In a landmark vote, parliament yesterday approved a measure that gives Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon the right to work in the country.
About 400,000 Palestinian refugees live in Lebanon, all having the legal status of refugees and enjoying few, if any, rights under Lebanese law. They have no access to national healthcare services and are barred from owning property, and their ability to work legally had been greatly restricted.
The right-to-work bill was closely watched by Palestinians and civil-rights activists. Its passage yesterday was hailed by leaders of the governing March 14 coalition, the bill’s sponsors.
“We gave to Palestinians the right to work in Lebanon, like all Arabic workers have the right to work in Lebanon,” said Fares Soueid, the general coordinator for March 14. “It’s a very strong message coming from the March 14 coalition that we can take charge of all the problems in Lebanon, with a unique vision concerning the refugees in Lebanon.”
Under the new law, Palestinian refugees will now be eligible for work permits in any industry.
Several Palestinian-rights activists argued yesterday that the law did not significantly expand on a 2005 ministerial decree, which for the first time had opened the door for Palestinians to request permits to hold low-skill jobs.
According to Nadim Shehadi, a fellow at Chatham House and adviser on Palestinian rights to the Lebanese government, only a few hundred refugees have applied each year for the permits because most Palestinians labourers were already illicitly employed anyway. Acquiring these permits merely added an extra layer of bureaucracy and risked scrutiny.
Analysts also said that under the new law, professional associations and syndicates, which regulate the employment of lawyers, doctors and other high-skilled trades, may continue to deny admission to Palestinian refugees.
“The issue at stake is not related to manual labour,” said Sari Hanafi, an expert in Palestinian issues at the American University of Beirut. “The issue at stake is where you have professional orders. This bill will not affect that at all.”
Many Palestinian civil-rights leaders contacted during yesterday’s parliamentary session said that they hoped the pending version of the bill would not pass.
“They are suggesting that this is the main right which will alleviate the burdens on the Palestinian community,” said Suhail al-Natur, the director of the Human Rights Centre in Lebanon. “This is not true. We do not have any rights for property. We do not have free movement. Our camps are surrounded by the army. We do not want to reduce this catastrophic situation just to the right to work.”
Mr Shehadi said it would have been better to approve all reforms at the same time, rather than piecemeal.
“I’m in favour of doing it all in one go, and getting it over with, in a comprehensive manner,” he said. “If you compromise on one part, then the next time you will be weaker, so your compromise will be even more watered down.”
Still, supporters and other observers pointed to the bill as a major step forward, if only because it meant the legal status of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon had been formally addressed by parliament for the first time.
The cause of Palestinian rights in Lebanon is a mixed one, because many Lebanese blame Palestinians, and in particular the Palestine Liberation Organisation, for instigating some of the worst violence during the country’s decades-long civil war.
“It’s the most sensitive issue you can think of in this country,” Mr Shehadi said. “It’s connected to all of Lebanon’s trauma and taboos. We fought the civil war over this. There’s a Syrian element, there’s a sectarian element. It awakens everything.”
A few months ago, the Progressive Socialist Party leader MP Walid Jumblatt surprised parliamentarians by introducing an expansive Palestinian civil rights bill that also included the right to own property. That bill was ultimately sidelined in favour of yesterday’s March 14 version.
Jumblatt told Al-Quds al-Arabi magazine on Tuesday that he will keep pushing for the right of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon to own property in the country. He added, however, that the parliament’s Tuesday decision to grant Palestinian refugees in Lebanon the right to free-of-charge work permits is an achievement.
Ali Hamdan, an aide to the speaker of parliament, told the AP that the bill represents the government’s attempt to “solve a historic crisis”.
Full assimilation into Lebanese life and citizenship has always been a touchy issue for Palestinians and Lebanese alike, since many on both sides – for various reasons – still hold on to the hope that Palestinians will return to their homes in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza.
“This is an important and basic step towards improving the humanitarian conditions of the refugees,” Hassan Fadlallah, a Lebanese lawmaker, told Reuters news agency.
“It does not have any political effects because the Lebanese unanimously agree on the Palestinians right of return and reject naturalization.”
“We gave to Palestinians the right to work in Lebanon, like all Arabic workers have the right to work in Lebanon,” said Fares Soueid, the general coordinator for March 14. “It’s a very strong message coming from the March 14 coalition that we can take charge of all the problems in Lebanon, with a unique vision concerning the refugees in Lebanon,” he added.
Palestinian Ambassador to Lebanon Abdullah Abdullah on Tuesday called the new law “a progressive step forward” , but said in a statement that the step “does not meet all of our demands.”
He said Palestinians would continue to push for their rights, “primarily the right to own property.”
However, Abdullah expressed his “satisfaction over adopting this law amid the consensus of all the political factions and parliamentary blocs, which underlines the brotherly relation that has returned to its normalcy between the Palestinian and Lebanese peoples.”
The Lebanese constitution prohibits the naturalization of the refugees, but Palestinian officials have consistently said they refuse permanent resettlement in Lebanon. The National, Al Jazeera, Ya Libnan