I recently re-watched A World Not Ours by Mehdi Fleifel on the Arab independent films streaming site Aflamuna. Every week they stream two or more independent movies/documentaries from the Arab World. A World Not Ours is a first account documentary film making made by Mehdi, documenting his life and family in the Palestinian refugee camp Ain El Helweh in Lebanon. Mehdi was born in Ain El Helweh and migrated with his family to Dubai, then Europe. The documentary is intimate and funny with memorable characters, especially his friend Abu Eyad. It touches on issues of statelessness, Palestinian rights and statehood, passport privilege amongst others.
Unlike Mehdi, Abu Eyad lives the hopelessness of statelessness which the viewers clearly see at the end of the documentary when he tries to escape Lebanon. Both are Palestinians yet Mehdi could leave the camp and would return in summers to visit his family. Mehdi is very aware of this and talks about his privilege in leaving a hopeless camp unlike his friend Abu Eyad.
Lebanon hosts around 470,000 Palestinian refugees with about 45% of them living in the country’s 12 refugee camps. Palestinians have fled to Lebanon since they were forcibly expelled and displaced from their home towns in 1948. The camps are crowded with power cuts and the conditions are dire. Many Palestinian refugees live in poverty and rely on UNRWA (The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East) for health, education and social services. The most vulnerable, including Palestinian refugees who fled from Syria, get financial assistance to buy food and other basic necessities. Lebanon does not grant refugees permanent status meaning they lack access to jobs and legal justice. Furthermore, they are paid less than their Lebanese counterparts and are not allowed to work in academic professions. When a Palestinian is born in Lebanon they are automatically granted Palestinian refugee status, a big blue refugee document bearing the name of the city they come from in Palestine, but not citizenship.
Not belonging to Palestine and actively excluded in Lebanon, Palestinians live in limbo as stateless people with no rights. What does it mean to be stateless? You see this with Abu Eyad; no documentation, job prospect, living in terrible conditions and no where to go. It leads the deeper question of why not grant Palestinian refugees’ permanent residency? It’s a sensitive topic in Lebanon that boils down to Lebanon’s complex political and social fabric.
Lebanon is a small country with a population of around 6 million people and a host to UNHCR registered 855,172 Syrian Refugees and over 450,000 registered Palestinian refugees. Religion plays a major role in Lebanese culture, society, politics and legal systems. Furthermore, Lebanon recognises 18 different religious sects within the Muslim and Christian religions. That’s a whole lot of different nationalities and religions in a country that is smaller than LA County in California! Politically Lebanon is governed by a power-sharing system aimed at guaranteeing political representation for all of the country’s 18 sects. This power-sharing system, called confessionalism, was implemented by the French colonial rule with the aim of sharing the power between the three major Sects: Christian Maronites, Sunni Muslims, and Shiite Muslims. The number of seats in Parliament is split between Christians and Muslims and proportionally divided among the different denominations within each religion. The President is always from the Maronite Christian Sect, Prime Minister Sunni Muslim and Speaker of parliament Shi’a Muslim.
With this in mind there are several reasons why Lebanon refuses to grant Palestinians permanent residency. One major argument is that by granting residency Palestinians will not return to Palestine. Denying a basic human right, which is the right to nationality (Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights), is nationalistic, racist, discriminatory and poses many restrictions with integrating refugee communities. Unlike Syrian refugees who fled Syria at the outbreak of the war in 2011, Palestinians were forcibly displaced after the mass expulsion of Palestinians and destruction of their homes by Israel in what is known as the Nakba (Arabic for ‘catastrophe’) of 1948. Many settled in other parts of Palestine or fled to neighbouring countries Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Kuwait. So, Palestinians have been living in camps in Lebanon since 1948 with no rights and social services by the State. Generations have gone by with little improvement to their conditions, Palestinian refugees pass on their refugee status to their children. After 73 years, Palestinians in Lebanon are stateless living “permanently temporary” in camps. Under international law, a stateless person is one “who is not considered as a national by any state under the operation of its law.” Palestinian refugees are given a blue document by the State confirming their refugee status; a citizen to no nation. Can they actually return to Palestine? No. Occupation and the apartheid State of Israel has made sure the right to return is impossible.
The reality of the situation in Israel and Palestine and the fact it’s been 73 years since the Nakba, the argument that giving citizenship will mean they won’t return is weak.
Lebanon is not a signatory of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees (the 1951 Refugee Convention), relieving itself of the legal responsibility to protect refugees. Unfortunately, many Arab States have not signed the Refugee Convention for various reasons and Lebanon is one of them. Lebanon’s reasoning for not signing the Convention will be discussed in a different post, in the meantime the reality is its been 47 years and no change for Palestinians in Lebanon. Generations being born into the same situation as their grandparents; no rights, hopes and citizenship.