DAMASCUS — The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967, Professor Richard Falk, came to Lebanon last week on an unofficial visit to survey opinion while fact finding the condition in Palestinian refugee’s camps.
It was the Professor’s 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, Falk was Vice-Chair 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 the 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 SOBS during that summer of 1982 and after I learned the details of Ariel Sharon’s choreography of the Sabra-Shatila massacre!” Ambassador Draper added, “The world will never know the extent of Israeli crimes committed against Lebanon and its refugees until Washington threatens to cut off all aid until Tel Aviv opens up its 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, 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 listened intently to each speaker, scribing hurried notes regarding the current conditions of Palestinian refugees, including education and health status, in Lebanon’s 12 camps and two dozen “gatherings,” reports that were presented by several academics and NGO’s based 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. According to figures, forwarded to Professor Falk by the Palestine Civil Rights Campaign, supplied by refugee camp committees, approximately 6,000 Palestinians who fled Syria remain in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, close to the Syrian borders, in two main gatherings, al-Jalil (4,216 refugees) and central Bekaa (2,352). In the North, Baddawi camp hosts 4,116 and Nahr al Bared 2,016. In Beirut, Burj al-Barajneh camp hosts 2,928 additional refugees from Syria, Shatila and the surrounding areas 2,800, and Mar Elias 862. In the South, 8,549 refugees arrived to Ain al-Hilweh and 2,400 are dispersed around Saida. Mieh Mieh camp hosts 1,512, with an additional 2,160 in Wadi al-Zaineh. Further south to Tyre, Palestinian refugees from Syria are distributed among Shabriha (184), Rashidieh (1,370), Al Bass (478), Burj al-Shemali (2,800), Qasimiyeh (372), and Jal al-Bahr (128).
Falk knew, before gracing Lebanon with his visit, that UNWRA is basically out of money and cannot continue to meet its mandate for aiding Lebanon’s Palestinians even less those arriving from Syria at the rate of more than two dozen families per day. On May 5, the popular committee representative at Jalil Camp near Baalbec reported that they receive on average 8 additional families per day, with dozens now living in the Jalil camp cemetery.
Palestinian children in Lebanon, Falk was advised, unfortunately provide textbook examples of the fact of life that it is difficult to concentrate on school when ones stomach is growling with hunger. And it’s even harder to stay in school when there’s even a remote chance to work odd jobs and earn money for food—something education doesn’t immediately offer. One new local initiative is the Meals for Schools, whose organizers hope serve food to impoverished schoolchildren in Lebanese slum areas. One idea is to give coupons for meals to schools. Unfortunately the scope will not include Palestinian children “at this time due to limited funding”, according to one AUB student hoping to help children stay in school by helping them to have breakfasts.
Palestinian refugee children have limited access to the public educational system in Lebanon. Only 11 per cent these “foreign” children can access free public education in Lebanon while most 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. Consequently, for Palestinians here, while the elementary sector comprises more than 60% of students, the number drops to 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%. But from this level, the primary level school completion rate cascades to only 37%, due to astronomical dropout rates. The above figures reveal that Palestinian 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.
Professor Falk was briefed on myriad realities including the fact that Palestinians camps in Lebanon remain sites 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.
The UN’s humanitarian chief, Valerie Amos, reported this week that 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, 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.
Falk was briefed on most recent household surveys of Palestinian refugees carried out by the American University of Beirut, which show 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 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” is just a myth today. This educational hemorrhage among 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 to this observer and others during a visit on May 5, near the Nicolas Khoury Center in Zahle, Lebanon, amidst sea of hundreds of Syrians, some waiting for three months or longer just to get registered, the UN refugee agency is also unable to meet its mandate for the same reason as UNRWA and the World Food Program and others. 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 million 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 $19 million 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 U.N. Secretary General 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.”
If Professor Falk was weary as he left Lebanon from all the data, visits, and wrenching experiences he was presented with, it would be understandable. But the humanitarian and scholar showed no signs of fatigue and rather appeared to be energized by the experience. Given his history as a supporter of resistance to occupation and oppression, Richard Falk’s assurances that he will continue his work armed with the above sampling of data offers new hope for Palestinian and Syrian refugees from Syria and to those who support their Right and Responsibility to Return to Palestine.