Relevant Background


Treatment and Rights in Arab Host States

The status of Palestinian exiles in Arab host states has had a fraught history since 1948, and in the region today their lives differ dramatically depending on their place of residence. In Jordan, for example, most of the 1.5 million Palestinians have citizenship and are well integrated socially and economically, although some 278,678 are still living in camps. Unlike Jordan, Syria has maintained the stateless status of its Palestinians but has afforded them the same economic and social rights enjoyed by Syrian citizens. According to a 1956 law, Palestinians are treated as if they are Syrians "in all matters pertaining to...the rights of employment, work, commerce, and national obligations". As a consequence, Palestinians in Syria do not suffer from massive unemployment or underemployment, and only about 111,208 refugees live in camps. At the same time Palestinians, like Syrian citizens, remain under a powerful state system in which basic civil and political rights -- such as freedom of expression and association -- are tightly controlled, and a state of emergency, in force since 1963, grants broad, unchecked powers to a vast security apparatus. In Lebanon, in sharp contrast, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians are stateless and over half live in overcrowded camps. The right to work is severely restricted, and massive poverty has become the norm. The situation of the Palestinians in Lebanon deteriorated steadily in the wake of the expulsion of PLO guerrillas following the 1982 Israeli invasion. By some accounts, of the 375,218 Palestinians registered as refugees with UNRWA in Lebanon, only some 200,000 remain; others have fled from the inhospitable conditions that successive Lebanese governments have sustained over the last two decades.(1)

Initially the response of host Arab states to the incoming Palestinian refugees was to offer them refuge on the assumption that it would be temporary. When it became obvious that the problem would be protracted, the policies of Arab states toward the refugees changed, and the initial sympathy was coupled with an insistence on Israel's ultimate responsibility for them. As a result most Arab governments strongly opposed resettlement and naturalization of the refugees. Instead, they adopted policies and procedures aimed at preserving the Palestinian identity of the individuals and their status as refugees.

Egypt is the only Arab host country that is a state party to the 1951 Convention Relative to the Status of Refugees. However, in September 1965 the council of foreign ministers of the League of Arab States formally acknowledged certain rights for Palestinians by signing the Protocol for the Treatment of Palestinians in Arab States, known as the Casablanca Protocol. This brief document called upon member states to "take the necessary measures" to guarantee to Palestinians full residency rights, freedom of movement within and among Arab countries, and the right to work on a par with citizens.

But the protocol's good intentions clashed with subsequent developments on the ground. UNHCR notes that, "as the Palestinian nationalist movement came into conflict with the governments of the Arab states, the legal status of the Palestinians diminished. As a result, few Palestinians in the Arab world now enjoy a secure right to remain in their country of residence."(2)

For example, as the Palestinian liberation movement gained momentum, this created political and sovereignty tensions within some host countries. This was further exacerbated by attacks on Israel and Israeli citizens carried out by Palestinian guerrillas from the territory of those host countries which then bore the brunt of reprisals from Israel - often resulting in deaths and injuries to the local civilian population. In Jordan, Palestinian fighters clashed several times with the Jordanian army and were finally expelled in 1971. In Lebanon, they became embroiled in a civil war, and their attacks on Israel lead to an Israeli invasion in 1982 and their expulsion from Lebanon.

In addition, as Abbas Shiblak, founder of the Palestinian Diaspora and Refugee Centre (Shaml) points out, in the host countries "Palestinian affairs are governed by ministerial decrees or administrative orders, which allow differing interpretations and abuses of power and can easily be reversed in response to changing political conditions." (3)

In Egypt, for example, Palestinians experienced worsening treatment after the signing of the peace treaty with Israel in 1978. According to one study, Palestinian students were, until 1978, "treated like the Egyptians who received free education in schools, universities and institutes."(4) Then the government gradually began to impose hard currency tuition fees for Palestinians, treating them as foreigners, and "banned Palestinian students from joining colleges of medicine, pharmacy, economics, political science, and journalism."(5) In addition, presidential decrees in July 1978 (No. 47 and 48) "canceled earlier decisions which treated the Palestinians like the Egyptians. The Ministry of Human Resources also prohibited the employment of foreigners including Palestinians in trade, particularly imports and exports, except those who were married to Egyptians for more than five years."(6)

More recent and extreme examples of punitive treatment of Palestinians as a byproduct of regional politics include Kuwait's expulsion of tens of thousands of long-term residents in the wake of the 1991 Gulf war (leaving the Gazans among them who carried Egyptian travel documents with nowhere to go because the Egyptian government denied them entry), and the Libyan government's move in 1995 to demonstrate its displeasure with Arafat's peace negotiations with Israel by not renewing the one-year residency visas of some 30,000 Palestinians and beginning summary deportations.

Egypt again provides an illustration of the restrictions on freedom of movement of resident Palestinians. Under Law No. 28 of 1960, Palestinians were entitled to receive Egyptian travel documents, but these documents "did not grant the bearer the right to enter Egypt unless a visa is obtained from the Egyptian consulates abroad beforehand."(7) Thus, holders of such documents who were born in Egypt or who have lived there for most of their lives have no automatic right to stay in or reenter the country, but must renew their visas every six months to three years. Human Rights Watch is aware of cases of Palestinians born in Egypt who have been trapped abroad because Egyptian consulates denied their entry visa requests in summary fashion, without providing reasons. Advocates of Palestinian refugees' rights cite these and other examples to underscore the fragility of the refugees' residency in host countries, and the pressing need for a more secure legal status that offers firm guarantees of freedom of movement.

Lebanon provides the clearest example of a host state's denial of rights, use of refugees as political pawns, and illegal discrimination. In Lebanon, many Palestinians are preoccupied with basic survival, overwhelmed by poor physical conditions in the refugee camps, pervasive poverty, high unemployment and underemployment, and inadequate medical services. Successive Lebanese governments have consistently opposed the permanent resettlement of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, and state policies reflect this stance, denying virtually all social and economic rights. In addition, the state has prohibited the expansion of existing refugee camps, which contributes to overcrowding and illegal and unsafe building of additional stories on existing structures.

One of the most frequently heard complaints from Palestinians in Lebanon concerns restrictions on the right to work. Palestinians, like other foreigners, must obtain annual work permits from the labor ministry in order to be employed legally. Possession of a work permit affords foreign workers protection under Lebanon's labor law with respect to workers rights and benefits. However, these permits are extremely difficult for Palestinians to obtain: permits are issued annually to Palestinians by the hundreds while for other foreign workers in Lebanon they are issued by the thousands. (Hundreds of thousands of Syrian workers in Lebanon, in contrast, require no work permits.) The difficulty in obtaining work permits forces many Palestinians into the underground economy and leaves others open to exploitation by private employers. For example, a Palestinian teacher with fourteen years' experience and a university degree from Egypt told Human Rights Watch that Palestinians can obtain teaching jobs in private schools in Lebanon without a work permit, but they earn salaries significantly lower than their Lebanese counterparts and have no job security or worker benefits. The situation of women workers is particularly difficult. Palestinian women who work in the garment industry in Beirut and Sidon, for example, are paid below the minimum wage and earn half the salary of Lebanese citizens. Because the Palestinians do not have work permits, they do not receive the benefits provided to Lebanese employees, including medical insurance.

In addition, various legal barriers prohibit Palestinians from practicing in Lebanon as doctors, pharmacists, engineers, lawyers or journalists. Laws, decrees, and regulations of professional associations specify that members must hold Lebanese nationality for at least ten years or that there must be reciprocity of treatment for Lebanese professionals in the country of citizenship of the foreign professional applying to practice in Lebanon. For example, the journalists' syndicate restricts membership to those who have been Lebanese citizens for at least ten years, as does the bar association. Medical, pharmacy, and engineering associations in Lebanon all have regulations that require reciprocal treatment as conditions for membership, which by definition excludes Palestinians who are stateless. These rules open the door for exploitation of some Palestinian professionals, such as engineers, who have described to Human Rights Watch how they have obtained "illegal" jobs at Lebanese firms but have no benefits and cannot sign official documents for work that they have supervised.

(1) Of the 150,000 Palestinians believed to be residing in EU member states, the majority (about 80,000) are in Germany. Most of them are stateless and hold Palestinian refugee travel documents, and an estimated 80 percent are from Lebanon, according to Shaml.

(2) "The Problem of Palestinian Nationality" in The State of the World's Refugees.

(3) "Residency Status and Civil Rights of Palestinian Refugees in Arab Countries" in Shaml, Civil and Citizenship Rights of Palestinian Refugees, 1995, p.13.

(4) Abdul Khader Yassin, "The Palestinians in Egypt," Shaml, 1996.

(5) Ibid.

(6) Ibid.

(7) Ibid.


Relevant Background
  • The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (10 December 1948)

    The right to return has a solid foundation in international law. Article 13(2) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states, "Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country". More..

  • The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights

    The right to return is most clearly enshrined in the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) under its provisions on the right to freedom of movement (Article 12).  More..

  • Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (28 July 1951)

    International refugee law and international human rights law mutually reinforce each other on the right to return. More..

  • United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194 (III) of 11 December 1948

    11. Resolves that the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date,.. More..

  • The Human Rights Committee General Comment on Article 12 of the International Covenant on civil and Political Rights (November 1999)

    In November 1999 the HRC, the authoritative U.N. body for interpreting the ICCPR, produced a thorough and comprehensive commentary on Article 12.  More..

  • Treatment and Rights in Arab Host States

  • Rights Under Israeli Occupation and the Palestinian Authority