Palestinian refugees lacking IDs live in double bind

Palestinian refugees lacking IDs live in double bind
Danish NGO leads effort to forge solution that would grant legal existence

By Nafez Zouk
Special to The Daily Star

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

BEIRUT: Imagine being asked to produce a document to identify yourself and not possessing one to do so. Or worse, imagine having an ID that, once produced, is rejected on the grounds that it is not valid. You can prove who you are, but it doesn’t matter. You don’t exist.

Unfortunately, this is the fate of around 3,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon who, according to Amnesty International, do not possess valid identification documents and hence “face more severe restrictions on their human rights than registered refugees.”

The UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) estimates that 400,000 Palestinian refugees reside in Lebanon. Records for the 3,000 undocumented refugees, or non-ID Palestinians, do not exist with the Lebanese government or UNRWA.

The problem is not that these Palestinians hold no identification documents. In fact, 92 percent of non-ID refugees do have some form of identification. The problem is that these documents are deemed invalid both by the Lebanese authorities and UNRWA. These Palestinians simply do not exist.

The plight of non-ID Palestinians was first brought to light by the Danish Refugee Council (DRC), a humanitarian organization mandated to ensure the protection of refugees, and whose mission in Lebanon involves a combination of human rights awareness, legal campaigning, and humanitarian assistance to ease the burden of these refugees.

The DRC cites several reasons as to why some refugees in Lebanon are undocumented.

When the Arab-Israeli conflict broke out, Palestinians who were working or studying in Lebanon were not permitted by the Israeli authorities and ensuing border changes to return to their homeland.

Other undocumented Palestinian refugees are former PLO fighters who lost any legal status when the PLO was forced out of Beirut in 1982.

Finally, when some Palestinian refugees, due to recurrent Arab-Israeli conflicts, were exiled for a second time from their initial country of asylum, their original registration files with UNRWA did not follow them to Lebanon, and they lost their “official” form of identification. They are thus not registered as refugees in Lebanon.

Not only do non-ID Palestinians share the same abysmal conditions facing the remainder of refugees, but the fact that they have no proper identification breeds additional burdens that they must nevertheless face.

A report by Cynthia Petrigh of DRC states that these refugees are also “unable to move outside the camps for fear of being arrested. They cannot travel, own property, register marriages, graduate from high school, or enroll in either private or public higher education. They find it difficult to access UNRWA services and cannot afford to pay for healthcare.”

But perhaps more severe is the fact that second and third generations of non-ID Palestinians with no legal existence have started to form. Lebanese law does not recognize children born to non-ID refugees, even if the mother is a registered refugee, since a woman cannot pass her status to her children. “A whole generation of undocumented persons is now coming of age with no prospect of participation in social and economic life,” according to a report by Cynthia Petrigh of the DRC.

Amnesty International included the following case in a report on Palestinian refugees:

“Rola is a 42-year old Palestinian refugee. Her family came to Lebanon in 1948 and is registered with UNRWA. Her husband (whom she divorced) had a Jordanian passport; however, he lost his passport and the Jordanian authorities allegedly refused to renew it. Rola does not have a civil certificate for her marriage, only a religious one. Despite being registered with UNRWA, her children lack such registration; they are non-IDs. They all went to non-UNRWA paying schools. They were not be able to continue their education after the 9th grade as they could not sit for the state exams,” which require official identification.

The lack of protection that keeps these refugees living with the constant fear of arrest is the result of a vicious bureaucratic circle involving regional governments and UN agencies.

UNRWA considers that non-ID Palestinians are outside its domain of operation. Under its definition, a Palestine refugee is a person whose normal place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948, as a result Palestinians who fled after 1948, due to subsequent conflicts, do not fall under UNRWA’s mandate.

Furthermore, although the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is mandated to protect refugees and assist asylum seekers, it cannot support Palestinians in Lebanon because of an article in its mandate that prevents it from extending aid to people “who continue to receive from other organs or agencies of the UN protection or assistance”-in this case, the UNRWA.

Finally, Lebanon lacks a mechanism to process asylum-seeking requests, which means that non-ID refugees cannot turn to the state for assistance.

The DRC, funded by the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid Department, and currently working with 225 such families, is at the forefront of efforts being exerted to help the undocumented refugees.

Mireille Chiha, legal counselor and project manager at DRC, told The Daily Star that the organization’s efforts, geared toward finding solutions are focused on providing legal and advocacy aid.

“Our legal counseling efforts stemmed from many field visits throughout the camps to identify and trace the family history of undocumented refugees,” said Chiha, adding that the process has led to the building of a large database on these refugees. DRC advises affected families on their options, and identifies the most appropriate method to help them.

“We are also in contact with the relevant agencies and authorities in the region, such as UNRWA, UNHCR, the Palestinian Authority, and the governments of Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan and Syria. We are pushing for document renewals, or UNRWA file transfers, on a case by case basis as necessitated,” she said.

In some cases, non-ID Palestinians hold expired documents, such as Jordanian passports or Egyptian travel documents. Renewing them could provide them with an interim solution by making them eligible for work or stay permits.

“However, the best solution remains to register non-ID Palestinian refugees with the Lebanese government,” Chiha said

DRC has been working in close coordination with the Lebanese government, particularly through the Lebanese-Palestinian Dialogue Committee (LPDC), in order to forge a solution to the problems faced by non-ID refugees.

“We are in the process of preparing all the documents concerning the non-ID Palestinian refugees, and, along with proposed solutions, we will submit our recommendations to the relevant authorities within the government for a decision to be made,” said Ambassador Khalil Makkawi, president of the committee.

Makkawi explained how the LPDC has delegated “the PLO and Palestinian NGOs to make a comprehensive study to find out the exact number of non-ID Palestinians and where they live so that we can identify them.”

“It is in the interest of the refugees themselves and the Lebanese government to identify them as being truly Palestinian,” said Makkawi

He explained that “most non-ID Palestinians are not classified as refugees from 1948, and so Lebanon cannot register them.”

Makkawi said that, of the approximate 3,000 non-ID Palestinians currently in Lebanon, the PLO has identified 1,800 and is gathering information on the remaining.

In concurrence with Chida, Makkawi said that the committee had plans to “identify the non-ID Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, and give them Lebanese documentation.”

This however, requires a political decision, which is not entirely forthcoming in Lebanon. The Palestinian presence is viewed as a very sensitive issue, primarily due to the perception that it can alter the confessional balance in Lebanon.

In the final analysis, as long as the issue of non-ID Palestinians is caught in a sticky web of bureaucratic procedures and contradictory definitions, and as long as any solution to their plight must first pass through murky political channels, it is likely that these refugees will only see their crisis perpetuate.

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