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Hard Numbers

New study profiles enduring poverty of refugees

by Executive Editors

In a much publicized and internationally heralded move in August 2010, the Lebanese government passed “right to work” legislation for the country’s Palestinian refugee population. For those who thought that this would usher in a new era for the refugees and alleviate the poverty of the Palestinian community, nearing its 62nd year in exile in Lebanon, the unfortunate reality is that little has changed.

While Lebanon’s economy has made gains in recent years (recent incidents notwithstanding), it is glaringly apparent that little, if any of this has reached what remains one of the country’s most disenfranchised communities. Lebanon’s 12 official Palestinian refugee camps are still mired in destitution: in south Beirut’s Shatila Camp sewage runs through the alleys, secondary school drop-outs and unemployed men in their 20s idle in the market and only a minority of homes have access to natural sunlight.

While clearly visible to the eye, the poverty that dominates the economic situation of Lebanon’s Palestinian refugees — estimated  by various organizations at anywhere between 260,000 and 400,000 — has been largely difficult to quantify due to a shortage of reliable data. In late December, the American University of Beirut (AUB) released a report called “Socio-Economic Survey of Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon,” commissioned by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) and funded by the European Commission, which claims to be the most comprehensive survey of the population in the past decade. The last major benchmark study on the subject was carried out by the Norwegian foundation FAFO, using data collected in 1999.

The AUB report offers a rare statistical quantification of the socio-economic realities and hardships of Palestinians in Lebanon.

Dire poverty

The survey found that 66.4 percent of Palestinians in Lebanon live under the poverty line of  spending $6 per day – deemed enough money to cover basic food and non-food items. Of these, 6.6 percent fell under the extreme poverty line, spending less than $2.17 per day, enough to cover food items alone.

Unlike previous surveys, the AUB report measured spending rather than income as a measure of poverty, which authors of the report argue is more accurate. From these statistics, the study estimates that approximately 160,000 Palestinian refugees live in poverty.

Inside the refugee camps — which are often isolated from urban areas and job opportunities — three out of four residents live below the poverty line, compared to one in two Palestinians who live in gatherings outside of the official camps. Remaining Palestinians not living below the poverty line are by no means affluent: the report mentions that no individual surveyed reported a monthly expenditure of more than $600.

The average monthly expenditure was revealed to be $170; those living in informal gatherings spent an average of $200 per month while those living in camps spent only $150. Little change then, from data collected in 1999 by FAFO, which found that 44 percent of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon made less than $2,400 per year, or $200 per month.

No jobs to go around

The most obvious contributing factor to the poverty facing Palestinian refugees in Lebanon is that most of them do not have jobs. The AUB report shows that only 37 percent of the working age (15 to 64 years old) Palestinian refugee population is employed. The study’s authors assert that widespread discrimination on the part of many Lebanese employers makes finding jobs difficult.

“If a secretary [applies for a job] with a CV that says Shatila Camp [under] residence, they will not employ her,” says Sari Hanafi, an associate professor at AUB and one of the contributors to the report.

Of Palestinians who do have jobs, very few have contracts — prerequisites for obtaining elusive work permits that give the employee legal standing and rights. This leads many Palestinians to work illegally, exposing them to labor abuses.

“Those who are interested in employing Palestinians are exploiters,” says Hanafi. “A few days ago I found three Palestinians working with a construction company. I got the details and found  they work without work permits and they work for half the price that their Lebanese colleagues can get from this company.”

Legal issues remain the largest issue facing Palestinians who want to work, and so far the lauded “right to work” legislation of August 2010 has done little to help the employment situation facing Palestinians.

“[It had] zero impact. I am not exaggerating,” says Hanafi.

As evidence, Hanafi points to the fact that, in the past six months, the Lebanese Ministry of Labor has granted only three work permits to Palestinians. In 2009, 99 permits were issued to Palestinians. Foreign workers from other countries — primarily domestic workers from Asia and Africa, along with non-Lebanese Arabs — were issued a total of nearly 150,000 permits in 2009.

“The Ministry of Labor is supposed to take some implementing measures. Those measures have not been taken yet,” says Salvatore Lombardo, director of UNRWA in Lebanon, adding that the country’s current political crisis is “likely to delay even further the implementation measures.”

With the stagnation of the process, Hanafi says, “the main factor [contributing to unemployment] is really related to the lack of a legal framework allowing Palestinians to get jobs in the private sector.”

Rather than a step toward more equal rights, the report says “the amended law constitutes an institutionalization of discrimination.”

While in theory it would make it easier for Palestinians to obtain work permits, the law did little to help Palestinian professionals trying to enter liberal professions, many of which are syndicated and reserved for Lebanese nations. For unskilled jobs, permits are not as helpful as it might seem, given the reluctance of employers to issue Palestinians contracts and thereby give up the current low labor costs and freedom from worker protection regulations. 

The fear of tawtin — the naturalization of Palestinians — upsetting Lebanon’s delicate sectarian balance has made many Lebanese hesitant toward granting further rights to Palestinians. In a narrow Lebanese job market already saturated by low-wage workers from other Arab countries and further afield, some fear that additional working rights would worsen the situation for Lebanese job seekers.

“A very important conclusion of the study is that [Palestinian refugees] do not represent a threat to Lebanese nationals in terms of job searches,” says Lombardo, taking into account that Palestinians primarily compete with non-Lebanese Arabs and other unskilled foreign laborers for jobs. The sheer number of Palestinians in Lebanon would put the community in a position to be a strong positive economic force in the country, if only they were better integrated into the economy through proper employment.

School’s out forever

The inability to keep students in school is a driving factor behind the undereducated Palestinian workforce. While elementary and preparatory schools that Palestinian children go to enjoy high attendance numbers, enrollment rates crash to 51 percent for secondary school. However, this is an improvement from FAFO’s 2006 study, which found that 74 percent of the Palestinian labor force in Lebanon had less than a secondary education.

Post-graduate opportunities are bleak throughout the Palestinian community: “When these kids see their older brother unemployed after a few years in private university, they have no incentive to go to school,” says AUB’s Hanafi.

For Lebanon’s Palestinians, the path to a brighter economic picture is largely out of their own hands. Their high levels of unemployment and poverty will likely continue as long as there are no serious efforts to integrate the refugees into their host country’s economy. With the country’s politicians currently handling their own problems, it could be some time before a helping hand is given to the Palestinians.

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Executive Editors

Executive Editors are the collective voice of the magazine. Stories written by Executive Editors are the culmination of discussions, brainstorming, research and information-gathering by our editorial team. Over decades, our editorial team has applied a blend of seasoned expertise and a discerning eye to bring you insightful and engaging and substantive reads that eschew sensationalism.

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