Palestinian Refugees In Lebanon: No More Serfdom


By Ghassan Karam, Special to Ya Libnan

Immigration has become a burgeoning field of study as travel became less expensive, population pressure more intensive and cosmopolitanism more widely spread. As a result studies of all aspects of the impact of immigration have proliferated recently especially in North America and Western Europe. Most of the research has thus far been confined to the social and economic impact of migration with the occasional emphasis on its cultural and political ramifications. Besides the sociological studies the economic models to explain the dynamic behind immigration and its economic costs or benefits have proliferated and for good reason.

The evidence regarding the economic costs or benefits from migration is mixed. The general macro models inevitably conclude that immigration has an overall positive effect on the receiving country as a result of the additional aggregate demand that the new immigrants generate and also as a consequence of the effect that immigration has on increasing competitiveness.  Most studies that deal simply with the fiscal cost seem to imply that immigration carries a fiscal cost to the host country that is heavily attributed to the expenses related to education and health care. Many of these studies, however, tend to be rather simplistic and are often driven by nativist biases.

Lebanon is a country of over 4 million inhabitants 400,000 of whom are Palestinian refugees that are roughly split between UNRWA run refugee camps and urban areas. As a result of this relatively large proportion of Palestinian refugees in the country it should not be surprising to find out that the issue of Palestinian refugees keeps dominating the political, humanitarian and economic discourse.  What is surprising though is the paucity of any serious studies that would attempt to gauge the impact of the problem. Since I have spent a long time studying the effect of immigration both in Western Europe and in North America and since I am totally convinced that the Palestinian refugees can be viewed as immigrants I conclude, without any hard evidence, that those who make the argument that the Palestinian refugees imply a substantial cost to the Lebanese economy and Lebanese tax payer are grossly misinformed. The fiscal impact of the Palestinian refugees is negligible and might even be positive as a result of the UNRWA expenditures on healthcare, education and even some basic food commodities. I strongly believe that the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon do not create an economic burden on the Lebanese but just the opposite; they help ever so slightly in increasing the level of aggregate demand and they do contribute to increased labour competitiveness at the low skill end of the labour force.

So why does Lebanon persist in exploiting, dehumanizing and discriminating 10% of its inhabitants? And why is there a unanimity on this subject matter?   The only explanation that is used by all the Lebanese political parties and even private citizens is the hard to believe rationale that these totally unacceptable practices are designed to help the Palestinian cause.  What a falsity.

The Palestinian refugees have been living in Lebanon for over sixty years, they are prohibited from owning real estate, they are not supplied with either educational or healthcare services and they are prevented from practically all the professions in addition to the fact that they have no venue to acquire Lebanese citizenship and the right to vote.  It would be difficult to argue that the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are not being treated as second class citizens and even as undesirables. And the irony is that it is argued that all of these harsh measures are designed to benefit the victims. How can anyone make such an argument and expect to be taken seriously?

The fact of the matter is that the Lebanese are opposed to integrating the Palestinian refugees for purely narrow and selfish reasons. Based on the clear evidence one is forced to conclude that the Lebanese  are driven to act as bigots for two reasons : (1) The overwhelming reason is the fear that if the Palestinian refugees are naturalized then it would be difficult in to maintain the archaic delicate sectarian balance in the rotten current political structure and (2) the totally unsupportable hypothesis that to offer the Palestinian refugees their human rights as dictated by UDHR, of which Lebanon was a major author, would weaken the argument for the right of return. This is balderdash.

Lebanon must do the right thing. If the young fragile democracy is threatened by offering an actual naturalization process then at a minimum it has to give all its legal residents including the Palestinian refugees’ access to all the rights and privileges of any Lebanese short of the right to vote. The drive to extend civil and human rights to the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon is not to be viewed as an act of charity or magnanimity; it is simply a moral obligation to treat humans equally and it is an intrinsic right born by each of the refugees. Are we ever going to have the courage to do the right thing? I do not see why not especially when we are going to be the better for it.