Palestine’s Forgotten Refugees in Lebanon

Our last blog “Could you dumb that down for me please?” asked us all to consider going beneath the surface of difficult issues in order to more fully understand them so that we are more able to develop informed opinions and respond appropriately. This blog, written by Stephen McCloskey, invites us to do exactly that. There may be some readers who have a different perspective from the author and hopefully this encourages helpful debate.

Irish Methodist World Development & Relief has partners in both Palestine and Lebanon and so hopes for a better future for all people in these lands. The situation for Palestinians is heartbreaking. May peaceful solutions be found; quickly.


Stephen McCloskey is Director of the Centre for Global Education, a development non-governmental organisation based in Belfast. He is editor of Policy and Practice: A Development Education Review, an online, open access, peer reviewed journal. He is co-editor of From the Local to the Global: Key Issues in Development Studies (Pluto Press, 2015). He manages education projects for young people in the Gaza Strip and writes regularly on a range of development issues for books, journals and online publications.

How massive cuts by the US administration to the budget of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency will exacerbate an already marginal existence for Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.

 The Nakba

Seventy years ago 750,000 Palestinians were forcibly removed from their homeland in what they describe as the Nakba (Catastrophe) and, today, they and their descendants are part of a diaspora of 5.3 million refugees most of whom live in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the Gaza Strip, West Bank and East Jerusalem.  According to the United Nations, there are 504,000 registered Palestinian refugees living in 12 camps in Lebanon but only between 260,000 and 280,000 remain in-country. These refugees are mostly forgotten and ignored by the world’s media, living a marginal existence in a country already hosting nearly one million refugees, most of whom have fled the war in neighbouring Syria.   

One of these refugees is Yehya Fawzi Abu Hishmeh from Sabra who is 83 and was twelve years old when his family was forced to flee their home and business by a Jewish militia.  He showed me title deeds and plans to his family home in Haifa and a quarry that provided them with a comfortable life.  He made an arduous, traumatic journey North to Lebanon with his family carrying whatever possessions they could manage, believing that one day they would return to Haifa.  Now elderly and infirm, unable to leave the apartment he shares with his daughter, his eyes well up as he recounts the fateful night 70 years ago when he was forced to flee.

83 year-old Yehya Fawzi Abu Hishmeh points to the plans of the home he was forced to flee as a 12-year old boy in 1948.

83 year-old Yehya Fawzi Abu Hishmeh points to the plans of the home he was forced to flee as a 12-year old boy in 1948.

 Foreigner status

The Palestinian community in Lebanon has been stuck in a hellish limbo since 1948 with the disconnected refugee camps now made of a more permanent cement rather than tents but the poverty is no less severe.  Palestinian refugees have never been naturalised in Lebanon and are subjected to sub-citizenship levels of social and economic marginalisation.  According to UNHCR(United Nations High Commission for Refugees), Palestinians are denied access to 36 professions including medicine, farming, fishery and public transportation which forces them into ‘menial, low-paying jobs in the informal sector’.  They are also prohibited from owning and transferring property which denies them a foothold in Lebanese society and the opportunity to improve the lives of future generations.  

A wall mural in Burj Barajneh refugee camp, Beirut. (Stephen McCloskey, all rights reserved).

A wall mural in Burj Barajneh refugee camp, Beirut. (Stephen McCloskey, all rights reserved).

UNHCR found that Palestinians receive lower salaries than Lebanese nationals in the same occupations suggesting discrimination in the workplace and exploitation by employers of the high unemployment rate among refugees. With Palestinians subjected to a perpetual ‘foreigner’ status in Lebanon despite their lengthy residency, a 2010 survey of Palestinian refugees found that just 37 percent of the working-age population was employed and just 6 percent of the labour force in university training.  The same survey reported that two-thirds of the Palestinian refugee population was poor (living on less than $6 a day), one-third had a chronic illness and four percent had a ‘functional disability’.    

High levels of unemployment in a socially deprived environment has resulted in severe mental health problems with the same survey finding that 21 percent of respondents had experienced ‘depression, anxiety or distress’.  

Cuts to UNRWA (UN Relief and Works Agency)

Two issues have compounded and exacerbated the poverty endured by Palestinians in Lebanon.  

Burj Barajneh Refugee Camp (Stephen McCloskey, all rights reserved).

Burj Barajneh Refugee Camp (Stephen McCloskey, all rights reserved).

The first is an estimated 40,000 Palestinian refugees from the war in Syria, most of whom have taken refuge in the camps operated by the UN in Lebanon.  This has placed greater pressure on camp services, schools, clinics and housing, as well as creating tension within the camps between Palestinian refugees from Syria and Lebanon.  The second key issue is the withdrawal of funding by the Trump administration in the United States from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the UN agency established in 1948 to provide for the welfare of Palestinian refugees.  The US normally provides one-third of UNRWA’s total annual budget of $1.2 billionand this funding cut has already forced UNRWA to axe 250 jobsin the West Bank and Gaza and, represents an ‘existential threat’ to the future of the agency which is operating with a deficit of $256 million.  UNRWA is a permanent reminder to the world of the 70-year Palestinian right to return to their homeland.  By targeting UNRWA, the US appears to be simultaneously aiming to remove the Palestinian right to return and revoke their refugee status.  At a time of deepening poverty in the Palestinian camps in Lebanon, the threat to their status and welfare has never been greater. Many Palestinians pass from one generation to the next the original key to the homes they were forced to abandon in 1948.  The key is at once a symbol of their dispossession and right to return.  The malicious use of aid cuts by the US is unlikely to persuade the Palestinians, who have endured 70 years of endemic poverty, to abandon what they consider as their birth right to return home.

BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions)

As it was Israel that dispossessed Palestinians of their land, homes and livelihoods in 1948 and prevents the creation of a contiguous Palestinian state today, a call was launched in 2005 for international support of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement.  Created by Palestinian civil society and modelled on the anti-Apartheid Movement in South Africa, BDS is a non-violent, vibrant and truly global movement for freedom, justice and equality in Palestine.  BDS urges action to pressure Israel to respect international law and is supported by trade unions, churches, academics and grassroots movements across the world.  Many believe that supporting BDS will hasten an end to the marginalised life of the Palestinian refugee and build support for an internationally recognised Palestinian state.  In recognising parallels between apartheid South Africa and the unjust treatment of Palestinians by Israel, Archbishop Desmond Tutu has joined the call for support of BDS suggesting that:

“Those who continue to do business with Israel, who contribute to a sense of normalcy in Israeli society, are doing the people of Israel and Palestine a disservice. They are contributing to the perpetuation of a profoundly unjust status quo”.

BDS is one way in which people can seek change for the sake of these Palestinian refugees and those still living in Palestine.