by Franklin Lamb, Al Manar
The United Nations Special Rapporteur for Palestine, Professor Richard Falk, Prof emeritus of Princeton University, came to Lebanon last week on an unofficial visit to survey opinion while fact finding the condition of Palestinian refugee’s camps. It was the Professors first visit to Lebanon since the fateful summer of 1982. Back then, en route by sea to Beirut, which was under Israeli siege and blockade, Richard was Vice-Chair part of the Sean McBride Commission of Inquiry into Israeli crimes against Lebanon. Mid-way between Cyprus and Lebanon, the Zionist navy, in a blatant act of piracy on the high seas, intercepted, boarded and commandeered their vessel. Eventually, under reported American pressure via US Envoy Morris Draper’s telephoned profanity to Tel Aviv, the pirates allowed Falk’s delegation to disembark at the port of Jounieh, just north of Beirut. Draper, who like so many US diplomats, claims he finally “saw the light” after retiring, told this observer that “I never swore so much in my life as I did at those sob’s during that summer of 1982 and after I learned the details of Israel’s choreography of the Sabra-Shatila massacre!” And Ambassador Draper added, “The world will never know the extent of Israeli crimes until Washington threatens to cut off all aid until they open their archives on this period.”
Professor Falk, as he mentioned during several events here, including a first-rate conference on the status of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and their struggle for the most elementary civil rights to work and to own a home, organized by the Institute of Palestine Studies, came to Lebanon not to offer counsel to Lebanon’s sects or even to the Palestinians. (The IPS, (http://www.palestine-studies.org) founded in 1969, is considered by this observer and many others, as the most reliable and authoritative source of information on Palestinian affairs and the Arab-Israel conflict.)
Falk came to listen and to learn. He did both. He focused intensely on each speaker, scribing hurried notes regarding the current conditions of Palestinian refugee education and health status in Lebanon’s 12 camps and two dozen “gatherings,” reports that were presented by several NGO’s working here.
Falk and others in attendance at the briefings found the findings sobering and alarming. They included but are not limited to, the following:
There are currently 42,000 Palestinian refugees from Syria who have been forced into Lebanon as a result of the crisis in Syria. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East – UNRWA -reported to the IPS workshop, that they expect 80,000 Palestinians by the end of the year. Others estimate the December 2013 number will exceed 100,000. UNWRA is basically out of money and cannot continue to meet its mandate for aiding Lebanon’s Palestinians much less those arriving from Syria and the rate of more than two dozen families per day. On 5/5/13, the popular committee representative at Jalil Camp near Baalbec said they receive on average 8 families per day, with dozens living in the Jalil camp cemetery.
Palestinians camps here remain a site of control and surveillance by the Lebanese Army. People’s mobility and access to construction materials have been restricted by the army check points at the entrance of camps. Palestinian refugees are forbidden by law – since 2001 – to own or inherit real estate in Lebanon; consequently when a Palestinian dies, even if she or he inherited property between 1948-2001, before a wave of revenge led to the 2001 racist law, the property goes to Sunni Muslim Dar al-Fatwa one of the richest real estate holding entities in Lebanon. Accused of deep corruption by some, their leadership has a history of opposing full civil rights for Palestinian refugees here remain opposed to home ownership.
According to figures from the popular committees in Lebanon’s refugee camps, 30,660 Palestinians fled into Lebanon from Syria. Around 5,000 remain in the Bekaa, close to the Syrian borders, in two main gatherings, al-Jalil (3,616 refugees) and central Bekaa (1,652).In the North, Baddawi hosts 3,616 and Nahr al Bared 1,316.In Beirut, Burj al-Barajneh hosts 2,628 refugees, Shatila and the surrounding areas 2,000, and Mar Elias 732. In the South, 7,876 refugees arrived to Ain al-Hilweh and 1,304 are dispersed around Saida. Mieh wa Mieh camp hosts 1,012, with an addition 2,160 in Wadi al-Zaineh. Further south to Tyre, refugees from Syria are distributed among Shabriha (144), Rashidieh (392), Bass (368), Burj al-Shemali (2,500), Qasimiyeh (172), and Jal al-Bahr (78).
According to the UN’s humanitarian chief, Valerie Amos, seven million people need humanitarian assistance in Syria. “The needs are growing rapidly and are most severe in the conflict and opposition-controlled areas” of the civil-war ravaged country, the global body’s humanitarian chief Valerie Amos told the U.N. Security Council. Amos cited data showing there are 6.8 million people in need — out of a total population of 20.8 million — along with 4.25 million people internally displaced and an additional 1.3 million who have sought refuge in neighboring countries.
Palestinian refugee children also have limited access to the public educational system in Lebanon. Only 11 per cent of “foreign” children can access free public education in Lebanon while many refugees can’t afford the high tuition fees of private schools. Palestinian refugees who attend one of the 58 UNRWA begin at age seven since UNWRA cannot afford pre-school level education, while the elementary sector comprises more than 60% of students, 28% in intermediate and only 10% at the secondary level. While the attendance rate for 7 year olds is 98.6%, by the time they reach age 11 attendance falls to 93.4%. From these figures, the primary level school completion rate cascades to only 37%, due to astronomical dropout rates. The above figures reveal that education levels have been indeed progressively dropping in recent years. This is further supported by the passing rate in the Brevet Official exams (official diploma qualifying entry into secondary) which was in some schools as low as 13.6% in some schools according to the UNRWA results of Brevet exams, despite the average passing rate in UNRWA schools being 43% for the 2009-10 academic year.
The most recent household survey of Palestinian refugees carried out by the American University of Beirut showed that two thirds of Palestine refugees are poor. The extreme poverty rate in camps (7.9%) is almost twice of that observed in gatherings (4.2%). The study also developed a Deprivation Index based on components of welfare which included components such as good health, food security, and adequate education, access to stable employment, decent housing, and ownership of essential household assets. The Deprivation Index showed that 40% of Palestine Refugees living in Lebanon are deprived. The study also reported that 56% of refugees are jobless and only 37% of the working age population is employed (Hanafi et al. 2012). It is unsurprising that the poor socio-economic situation often encourages students to leave school to get a paid job.
Despite the importance of education fewer Palestinian refugee students are actually interested in continuing their higher education. Lack of motivation to learn, is believed to be one of the main reasons for the high dropout rates. Palestinian refugees’ access to Lebanon’s public university is limited by their status as foreigners, and their access to private universities is restricted by a lack of resources to pay tuition fees (Hroub, 2012).
The old cliché that stated that “The Palestinians are the most educated Arab nation”, just a myth nowadays. This educational hemorrhage amongst young Palestinians has been attributed to a number of factors such as the deteriorating socio-economic conditions amongst Palestinian refugees and the growing disillusionment with schooling and the benefits it brings. Palestinian students also suffer from an education acculturation as they are forced to learn only the Lebanese curriculum without being able to access the country’s system. The following section examines these three main challenges.
Statistics indicate that just under half of the classrooms in public schools have less than 15 students per class while 20 % are overcrowded with 26 to 35 students per class. However, in UNRWA schools, the average number of students per classroom is 30 making them the most crowded classrooms in Lebanon.
With respect to the UN refugee agency, (UNHCR) the current situation in both Syria and among the more than 450,000 Syrian in Lebanon is only marginally better than the conditions of arriving Palestinians. As Maeve Murphy, UNHCR’s Senior Field Coordinator in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, explained on 5/5/13, near the Nicolas Khoury Center in Zahle, Lebanon, during an interview among a sea of hundreds of waiting Syrians, some waiting for three months or longer just to get registered, it too is now unable to meet its mandate for the same reason as UNRWA and the World Food Program. Ms. Murphy reported that over 453,000 Syrians have either registered with the U.N. agency or are waiting to register. An additional several hundred thousand people are thought to be refugees but haven’t approached the U.N.
Complicating the desperate situation of Palestinian and Syrian refugees seeking sanctuary in Lebanon is the fact that millions of Syrian refugees face food rationing and cutbacks to critical medical programs because oil-rich Gulf states have failed to deliver the funding they promised for emergency humanitarian aid, an investigation by James Cusick for The Independent on Sunday has found.
Pledges for $ 650 minion in donations from various sources including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Bahrain, made during the January 2013, Kuwait UN emergency conference, have yet to materialize.
The World Food Program (WFP), the food aid arm of the UN, says it is spending $19m a week to feed 2.5 million refugees inside Syria and a further 1.5 million who have fled to official camps in Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq. By July, the WFP says, there is no guarantee that its work on the Syrian crisis can continue. A spokesman told the UK Independent, “We are already in a hand-to-mouth situation. Beyond mid-June – who knows?”
The emergency conference in Kuwait – hosted by the Emir of Kuwait and chaired by Mr Ban Ki Moon – promised to bring a “message of hope” to the four million Syrian refugees. Mr Ban proclaimed the outcome a shining example of “global solidarity in action”. The reality has been markedly different. Oxfam recently issued an appeal: “The League of Arab States must urge all Arab countries that have pledged to the Syrian crisis, to be transparent and to share information about their commitments, and mechanisms for fulfilling their pledges.”
Mousab Kerwat, Islamic Relief’s Middle East institutional funding manager, said: “It’s better for countries to stay away from donor conferences than to attend and make pledges they don’t intent to keep. As a minimum, they should communicate where their pledges have gone in a transparent process.
According to American University of Beirut researcher, Rosemary Sayigh thinking of the future of the Palestinian refugees can lead us in two alternative directions: i) what is likely? or ii) what do we hope and struggle for? “The likelihood in the near future is that fighting in Syria will get worse, the camps will further attacked, and there will be more displacement and more refugees. Thus what we should work for in the short term is: i) more international support for UNRWA; and ii) a change in the mission of the UNHCR allowing it to extend protection to Palestinian refugees both inside and outside Syria, include pressure on Lebanon to abolish its entry and residence taxes on Palestinian refugees; iii) whatever regime is established in Syria at the end of the civil war should be pressed to allow all refugees to return to their former homes, and all camps to be reconstructed.”
If Professor Falk was weary as he left Lebanon from all the data he was presented, it would be understandable. But given his history as a supporter of resistance to occupation and oppression, his assurances that he will continue his work armed with the above sampling of data gives rise to new hope for Palestinian and Syrian refugees from Syria and to those who support their right to return to Palestine.