Recent news of a slight improvement in the rights of the huge Palestinian minority in Lebanon brings to the fore a pivotal, but often ignored, aspect of the Palestinian predicament: the role of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).
On Tuesday, the BBC reported that the 400,000 strong community will now be permitted to work in the private sector, ‘mark[ing] a step forward from a situation where the Palestinians were barred from all but the most menial of jobs.' Jim Muir acknowledged the ‘dire' conditions for Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and suggested that ‘in broad terms, the law would have little effect in changing the overall social and economic situation of the refugees.'
The level of discrimination against Palestinians in Lebanon is particularly acute - they are largely confined to 12 camps, are banned from buying property and from entering key professions such as law and medicine. Lebanon has also practiced religious discrimination against Palestinian refugees: since the majority of them are Sunni Muslims, the state believes that conferring citizenship would upset their already delicate sectarian political balance. Not so, however, for the 70,000 Christian Palestinians Lebanon did naturalise.
Nevertheless, the new employment law, which was welcomed by the United Nations, raises the broader question of why 4.7 million Palestinians living across the Middle East are conferred with the label ‘refugee', and nearly 1.4 million reside in communities designated ‘camps'.
The United Nations has two agencies for dealing with refugee issues: The U.N. High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the former devoted to refugees the world over, and the latter focusing purely on Palestinian refugees in the West Bank, Gaza, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria. Crucially, their operating definitions of refugee differ radically. UNHCR uses the 1951 Refugee Convention definition which establishes as a refugee someone who: ‘owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.'
In contrast to this relatively narrow designation, the Palestinian-devoted UNRWA's definition is far broader. As well as ‘people whose normal place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948, who lost both their homes and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict' ‘[t]he descendants of the original Palestine refugees are also eligible for registration.'
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