(Beirut) - Members of Lebanon's parliament should vote to end restrictions on Palestinian refugees' rights to own property and work, Human Rights Watch said today. The Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) introduced a bill on June 15, 2010 that would cancel prohibitions on property ownership and social security benefits for Palestinians, and ease restrictions on their right to work.
Following a heated debate, the speaker of the house, Nabih Berri, referred the bill to the parliament's Administration and Justice Committee for further study. The full parliament will vote on it in a month. The National Syrian Socialist Party (NSSP) says it plans to introduce a second bill in the coming days that would go even further in easing restrictions on Palestinian refugees.
"Lebanon has marginalized Palestinian refugees for too long," said Nadim Houry, Beirut director at Human Rights Watch. "Parliament should seize this opportunity to turn the page and end discrimination against Palestinians."
Lebanon's estimated 300,000 Palestinian refugees live in appalling social and economic conditions - most of them in crowded camps that lack essential infrastructure. In 2001, Parliament passed a law prohibiting Palestinians from owning property, a right they had for decades. Lebanese law also restricts their ability to work in many areas. In 2005, Lebanon eliminated a ban on Palestinians holding most clerical and technical positions, provided they obtain a temporary work permit from the Labor Ministry, but more than 20 high-level professions remain off-limits to Palestinians.
Few Palestinians have benefited from the 2005 reform, though. In 2009, only 261 of more than 145,679 permits issued to non-Lebanese were for Palestinians. Civil society groups say many Palestinians choose not to apply because they cannot afford the fees and see no reason to pay a portion of their salary toward the National Social Security Fund, since Lebanese law bars Palestinians from receiving social security benefits. Many Lebanese employers are also unwilling to support Palestinian workers in getting a work permit.
The proposed law would grant Palestinians the right to obtain social security benefits and end-of-service compensation, and allow them to bring complaints before the labor arbitration courts. However, it would keep the work permit system for clerical jobs in place and not address the ban on Palestinians working in certain professions, including law, medicine, and engineering. For these jobs, membership in the relevant syndicate is required - and most syndicates condition membership for foreigners on reciprocity in their home country. This effectively bars the stateless Palestinians.
The second bill expected to be introduced would go further to address these exclusions. It would exempt Palestinian refugees registered in Lebanon from the requirement of obtaining a work permit altogether and would grant Palestinians the right to join all professional syndicates organized by law.
Reforms to labor laws to end discrimination against Palestinian refugees in all professions are essential to improving their dire situation in Lebanon, Human Rights Watch said. According to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, the organization set up to address the needs of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and elsewhere, Palestinian refugees in Lebanon have the highest proportion of special hardship cases among those in any country in the region.
An extensive study by the Norwegian social welfare research organization Fafo found that just 15 percent of adult Palestinians have employment contracts. Forced to work illegally and without legal protection, Palestinians face severe discrimination in wages and hiring. Many employers pay them less than their Lebanese colleagues, or refuse to hire Palestinians.
"If there is a work shortage, they will hire you, [but] because you're Palestinian and it's not allowed, they will pay you half," one Palestinian told Human Rights Watch. As Palestinians, he added, "We are not asking for money, we are asking for the right to work, to live in dignity."
Increasingly, Lebanese politicians have begun to voice support for providing Palestinians their basic rights. In December, Lebanon's unity government adopted a ministerial declaration that promised to provide Palestinians' "humanitarian and social rights" in Lebanon. And in January, Labor Minister Boutros Harb told a gathering at the General Labor Federation that, "Palestinians must be granted their basic civil rights in Lebanon until they return to their homeland."
"It is time to turn words into actions," Houry said. "The coming weeks will make clear whether Lebanon's politicians are engaging in empty rhetoric or whether they are truly committed to the rights of the Palestinians."
Politicians from several parties have echoed these calls. During the debate in parliament on June 15, Prime Minister Saad Hariri said, "We have a historic opportunity to vote on the proposal; there are people in need."
Critics of the bill, even as they urged caution, agreed. Lebanese Forces member George Adwan said, "It is unacceptable for Palestinians not to get their rights, on the basis of our humanity and commitment to their cause, as well as the situation in the camps."
And a Free Patriotic Movement member, Alain Aoun, agreed, saying, "We cannot deny anyone in Lebanon their human rights."