Lebanon Exempts Palestinian Refugees From Foreign Worker Clampdown Following Protests

Young people protested strict regulations on non-Lebanese owned businesses ■ Palestinian officials urged Beirut to reconsider scheme

Jack Khoury
Jack Khoury
Masked protesters gesturing as they block the main road outside the Palestinian refugee camp of Burj al-Barajneh, south of Beirut, on July 16, 2019.
Masked protesters gesturing as they block the main road outside the Palestinian refugee camp of Burj al-Barajneh, south of Beirut, on July 16, 2019.Credit: AFP
Jack Khoury
Jack Khoury

Palestinian refugees will be exempted from new regulations in Lebanon clamping down on foreign workers and businesses, after hundreds of Palestinians demonstrated in camps against what they termed a deliberate assault.

Lebanese Labor Minister Camille Abousleiman, a member of the Phalangist party, reversed his decision on Thursday and ordered working permits to Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, who are already barred from full integration into the Lebanese workforce.

The protests began when Abousleiman launched a program requiring every business under non-Lebanese ownership to obtain a permit from the Labor Ministry. The permit dictates working conditions for all employees, and requires that 75 percent of employees of large businesses be Lebanese. Any business that doesn’t receive a permit will have to close.

>> Read more: Trump's peace plan would give Palestinian refugees many, many countries | Analysis

Activists in the Palestinian refugee camps told Haaretz that the ministry began enforcing this program a few weeks ago. Ministry supervisors, accompanied by police, have inspected commercial and industrial zones and closed down many businesses owned by foreigners, including business owned by Syrian and Palestinian refugees. This move has forced dozens of Palestinians out of work, leaving them with no way of supporting their families.

Around 175,000 Palestinian refugees live in Lebanon, most of them in 12 refugee camps, according to data published by Lebanon’s Central Administration of Statistics in 2017.

Lebanese law bars Palestinian refugees from working in more than 60 types of civil service jobs. They are also subject to many other employment restrictions, all of which greatly limits their ability to support themselves. Consequently, most families rely on aid from UNRWA, the UN’s aid agency for Palestinian refugees, as well as on aid from other charities and the PLO’s refugee administration.

Tens of thousands also work in temporary jobs in construction, home improvement, agriculture or cleaning. Others work as taxi drivers. And some have started small businesses, but very few, since starting a business usually requires political connections.

Palestinian refugees in Lebanon were considered until a few years ago the worst off of all Palestinian refugees, including those in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. But since the Syrian civil war started in 2011, Palestinian refugees there have been in even worse shape. Lebanese officials say that even before the Syrian civil war erupted, hundreds of thousands of Syrians had migrated to Lebanon to seek work, thereby making it harder for Lebanese citizens to find jobs. But the situation worsened significantly after the war began, as more than a million Syrian refugees moved to Lebanon.

The Lebanese Labor Ministry said in an official statement issued this week that it hasn’t promulgated any new laws or regulations. Rather, the ministry stated, it has merely stepped up enforcement of existing laws and regulations. It added that such enforcement is necessary to regulate working conditions and the employment of foreigners.

Abousleiman the labor minister said in interviews with Lebanese and other Arab media outlets this week that the enforcement measures don’t specifically target Palestinian refugees. He added that he’s aware of the sensitivity of the Palestinian issue and the fact that Palestinian refugees have special status, but stressed that regulation of this issue is essential. He also said he and other senior ministry officials would be willing to hold talks with Palestinian representatives on this issue.

The Palestinian Authority has urged senior Lebanese officials, including Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, to exempt Palestinian refugees from the new enforcement program. It argued that an exemption is justified because the Lebanese government approved regulations governing the status and working conditions of Palestinian refugees back in 2010, and those regulations granted them a special status, different from that of other non-Lebanese workers.

Despite the Labor Ministry’s efforts to explain its position and launch a dialogue, tempers in the Palestinian refugee camps haven’t cooled. Many activists are calling for continued protests, including the declaration of a general strike in the refugee camps. The debate has also naturally migrated to social media, sparking fierce verbal clashes between Palestinians and Lebanese.

Palestinians both in Lebanon and elsewhere have pointed out that Lebanon’s Palestinian workers have for decades been considered a pillar of the Lebanese economy. There are also quite a few Palestinian investors active in Lebanon. Thus, any harm to the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon will harm Lebanon as a whole, they argue.

The Lebanese government has rejected claims that it is working in concert with Washington to pressure the Palestinians in Lebanon, and thereby the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank, as a way of preparing the ground for the Trump administration’s Israeli-Palestinian peace plan.

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