MIDEAST: They Do Not Exist, And That Is Official
By Mona Alami - Inter Press Service, 24-12-2007
BEIRUT, Dec 24 (IPS) - In the maze of dirty streets that spreads from Beirut's revamped Sport City to the shabby Halabi quarters, 20,000 refugees are clustered in what is known as the Bourj al-Barajneh Palestinian camp. In a town plagued by poverty, many families live in complete destitution.
These forgotten people have fallen through the cracks of legality and belong nowhere: they are known as non-ID Palestinians.
With the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, many Palestinians fled their homeland to Lebanon. Today, there are approximately 400,000 refugees living in the 'Land of the Cedars', some with no documentation, and not registered with either the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) or the Lebanese authorities.
"I fell in love with a Palestinian combatant who came to Lebanon in the 1970s to fight with the PLO during the Lebanese civil war," says a woman who gave her name as Manal, not her real name. That marriage eventually brought her to this camp. "I was foolish and very much in love. My father was opposed to our marriage. The fighter had been smuggled into the country, and hence had no proper documentation. It was the first time I heard of non-IDs."
UNRWA considers as Palestinian refugees "any person whose normal place of residence was Palestine during the period of June 1946 to 15 May 1948 and who lost their home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict. UNRWA's services are available to all those living in its area of operations who meet this definition, who are registered with the Agency and who need assistance. UNRWA's definition of a refugee also covers the descendants of persons who became refugees in 1948."
The agency's categorisation of Palestinian refugees does not include those classified as non-ID holders, leaving them unable to benefit from refugee services, including healthcare.
Non-ID Palestinian refugees also face restrictions on movement outside the camps -- and that is not all. "Aside from the daily difficulties they are confronted with as refugees, second and third generation undocumented Palestinians are beleaguered by other problems such as failing to graduate from school because of lack of proper documentation or the inability to get married and even to partake in ordinary activities," says Mireille Chiha from the Danish Refugee Council (DRC).
Nawal lives in one of the many tiny concrete houses in Bourj al-Barajneh. Her handicapped father sits in bed all day. The apartment is damp and gloomy and its scarce windows look out on an alley flooded by a sewage pipe.
"I was married to a Jordanian Palestinian refugee who took part in the 1975 Lebanese civil war. We had two daughters, who both inherited his illegal status. My husband was supposed to regularise his situation, but one day he disappeared and I never saw him again. Today, my daughters are aged 20 and 18; I've been to the Jordanian embassy several times to try to obtain official documentation for them, but it seems their father is the only person allowed to make such a claim."
Nawal worries about her children's future. "How can they marry? They are not recognised by any government agency. It is true that the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) may provide non-IDs with official documentation, which is useful in specific cases such as marriage, but I would much prefer my daughters not to take such a risk, as the organisation is sometimes viewed negatively by many Lebanese."
Sobhi Hassan, a young man in his twenties working as a salesman in one of the camp's shabby stores, has inherited his illegal status as undocumented refugee from his father, who came to Lebanon in the seventies. "When he died, it was like he had never been; he never existed anyway in the eyes of official agencies. I had to drop out of school when I was 15 -- as did my brothers and sisters -- because I was not allowed to attend government exams without the proper identification papers."
The young man was arrested several times at army checkpoints, but says he managed to free himself from the soldiers every time. "I have come to terms with the fact that I can only live and work in the camp; if not, I might be arrested and detained for several months like many others."
Although undocumented refugees share a socio-economic pattern with other Palestinians in Lebanon, they are more isolated than ordinary refugees.
Most non-ID refugees hold some proof of identity that could facilitate legalisation of their situation, because their Palestinian identity can be traced back to an authority once responsible for their documentation such as Jordan or Egypt. But since laws addressing Palestinian refugees have changed, non-IDs have been unable to claim an identity card from these countries of origin.
The current Lebanese government headed by Prime Minister Fouad Siniora has set up a Lebanese-Palestinian dialogue committee to address the issue of non-ID refugees. But it has a long way to go.
Many of the refugees expect little now. "I have decided to never marry," says Hassan. "Why should I expose my kids to this life of hardship and despair?"