BEIRUT, June 27 (JMCC) - A ten-minute taxi ride from Beirut’s dazzling nightclubs, fast cars and luxury restaurants, Ahmad picks his way through crowded waste-strewn passageways. The overflowing sewage and uncollected rubbish are pungent as he bends to avoid the tangle of live electric cables dangling overhead.
The Burj Barajneh Palestinian refugee camp, like so many in Lebanon, is a reeking sprawl of claustrophobic ramshackle buildings and bombed-out concrete blocks. In 1948, the League of Red Cross Societies rented the land to house around 3,000 refugees. Since then the population has expanded six-fold but the land area has not changed.
Today’s 16,000 camp dwellers live on top of each other. New floors are added precariously to existing buildings and the streets between these towering concrete structures are so narrow the sun fails to penetrate.
Life in this crowded space is tough. Electricity is sporadic and the water is toxic.
“Try to wash your hands,” laughs Mohamed Faris, the father of a family of eight that shares two small rooms. “Your skin will itch -- it is not for those who are not used to it.”
Living at such close quarters also strains neighborly relations. With less than a meter between homes, laughter, a baby’s cry, music or television are all disturbances.
“I feel most sorry for the children,” says Nabil Diab, information officer for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA
) in Barajneh. “There are no open spaces for play. Everyone must be quiet so as not to disturb neighbours. It is repressive and frustrating”.
LIMITED RIGHTS AND FREEDOMS
was created in 1948, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were forced to flee to Lebanon. Tented housing was established in 12 refugee camps across the country. Sixty-two years later, little has changed for the 425,000 refugees registered with UNRWA.
Lebanon tightly controls the rights and freedoms afforded to its refugees. Nearly ten percent of Lebanon’s population, they have minimal social and civil rights, and little access to public social services, public health or education facilities. Most rely almost entirely on UNWRA as provider of basic necessities.
Palestinian refugees cannot work in as many as 70 professions. Reforms in 2005 purportedly reduced this number to 20, but many criticised the bill for lacking rules of implementation.
Job applicants must have both a valid permit and be members of a professional body, both of which remain beyond the financial reach of most.
“De facto the bill has made little difference, to this day only 261 Palestinians across the entire country have a work permit,” says Sari Hanafi, professor of sociology at the American University of Beirut.
The restrictions also include government involvement. “I have a law degree, and yet I cannot work as a waste collector for the municipality because it is affiliated with the government,” says Nabil.
Most refugees exist on seasonal or casual work that comes with low wages and no rights says Hanafi.
“There is no average salary, to have an average salary implies a steady job. No one has a steady job,” says Munir Maarouf, UNRWA’s field officer in Shatilla refugee camp.
As a result Lebanon has the highest portion of Palestinian refugees living in abject poverty. The Lebanese government claims that to give the refugees more rights might help them naturalize, and in so doing unbalance Lebanon’s fragile Christian, Sunni and Shia Muslim balance.
Refugee poverty is also a way of keeping pressure on Israel to act and take responsibility for the refugees, some say. However, as the strain on resources increases, this policy is becoming increasingly untenable.
“It has been like this for a long time,” warns Maarouf. “If it gets worse it has to explode.”