CEPR delegation meets Lebanese President, Michel Suleiman, and visits UNRWA and Naher al-Bared, Shatila, and Bourj al-Barajneh Palestinian refugee camps
CEPR Delegation to Lebanon, February 6-9, 2011
“When I went to Gaza in 2010 I thought I had seen the worst that could be seen of the appalling predicament of Palestinians living in conditions which no human being should be expected to endure. But, what I saw in the camps in Lebanon is far worse and far more hopeless”
- Sir Gerald Kaufman MP
For over 60 years, millions of Palestinians have been living as refugees in areas of the occupied Palestinian territories and in surrounding countries. The UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) describes their plight as "by far the most protracted and largest of all refugee problems in the world today".
Over 400,000 Palestinians live in Lebanon's 12 'official' (UN-run) and its many 'unofficial' refugee camps, amounting to approximately 10 per cent of Lebanon's population. Lebanon is the host country in which history and politics have most exacerbated the difficulties faced by Palestinian refugees. Politically marginalised, without basic social and economic rights, trapped in often squalid camps, Palestinian refugees suffer more in Lebanon than in any other host country.
In the midst of the regional upheavals and following on from the release of the 'Palestine Papers' which revealed that the Palestinian Authority offered to virtually give up the right of return of refugees, the CEPR in partnership with the Palestinian Return Centre (PRC), took a delegation of seven parliamentarians to Lebanon to look at conditions in the country's refugee camps. An intensive two days included 18 meetings and visits to three refugee camps: Bourj al-Barajneh, Nahr el-Bared and Shatila.
Led by former British government minister Sir Gerald Kaufman MP, the delegation included four members of the European Parliament and three members of the British Parliament. The delegates travelled between Beirut and Tripoli, and identified practical steps to be taken to improve the dire refugee situation.
SOME KEY FINDINGS
Lebanon’s Official Position
All parties, from the Lebanese President to UNRWA to the refugees themselves were absolute in their commitment to the right of return. All parties were able to identify the Israeli rejectionist policy as the most obvious obstacle to achieving justice.
Despite unanimous support for improving Palestinian rights, the delegation also saw that for a combination of political and economic reasons, the Lebanese government is unlikely to implement the radical changes necessary to transform the lives of the refugees. A crippling budget deficit and a fear that improving Palestinian rights would lead to attacks from political opponents leave little hope for an imminent change in Lebanon's policies on Palestinian refugees.
While little faith in the role of the United States was expressed at meetings with Lebanese President Suleiman, Deputy Speaker of the House Al Zain, Prime Minister Hariri and Prime Minister designate Mikati, the delegates heard real optimism that European states and the European Union could make a significant and tangible contribution to improving the refugees' standard of living.
“What is needed is a new perspective that underlines the right of the refugees to return, should they wish, to Palestine, while at the same time agreeing practical steps to empower them in Lebanon, enabling them to fulfil their own potential to contribute to the prosperity of their own people while making a positive contribution as part of the Arab community in Lebanon.”
Michael Connarty MP
UNRWA and the Camps
The delegation held numerous meetings with UNRWA officials to learn about their valuable work in Lebanon. It was clear that without serious funding, the crisis in Lebanon's refugee camps would deepen. This was most stark at the Nahr el-Bared camp, destroyed by the Lebanese Army in 2007, where progress towards reconstruction is painfully slow. Derek Vaughan MEP stated: "within the EU, we face a fight every single year just to maintain UNRWA funding".
Visiting Bourj al-Barajneh, the delegation saw the appalling conditions in which Palestinains live every day: open sewers, piles of rubble and electricity wiring that hang in bunches through alleyways and streets (13 died from direct causes in 2010). Sir Gerald Kaufman informed the British Foreign Secretary William Hague that he had visited "hell on earth" on his return to British Parliament.
At the Shatila camp, the delegation laid a wreath at the Sabra-Shatila massacre memorial and met a survivor of the most notorious single episode in modern Middle East history.
The Right of Return
The right of return is a marginal issue in peace talks, but in Lebanon it is at the epicentre of all discussions on Palestine, Israel and the refugees. The delegation heard the same message all over Lebanon, from the Parliament to the squalid Bourj al-Barajneh camp: the refugees will return. Aside from the issue of justice, the return of the refugees is a strategic imperative. As President Suleiman said: "the truth is that we will not see peace in the Middle East without the implementation of the refugees' right of return".