli invasion in June 1982. Buildings destroyed or damaged included many belonging to UNRWA, which provides education, health, and relief services for nearly two million refugees. Picture shows an elderly Palestine refugee looking back at the ruins of his house at Burj El Shamali camp, near Tyre in south Lebanon. Credit: UNRWA by George Nehmeh, 1982

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