Last Updated: Friday, 15 December 2017, 16:28 GMT

U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2001 - Lebanon

Publisher United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
Publication Date 20 June 2001
Cite as United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2001 - Lebanon , 20 June 2001, available at: [accessed 18 December 2017]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Lebanon hosted more than 383,200 refugees and asylum seekers in need of protection in 2000. These included 376,472 Palestinian refugees registered with the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), 2,750 other refugees recognized by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and about 4,000 asylum seekers awaiting a UNHCR decision on their refugee claims.

In addition to UNRWA-registered refugees, another 42,000 unregistered Palestinians live in Lebanon. Because about 22,000 of these trace their exile to the 1967 war, they fall outside the UNRWA refugee definition. Another 20,000 are considered to be of Lebanese origin, but identify themselves as Palestinians.

Conditions for Palestinians in Lebanon remained poor in 2000, as did their relations with their reluctant Lebanese hosts. Infighting between Palestinians aligned with Yassir Arafat's Fatah movement and other Palestinian factions, particularly in Sidon's Ain El-Hilweh refugee camp, also resulted in sporadic violence during the year.

Lebanon made slow progress during 2000 in returning an estimated 300,000 to 350,000 long-term internally displaced people to their homes. Although significant numbers of internally displaced Lebanese originated from parts of southern Lebanon from which Israeli forces withdrew in May 2000, few had returned to reclaim their homes in the formerly occupied zone by year's end.

Some 6,000 South Lebanese Army (SLA) militia men and their families sought asylum in Israel following the Israeli army's withdrawal from southern Lebanon in May. Of these, 1,580 returned to Lebanon in the latter part of the year, several hundred resettled in other countries, and 4,400 remained in Israel at the end of 2000.

Politics of the Palestinian Refugee Issue

The overwhelming majority of Lebanese citizens remained steadfastly opposed in 2000 to the permanent integration of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon – a position the Lebanese government advanced regularly throughout the year as Israel and the Palestinian Authority conducted "final status" negotiations on a permanent settlement to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Lebanese frequently argue that to naturalize Palestinians, who amount to as much as 10 percent of Lebanon's total population and are mostly Sunni Muslim, would disrupt Lebanon's delicate political balance, which is based on power sharing along sectarian lines. Others blame Palestinians for their role in the protracted civil war of the 1970s and 1980s.

Palestinian Rights and Legal Status

Lebanon's constitution explicitly forbids the permanent integration of Palestinians in the country. The rejection of permanent settlement has led Lebanon's government to oppose all policies and actions that could be construed as accepting or facilitating Palestinian integration.

Since the early 1990s, Lebanon has imposed a host of draconian restrictions on resident Palestinians to prevent their integration and to signal to the international community that it considers Palestinian refugees to be an international, not a Lebanese, problem. While Lebanese government officials have insisted to the U.S. Committee for Refugees (USCR) that Palestinians are treated the same as other foreigners, Palestinian refugees and various observers whom USCR interviewed during site visits to Lebanon in 1998 and 1999 reported widespread discrimination against Palestinians. There were no indications that this had changed in 2000.

Unlike Palestinian refugees in Syria and Jordan, Palestinians in Lebanon are denied the right to work in skilled professions and generally are unable to compete with cheaper Syrian labor for unskilled work. The overall unemployment rate for Palestinians stood at 40 percent in 2000 and at 60 percent for camp residents.

Palestinians are also denied access to Lebanese health care and other social services. Most Palestinians are unable to attend Lebanese schools and universities. The Lebanese government also restricts building in and around Palestinian refugee camps, relegating many refugees to substandard housing in over-crowded and unsanitary conditions.

On the other hand, the Lebanese government eased stiff travel restrictions on Palestinians in January 1999, treating Lebanese laissez-passer issued to Palestinians as passports and no longer requiring Palestinians to obtain an exit and re-entry visa for each trip made abroad. However, in March 1999, the Lebanese government stopped issuing visitor's visas to Palestinians born in Lebanon but with Jordanian citizenship.

Assistance to Palestinians

While Lebanese restrictions leave them almost fully dependent on outside aid, Palestinian refugees in Lebanon also continued to feel the effects of cuts in international and Palestinian assistance in 2000.

PLO financial assistance for Palestinians in Lebanon plummeted in the 1990s. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the other Persian Gulf States, which had generously funded the PLO, cut their financial support when Yassir Arafat and the PLO sided with Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War.

Since 1993, the PLO and the Palestinian National Authority have concentrated their efforts and financial resources on improving conditions in the areas under their control in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, resulting in less assistance to Palestinians in Lebanon and elsewhere in the diaspora. Fractured relations within the larger Palestinian community caused by the Oslo Agreement may also explain PLO reductions in assistance to Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.

A near-complete cut-off in PLO employment has compounded the effects of PLO assistance cuts. The PLO had employed as much as 50 percent of the Palestinian workforce before Israel forced it to evacuate from Beirut in 1982.

Nor did UNRWA's funding situation improve in 2000. The agency has been forced to implement austerity measures that continued to severely strain UNRWA's ability to assist Palestinian refugees in Lebanon during 2000. Refugee needs in the areas of education, health care, infrastructure development, housing rehabilitation, and emergency relief outstripped available resources during the year.

Refugee health care suffered from UNRWA's weakened state, particularly hospital care. While extra contributions to UNRWA enabled the agency to maintain basic health-care services, UNRWA required patients in need of life-saving treatment to pay for a substantial portion of such treatment, which many patients could not afford.

In order to cut costs and bring the benefits of hospital care to a greater number of Palestinians in need, UNRWA contracted with the Palestinian Red Crescent Society (PRCS), which runs four hospitals in Lebanon. UNRWA also maintained contracts with 14 private Lebanese hospitals to provide secondary care.

UNRWA provided primary health-care services through a network of 25 clinics in 2000, all of which offered family planning services.

During the year, needs also outstripped available resources in the area of education. Four out of ten UNRWA schools were located in dilapidated rented buildings, often with rooms too small to accommodate the average class of 40 students. About 40 percent of all UNRWA schools in Lebanon operated on double shifts. Nevertheless, UNRWA constructed four new school buildings in central and southern Lebanon that enabled the agency to avoid triple shifting. Construction on two more schools was underway at the end of its 1999-2000 reporting year.

UNRWA operates three secondary schools in Beirut and the south because Palestinian students are not eligible to enroll in Lebanese government secondary schools and generally cannot afford Lebanese private schools. UNRWA does not operate a secondary school in northern Lebanon.

UNRWA also provided vocational and technical training to some 600 students in 2000 and granted 84 university scholarships, down from 106 the previous year.

The high number of refugees enrolled in UNRWA's special hardship program in Lebanon also served as a barometer for the poor socio-economic conditions in which Palestinian refugees lived in 2000. UNRWA registered 10.7 percent of all Palestinian refugees in Lebanon as "special hardship cases" during the year, the highest in all of UNRWA's fields of operation. During 2000, UNRWA reported an increase in the number of special hardship cases as greater numbers of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon were unable to meet their most basic needs for food and shelter.

UNRWA provided cash, food, and housing assistance to special hardship cases. Although UNRWA assisted in rebuilding 19 houses belonging to families registered with the special hardship program, it did not have the funding to rebuild 1,502 other refugee houses identified as substandard. Lebanese government building restrictions reportedly hampered UNRWA efforts to rebuild refugee housing in some refugee camps in southern Lebanon.

Non-Palestinian Refugees

UNHCR reported 2,750 non-Palestinian refugees in Lebanon in 2000, mostly from Iraq and Sudan, the remainder coming from Somalia, Algeria, and various other African countries.

The situation of non-Palestinian asylum seekers and refugees has grown more tenuous since Lebanese president Emile Lahoud took office in the fall of 1998. Already on the rise in 1999, the arrest, detention, and deportation of undocumented foreigners, including asylum seekers and refugees, increased again during 2000. In August, the government decreed that all undocumented foreigners in the country had to regularize their status. Instead of granting legal status, however, the Lebanese authorities arrested and detained those who came forward, as well as others caught in street checks. The authorities reportedly did not differentiate between irregular migrants and asylum seekers who might have protection concerns.

The Surete Generale, responsible for border control, reportedly detained hundreds of foreigners pending deportation – including Iraqis, Sudanese, Egyptians, and Sri Lankans – in small and poorly ventilated cells during the year. There were credible allegations that Lebanese authorities mistreated, and in some cases tortured, detainees.

In an October 31 letter to the Lebanese government, USCR raised the issue of four Sudanese asylum seekers whom authorities had arrested for illegal entry despite their having applied for refugee status with UNHCR. Two of the four reportedly were tortured while in detention.

USCR called upon the Lebanese government to investigate allegations of torture and to take steps to prevent it. USCR also pointed out that Lebanon's detention of the four Sudanese violated Article 31 of the UN Refugee Convention (which holds that states should not penalize asylum seekers for illegal entry provided they show good cause for illegal entry), which Lebanon, although not a signatory to the Convention, was bound to honor by customary international law.

Deportations were also on the rise in 2000. Human rights and refugee organizations reported that Lebanese authorities routinely deported undocumented foreigners to Syria and Jordan during the year, saying that the asylum seekers among them could have sought protection elsewhere. During the year, Lebanese authorities reportedly refouled as many as 300 asylum seekers and refugees, including Sudanese and Iraqi nationals.

In its October 31 letter to the Lebanese government, USCR also addressed the refoulement issue. "It is precisely because refugees, by definition, face serious risks in their home countries that we respectfully urge your government to allow all asylum seekers in Lebanon unfettered access to UNHCR to pursue their claims to refugee status and to treat them fairly and humanely while they await their decisions," USCR said.

Because Lebanon is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention, UNHCR conducts refugee status determinations. As a result of the Lebanese crackdown on undocumented foreigners in 1999 and 2000, the number of asylum seekers filing applications with UNHCR has reportedly increased. Some 4,000 asylum seekers awaited UNHCR decisions on their cases at the end of 2000.

Because of Lebanon's restrictive approach toward non-Palestinian asylum seekers and refugees, UNHCR stepped up its resettlement activities in 2000, resettling 1,550 refugees in third countries during the year. Increased resettlement from Lebanon, however, appeared to have no moderating influence on the government's approach to undocumented asylum seekers in the country.

Israeli Withdrawal From Southern Lebanon

In May, Israel withdrew from its self-proclaimed "security zone" in southern Lebanon, ending its 22-year occupation. As Israel pulled its forces back into northern Israel, its surrogate, the South Lebanese Army (SLA), disintegrated, and about 6,000 of its members and their families fled to Israel, fearing retribution from Hizballah guerrillas and Lebanese forces for collaborating with Israel. Several hundred SLA members moved on to third countries during the year.

About 1,580 SLA militia men and accompanying family members returned to Lebanon during the rest of the year. Lebanese authorities arrested and tried most upon their return for treason. By year's end, Lebanese courts had handed down sentences to 2,035 SLA members (both those who remained in Lebanon and those who returned from Israel) ranging from one week to life imprisonment. Many trials failed to meet an acceptable standard for due process, according to Amnesty International, neither allowing those on trial to establish their innocence nor the prosecutors to demonstrate the guilt of individuals who they claimed had committed war crimes.

Although tens of thousands of Lebanese displaced from their homes in the Israeli occupied zone during the past quarter century poured into southern Lebanon to visit their former villages and homes in the wake of Israel's troop withdrawal, reports indicated that few returned permanently during the remainder of the year. The economic and physical devastation of the formerly occupied south, coupled with the fact that many displaced from the south had long since started lives elsewhere in the country (many in Beirut), appeared to explain the low level of return.

Prior to Israel's withdrawal from southern Lebanon, the warring parties fought regularly, resulting in the deaths of about 20 Islamic resistance fighters, 8 Israeli soldiers, and 25 Lebanese civilians between January and the third week of May. Expulsions of Lebanese civilians living in the Israeli occupied zone also continued into May, as did arbitrary arrests, detention, and torture of civilians.

Long-term Internal Displacement

Lebanon's civil war caused the violent fragmentation of a pluralistic society into fairly distinct sectarian areas. At the height of the civil war, up to a million people were internally displaced for long periods, and many people were often displaced briefly during the course of the war.

When the civil war ended in 1991, some 90,000 families, or about 450,000 persons, were displaced. In 2000, about 70,000 families still remained homeless, according to the Lebanese Ministry for the Displaced. Some 86 percent of the displaced originated from the Mount Lebanon Governorate (62 percent) and southern Lebanon (24 percent). Significant numbers of internally displaced people, particularly from the south, settled in Beruit.

Many of the displaced are among the poorest in Lebanese society. The poorest of the homeless, called Muhajjaran, mass along the banks of the Awwali and Zahrani rivers in makeshift shelters in unsanitary conditions. In most cases, however, internally displaced Lebanese have found shelter with friends and family, but often live in overcrowded conditions.

The pace of return remained slow in 2000. Although reliable figures remained scarce, some observers estimated that about 20 percent (90,000 people) of the 450,000 still displaced in 1991 had returned to their former homes between 1991 and 2000. Although the Lebanese government reportedly spent more than $800 million during those nine years on programs for the internally displaced, some critics charged that government programs to promote the return of the displaced were plagued by corruption, resulting in little money or other assistance actually going to those who lost their homes.

Others charged that the government wasted large sums of money through poor development planning, for example, by failing to repair critical infrastructure and provide services in areas where it promoted return and by not financing return projects in areas where infrastructure and services were available. A disproportionate amount of money also went to paying a relatively small number of squatters to leave the properties they illegally occupied.

In the past, the UN Development Program (UNDP) has questioned the central assumption underlying the Lebanese government's approach to long-term internal displacement: that the solution to the problem lies in reversing the process and returning the displaced to their former homes. In a 1997 report, UNDP said that the goal of returning the displaced disregards the many social and economic changes that Lebanon has undergone during the past 20 years. UNDP argued that these changes, many the result of rural-to-urban migration, would have taken place even in the absence of war.

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