Lebanon hosted more than 378,100 refugees and asylum seekers in need of protection in 1999. These included 370,144 Palestinian refugees registered with the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), about 4,000 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 definition. Another 20,000 are considered to be of Lebanese origin, but identify themselves as Palestinians.

Although Lebanon in 1999 continued to recover from 17 years of endemic violence and civil war that ended in 1991, two long-standing issues – those of Palestinian refugees and conflict with Israel in southern Lebanon – served as flashpoints for increased tensions and violence during the year.

Lebanon made slow progress during 1999 in returning about 350,000 to 400,000 long-term internally displaced people to their homes.

Intra-Palestinian Conflict

After several years of relative calm, tensions increased between rival Palestinian groups in Lebanon during 1999, at times boiling over into violence. Ain El-Hilweh, Lebanon's largest Palestinian refugee camp located on the outskirts of the southern port city of Sidon, stood at the epicenter of the rivalries.

Until mid-1999, Palestinians opposed to Palestinian National Authority president Yassir Arafat and the Oslo peace process – most aligned with Syria – controlled most of Ain El-Hilweh and its 60,000 residents. In late June, however, Lebanon representatives of Arafat's Fatah faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) deployed 500 fighters to the camp and began recruiting and training new fighters in a bid to retake control of Ain El-Hilweh. Fatah guerrillas faced the stiffest opposition from radical Islamic groups in the camp, and local and international media reported regular armed clashes and bombings, although few actual fatalities, during the rest of the year.

Prior to Fatah's takeover of Ain El-Hilweh, a Fatah official and his wife were murdered in a drive-by shooting near the camp, and in December a masked gunman unsuccessfully tried to assassinate another senior Fatah official, wounding several bystanders instead.

Although various press commentators remarked that Fatah must have had the Lebanese government's blessing to move with force into Ain El-Hilweh and cited Lebanon's desire for order in the camp as a possible motive for the government's assumed support, the Lebanese government turned against the pro-Arafat forces in the fall of 1999. Shortly after Fatah staged a rally in Ain El-Hilweh in late October (the first pro-Fatah rally in ten years), a Lebanese military court sentenced Fatah's Lebanon representative, Sultan Abu Alaynen, to death, in absentia, for his alleged role in setting up a new militia in the camp. While Alaynen remained holed up in Rashidieh refugee camp to the south (under Fatah control but surrounded by Lebanese troops), Lebanese authorities arrested and detained three other high-ranking Fatah officials during the last two months of the year.

Regional Politics

Local Palestinian feuding coincided closely with regional events in 1999 – namely the renewed peace process between Israel and the Palestinian Authority based in the Occupied Territories on the one hand, and the resumption of peace negotiations between Israel and Syria on the other.

Observers hypothesized that Yassir Arafat's bid to reassert control over Ain El Hilweh refugee camp was an attempt to regain control over Lebanon's Palestinian refugee population. Such control, they surmised, would better position him to win support – and weather resistance to likely concessions, including possibly forfeiting Palestinian refugees' "right of return" – for an eventual peace deal with Israel. Using similar logic, many observers explained Lebanon's subsequent efforts to reign in Fatah as a move to deny Yassir Arafat support for any peace deal that does not provide for the right of refugees in Lebanon to return to their former homes in present day Israel.

Lebanon and the overwhelming majority of its citizens remained steadfastly opposed to the permanent settlement of Palestinian refugees during 1999 – a position the Lebanese government advanced with increased frequency and forcefulness during the second half of the year as Israel and the Palestinian Authority prepared to resume "final status" negotiations on a permanent settlement to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. After incoming Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak said in July that Israel would not permit any Palestinian refugees to return to Israel proper and that the refugees should settle in their asylum countries, Lebanese prime minister Salim Hoss and president Emile Lahoud wasted few opportunities to reiterate Lebanon's rejection of Palestinian settlement in Lebanon.

Lebanese frequently argue that the naturalization of Palestinians, amounting to as much as 10 percent of Lebanon's total population and 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 civil war.

While the overwhelming majority of Palestinian refugees also do not wish to remain in Lebanon and assert their right to return to present day Israel, many found Lebanese government officials' near-daily public rejections of their presence demoralizing. One nongovernmental organization (NGO) representative told the U.S. Committee for Refugees (USCR) during an October 1999 site visit that such statements also reinforced the popular animus against Palestinians.

A high-profile attack in Sidon, of which Palestinians were the suspected perpetrators, also increased tensions between the Palestinian refugee community and their reluctant Lebanese hosts. On June 8, two unidentified men wielding machine guns and a grenade launcher burst into a Sidon courtroom where they murdered a judge and three other court officials and wounded four others. The gunmen escaped and were allegedly hiding in Ain El-Hilweh refugee camp at year's end. While the attackers' identity had not been established, the government blamed a radical Islamic Palestinian group for the attack.

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 facilitating or accepting 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 one Lebanese government official insisted to USCR that Palestinians are treated the same as other foreigners, Palestinian refugees and observers whom USCR interviewed during site visits to Lebanon in 1998 and 1999 reported widespread discrimination against Palestinians.

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 1999 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 live in substandard housing in over-crowded and unsanitary conditions. On September 28, Lebanese authorities evicted Palestinian families from 17 homes built illegally on the edge of Ain El-Hilweh refugee camp, leaving them to join the ranks of several thousand other displaced Palestinian families.

On the other hand, the Lebanese government eased stiff travel restrictions on Palestinians. On January 12, the incoming government of President Emile Lahoud announced that it would treat Lebanese laissez-passer issued to Palestinians as passports, no longer requiring Palestinians to obtain an exit and re-entry visa for each trip made abroad. The new regulations reportedly still required Palestinians with Lebanese travel documents to apply for travel permits, which are valid for only six months. Unlike before, however, the new travel permits allowed Palestinians unlimited trips while their permits are valid.

The change came almost three and a half years after Lebanon instituted visa requirements on Palestinians in response to Libya's September 1995 expulsion of Palestinians, many of whom carried Lebanese laissez-passer. The visa requirements reportedly stranded thousands of Palestinians with Lebanese travel documents in other countries and deterred many other Palestinians still in Lebanon from seeking employment abroad for fear of being prevented from returning.

However, in March 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 1999.

Declining after 1982, 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 itself 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 improve in 1999. Since 1993, UNRWA has struggled to maintain its services for a growing refugee population with a roughly constant budget. The resulting budget deficits have severely eroded UNRWA's financial position. The agency has been forced to implement austerity measures that continued to severely strain UNRWA's ability to assist Palestinian refugees Lebanon during 1999. Refugee needs for 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, especially 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 costs, which many patients could not afford.

To cut costs and bring hospital care to more Palestinians in need, UNRWA decided in February to contract with the Palestinian Red Crescent Society (PRCS), which runs four hospitals in Lebanon. While PRCS director, Dr. Mohamad Osman, told USCR during its October site visit to Lebanon that he saw this opportunity to work with UNRWA as a positive first step toward a longer-term partnership, he also said that the UNRWA contract did not cover PRCS's costs, which could not continue indefinitely. 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 1999, all of which offered family planning services.

During the year, education needs also outstripped available resources. Almost half of all UNRWA schools (42 percent) were in dilapidated rented buildings, often with rooms too small for the average class of 40 students. Half of all UNRWA schools in Lebanon operated on double shifts. UNRWA was constructing four new schools and planned to build two more at the end of its 1998-99 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. Shortages in books and other education materials were reported during the year.

UNRWA also provided vocational and technical training to some 600 students in 1999 and granted 106 university scholarships.

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 1999. UNRWA registered 10.6 percent of all Palestinian refugees in Lebanon as "special hardship cases" during the year, the highest in all of UNRWA's fields of operation. In some refugee camps, applicants for the program almost doubled during UNRWA's reporting year; UNRWA turned down most applications, saying that they did not meet UNRWA's strict eligibility criteria.

UNRWA provided cash, food, and housing assistance to special hardship cases. Although UNRWA provided funding to rebuild 101 houses belonging to families registered with the special hardship program, it did not have the funding to rebuild 591 other refugee houses identified as substandard. In 1999, Lebanese government building restrictions reportedly hampered UNRWA efforts to rebuild housing in some refugee camps in southern Lebanon.

During the summer of 1999, the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services cleared UNRWA's Lebanon office of corruption and mismanagement charges. Nevertheless, some Lebanese officials and Palestinian refugee providers continued to insist that corruption and mismanagement plagued UNRWA's Lebanon operations.

Non-Palestinian Refugees

UNHCR reported about 4,000 non-Palestinian refugees in Lebanon in 1999. The majority, some 55 percent, were Sudanese. Iraqis were the second largest group, representing about 35 percent of the caseload. The remaining 10 percent mostly came from Somalia, Nigeria, and other African countries.

During USCR's October site visit to Lebanon, UNHCR reported that 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. Arrests and detention of undocumented foreigners, including asylum seekers and refugees, increased during 1999, according to UNHCR. The Surete Generale, responsible for border control, reportedly detained hundreds of foreigners pending deportation, mostly from Egypt and Sri Lanka, in small and poorly ventilated cells during the year.

Deportations also increased in 1999. UNHCR reported that Lebanese authorities routinely deported undocumented foreigners to Syria and Jordan, saying that the asylum seekers among them could have sought protection elsewhere. During the year, Lebanese authorities reportedly deported an undetermined number of Iraqi refugees to Syria, which in turn refouled them to northern Iraq.

In November, a group of about 70 undocumented foreigners (including Iranians, Iraqis, Bangladeshis, and Egyptians) protested at a UNIFIL (UN Interim Force in Lebanon) compound in southern Lebanon, demanding safe passage to Europe. The Israeli navy had found the group on an abandoned ship adrift in the Mediterranean Sea several weeks earlier and had towed them into a Lebanese port in Israel's self proclaimed "security zone" in southern Lebanon. When UNIFIL refused to assist the foreigners and forcibly removed them from the compound, some in the group reportedly resorted to violence. Others threatened suicide. Although the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) reportedly was negotiating with the group, their fate was unclear at year's end.

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, the number of asylum seekers filing applications with UNHCR increased to about 400 a month during the year, up from a monthly average of 75 applications received in 1998. Some 3,900 asylum seekers awaited a UNHCR decision on their cases at the end of October. UNHCR reported an approval rate of 35 percent in its refugee status adjudications.

Because Lebanon, at best, only permits UNHCR-registered asylum seekers and refugees to remain temporarily in the country, UNHCR pursues third-country resettlement for the refugees it registers. Although it lagged behind resettlement from other Middle Eastern countries in previous years, resettlement out of Lebanon picked up markedly in 1999.

Lebanon does not allow UNHCR-registered refugees the right to work, but many manage to work illegally. Some receive social assistance through the Middle East Council of Churches.

Conflict and Displacement in 1999

Violence in Israel's self-proclaimed "security zone" in southern Lebanon escalated in 1999, at times affecting locations as far away as Beirut. Since Israel has occupied the zone, the Israeli army and its surrogate, the South Lebanese Army (SLA), on the one hand, and Hizballah guerrillas along with a smaller number of Amal and Palestinian fighters on the other, have been locked in a vicious cycle of attack and counterattack. Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak announced in 1999 his intention to pull Israeli troops out of Lebanon by July 2000, regardless of whether Israel reaches peace agreements with Syria and Lebanon in the interim.

In retaliation for a Hizballah rocket attack on northern Israel, Israeli jets bombed power stations and bridges near Beirut in mid-June, the most serious attack since 1996 when Israel launched a large-scale offensive that resulted in more than 200 Lebanese deaths and the temporary displacement of hundreds of thousands. The June 1999 Israeli attack reportedly left 8 dead, 62 wounded, and key bridges and power plants demolished.

In southern Lebanon, the warring parties fought almost daily, resulting in the deaths of about 50 Islamic resistance fighters, 13 Israeli soldiers, 27 Lebanese civilians, and 2 Israeli civilians in 1999. Conflict reportedly resulted in more than 200 civilians injuries during the year.

Since 1985, hundreds of Lebanese civilians are believed to have been expelled from the Israeli-occupied zone, many reportedly destitute, living in overcrowded apartments in Beirut and other Lebanese cities.

Expulsions of Lebanese civilians living in the Israeli occupied zone, one of an arsenal of SLA and Israeli war tactics, rose substantially in 1998 and 1999. Most expulsions involved individuals whom the SLA and Israel regarded as opponents of the occupation, including suspected members of Hizballah and other resistance groups, relatives of suspects, and SLA draft evaders or deserters. ICRC recorded the expulsions of at least 46 Lebanese from the Israeli-occupied zone in 1998. A figure on 1999 expulsions was not available.

Arbitrary arrests, detention, and torture of civilians in the occupied zone were also reported during the year.

Long-term Internal Displacement

Lebanon's civil war violently fragmented a pluralistic society into fairly distinct sectarian areas. At the height of the civil war, up to a million people were internally displaced, and many people were often displaced briefly during the war.

When the civil war ended in 1991, some 90,000 families, or about 450,000 persons, were displaced. In 1996, the Lebanese government's Ministry of Displaced, charged with overseeing the return of displaced persons, reported that about 70,000 of the displaced families were actively seeking return. Of these, the ministry reported that the majority, 62 percent, of the displaced originated from Mount Lebanon governorate; a smaller majority of the displaced, 52.7 percent, remained in the Mount Lebanon area after hostilities ended in 1991. Another 23.8 percent were displaced from southern Lebanon, of which only 15.8 percent remained there in 1991. Although only 7.7 percent of the displaced originated from Beirut, some 20.2 percent were living there in 1991, indicating migration into Beirut from other parts of the country, mostly from the south.

In other regions, displacement did not seem to take as great a toll. Only 4.2 percent of the displaced were from northern Lebanon, where, in 1991, 3.8 percent were living. The Beka'a Valley accounted for 2.3 percent of the displaced, and in 1991 represented 5.8 percent of the total.

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 appeared to remain slow in 1999. 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 1999. Although the Lebanese government reportedly spent some $800 million during those eight years on programs for the internally displaced, some critics charged that corruption plagued government programs promoting the return of the displaced, resulting in little money or other assistance actually reaching those who lost their homes.

In May 1999, Anwar Khalil, Lebanon's incoming Minister for the Displaced, reported that the government would spend $750 million during a thirty-month period in programs intended to enable the remaining internally displaced to return to their former homes.

In the past, the United Nations 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 past 20 years of social and economic changes in Lebanon. 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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