Why are Palestinians not allowed in Lebanon

Country Profiles Migration: Data - History - Politics

Rebecca Roberts

Rebecca Roberts has been working and researching in the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon since 1996. She is the author of the book "Palestinians in Lebanon: Refugees Living with Long-term Displacement" (2010, I B Tauris-Verlag). She advises the United Nations, governments and non-governmental organizations on policy and practice in conflict-affected regions such as Lebanon and Syria.

Palestinian refugees have lived in Lebanon for seven decades. The flight of tens of thousands of Palestinians from Syria has worsened the living situation in the Lebanese refugee camps. The presence of the Palestine refugees is viewed as a security risk by the Lebanese government and people.

Palestinian refugee camp Bourj al-Barajneh in Beirut: The refugee camps are densely populated and those that have developed spontaneously are a labyrinth of narrow streets and house entrances. (& copy Rebecca Roberts)

There are more than 450,000 registered Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, more than 50 percent of whom live in one of the twelve official refugee camps managed by the United Nations Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Middle East (UNRWA). [1] Others live in unofficial settlements or in private homes. The largest number of Palestinian refugees came to Lebanon as a result of the establishment of Israel in 1948, further refugees came in 1956 as a result of the Suez Crisis, in 1967 as a result of the Six Day War and in 1970 and 1971 after they were expelled from Jordan. The recent influx of Palestinian refugees into Lebanon came as part of the mass displacement of the Syrian population since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011.

All of these groups have a different legal status that determines their rights and access to humanitarian aid. This article focuses primarily on the Palestinians living in official refugee camps who arrived in Lebanon as a result of the conflict of 1948, as well as their descendants. He examines their socio-economic conditions and rights, the attitudes of Lebanese politics and people towards the Palestinians and analyzes how the presence of Palestinians from Syria in the refugee camps affects the Palestinians who have been living in Lebanon for decades.

UNRWA: The Aid Agency for Palestinian Refugees

The United Nations Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Middle East (UNRWA) supports Palestinians and their descendants in Jordan, Lebanon, West Bank, Gaza Strip and Syria, who became refugees in the wake of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. The agency has been headquartered in London since 1951 and provides health care, education and care for the most vulnerable groups. It operates schools, clinics and community centers and is responsible for the provision of services in the official refugee camps, such as the maintenance of roads and sewers, garbage collection and water supply. UNRWA's mandate is renewed every three years. The relief organization is dependent on voluntary donations to support its activities. Since it was founded, it has lurched from one crisis to the next, has been operating under austerity pressure for decades and implements crisis response programs in emergency mode. In Lebanon alone it has seen two civil wars, the second of which lasted 15 years. It survived Israel's 1996 air strikes on Lebanon (known as Operation Fruits of Wrath), the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel, and the destruction of the Nahr al-Barid refugee camp in 2007. It is currently facing the arrival of tens of thousands of Palestinians from Syria. As a result, program and budget planning are difficult, and constant ad hoc work to provide humanitarian aid in crisis situations ties up grants that should have been used for longer-term programs.

The origins of the official refugee camps in Lebanon vary: some began as informal settlements of individuals who gathered friends and family members around them, others were founded by religious groups or the Red Cross. In 1956 17 of the numerous camps were recognized as official refugee camps and UNRWA took over their administration. Over time and in the course of the civil war, camps have been closed, destroyed or abandoned. At the end of the civil war in 1990 only twelve official refugee camps remained, which UNRWA continued to support.

The population of the host country

UNRWA figures from January 2015 show that 452,669 Palestinians lived in Lebanon, although the actual number is believed to be lower. [2] This is because UNRWA depends on the Palestinians present informing the relief agency about changes in their situation, but this does not always happen for various reasons. For example, deaths are sometimes not recorded because the family of the deceased hopes to continue receiving the benefits that were intended for the deceased family member. Or they hope to be able to pass on the identity card of the deceased to another Palestinian who does not meet the requirements to register with UNRWA. Even Palestinians who emigrate legally or illegally sometimes choose not to inform UNRWA in order to have access to its support lines in the event of a possible return. Unlike other refugee groups, Palestinians can have the citizenship of the host country and still retain their refugee status, as this is linked to the finding of a final political solution between Israel and Palestine. Therefore, Palestinians remain registered with UNRWA even if they have acquired the citizenship of a North American or European country. They believe that the right to return to a possible State of Palestine or compensation for losses in the 1948 war depends on their registration with UNRWA.

The size of the Lebanese population is also unclear. The United Nations estimated that around five million Lebanese nationals were living in Lebanon in 2015. [3] These figures are based on an extrapolation of the results of a controversial census from 1932. Since then, there has been no further census in Lebanon, as it is feared that the results of such a census could jeopardize the agreements on political power-sharing between the 18 officially recognized religious communities. It is an effort to maintain the delicate religious and political balance that determines how Lebanon deals with the Palestinian refugees. As a result, it has restricted their rights to naturalization, freedom of movement, property purchase, access to government services and the labor market.

Palestinians make up about eight percent of Lebanon's population. [4] They are predominantly Sunni Muslims. This means that the balance of power would shift in favor of the Sunnis if they were granted Lebanese citizenship. Shortly after their arrival in 1948, however, the Christian Palestinian minority was offered Lebanese citizenship. Without citizenship, Palestinians are marginalized in public and political life and are denied many of their rights. Their movements in Lebanon are monitored inside and outside the refugee camps and they must obtain permission to travel abroad. Their presence is blamed for the Lebanese civil war and for ongoing social tensions and conflicts with Israel. Lebanese nationals generally consider the refugee camps to be lawless and the government stresses that maintaining the camps is important to ensure security in the country.

Life in the refugee camps

Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut: Large families are crowded together in one or two rooms. Those with financial means build on high. (& copy picture-alliance, Arcaid)

The refugee camps are densely populated and those that have developed spontaneously are a maze of narrow streets and house entrances. Large families live closely together in one or two rooms. Those with the financial means are building taller by adding new floors to their homes to accommodate the growing population. The multi-storey buildings block the light from entering the streets and lead to high humidity because the air cannot circulate. However, the government refuses to make additional land available for the refugee camps or to rebuild the camps that were completely or partially destroyed during the war. As a result, their area is smaller in 2016 than it was seven decades ago when the Palestinians arrived in Lebanon and their population was around 100,000. [5]

Palestinians living in illegal settlements or on the outskirts of official refugee camps are at risk of evictions. Other Palestinians live in private apartments outside of the refugee camps. However, since they are not allowed to own property, they have to rely on a friend or family member who is Lebanese or another nationality to register the property in their name. If the relationship with the trustee deteriorates, Palestinians risk losing their investment.

Palestinians who have no other option remain in the refugee camps, which are increasingly overcrowded and whose inadequate infrastructure is increasingly overloaded and in need of repair. The sewers regularly flood, covering the streets with stinking brown mud.The water pipes are leaking and do not have drinking water, although many campers rely on drinking this water because they cannot afford to buy drinking water. Power is supplied via a dangerous tangle of cables that crisscross the camps and are intertwined with the dripping water pipes. Fund cuts mean that UNRWA cannot provide adequate health care and (education) training and increasingly encourages Palestinians to co-finance these services. Palestinians have no access to state education and health systems, even if both are generally of poor quality. UNRWA services still have a better reputation than government services, although Palestinians complain about the deteriorating quality of UNRWA services. UNRWA's support services are subsidized by numerous national and international non-governmental organizations and religious organizations.

Restricting the right to work is believed to have the greatest impact on the lives of Palestinians in Lebanon. You are excluded from most professions. This limits their employment opportunities to the refugee camps, where there are only a small number of clients and few financial resources, or to illegal employment. However, illegally employed Palestinians have to accept that they earn less than Lebanese workers in the same occupation and that they are not granted any rights in the workplace. Despite the lack of job opportunities, many families try to invest in the education of their children and encourage them to attend schools run by UNRWA, apply for scholarships or accept hardship to finance places in private schools or universities. Many well-educated Palestinians with degrees in medicine, engineering or law live in the refugee camps. However, they have little chance of being able to apply their knowledge and skills in practice. Palestinians find it difficult to improve their own situation because they have limited opportunities to earn an income. Poverty and the lack of goals and prospects for the future have profound negative effects on mental and physical health and are seen as factors that can contribute to various social problems such as substance abuse and domestic violence.

Palestinian refugees from Syria

According to UNRWA, around 53,000 Palestinians previously registered as refugees in Syria sought protection in Lebanon from the Syrian civil war. [6] Some of them now live in the official refugee camps and continue to receive grants from UNRWA. Their presence exacerbates camp overcrowding and pressure on already limited resources. Unsurprisingly, this creates tension between the Palestinians from Lebanon and those from Syria. Both groups of refugees have had very different experiences. The Palestinians from Lebanon criticize the Palestinians from Syria for not fighting for their lifestyle, especially because the Palestinians in Syria enjoyed a significantly better quality of life than those in Lebanon. In Lebanon, Palestinians fought for their own cause during the civil war. Eventually they lost and their situation has worsened since the end of the war. Still, they argue that they tried while the Palestinians simply fled Syria.

Because they were able to use state services free of charge in Syria, Palestinians from Syria are defending themselves in Lebanon against the contributions that they have to make there for the health and education system. They cannot understand how Palestinians survived in Lebanon and they boast about their good life in Syria. Conversely, the Palestinians from Lebanon criticize the expectations of the Palestinians from Syria and complain that they did not appreciate the life they had in Syria enough. Palestinians from Syria are still struggling to accept the badly paid jobs that Palestinians from Lebanon are accepting. Instead, they believe that there must be better options for them. For this, too, they are criticized by the Palestinians from Lebanon.

Palestinians in Lebanon: the future

The Palestinians from Syria place an additional burden on life in the refugee camps. Their presence contributes to the fact that there are fewer and fewer funds available to care for the Palestinians from Lebanon. There is no reason to hope that the living conditions of Palestinians in Lebanon will improve, even if those from Syria leave the country. Since arriving in Lebanon, the situation of the Palestinians has deteriorated. The complex religious and political dynamics in Lebanon mean that the government and the population are unlikely to change course significantly; finally, the presence of Palestinian refugees is seen as a threat to stability and security.

Translation from English: Vera Hanewinkel


America Near East Refugee Aid (ANERA) (2013): Palestinian Refugees from Syria in Lebanon. Vol. 3, No. 4, April 2013.

International Crisis Group (2009): Nurturing Instability: Lebanon’s Palestinian Refugee Camps. Middle East Report, No. 84, Feb. 19.

Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP) (2010): Terminal Decline: Palestinian Refugee Health in Lebanon. Briefing paper.

Nafaul, Hala (2012): Syrian Refugees in Lebanon: the Humanitarian Approach under Political Divisions. Migration Policy Center (MPC), Research Report. MPC Research report 2012/13.

Roberts, Rebecca (2010): Palestinians in Lebanon: Refugees Living with Long-term Displacement. London, New York: I.B. Tauris.

Sayigh, Rosemary (2015): Too Many Enemies: the Palestinian Experience in Lebanon. 2nd Edition. Al-Mashriq.

On the subject

This text is part of the country profile Lebanon.