The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) defines a Palestinian refugee as ‘any person whose normal place of residence was Palestine during the period 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948 and who lost their home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict’. By the end of 1948, almost 800,000 Palestinian refugees had already settled in the five neighbouring countries surrounding Israel. Lebanon absorbed nearly 100,000 of them, offering land where camps could be built. Today there are 425,640 Palestinian refugees registered in Lebanon; with 260,000 – 280,000 residing there, some 25,000 have been granted Lebanese citizenship and almost 200,000 have left over the years. Sixty two per cent of them reside in twelve refugee camps spread across Lebanon.
Each country of refuge has chosen different legal and political approaches to regulate the presence of Palestinian refugees but they are in each case still treated as second-class citizens – and Lebanon continues to be the worst offender. Palestinians have been barred from working in syndicated jobs such as law, engineering and medicine; they are prohibited from owning real estate or bequeathing property to their children; and they are not allowed access to public services such as education and health care. The international community, NGOs and human rights watchdogs have consistently called upon the Lebanese government to act on the humanitarian situation within the refugee camps and to grant the residents civil rights (including the rights of property ownership, employment, social security and freedom of association). However, the Lebanese government and parts of Lebanese society still oppose the granting of such rights to the Palestinians.