One of the conditions of a recent Saudi-brokered Middle East peace plan calls for a ‘just solution’ to the Palestinian refugee problem. Refugee camps in Lebanon illustrate that problem. The country’s largest is Ain al-Hilweh, meaning ‘the eye of beauty’. A cruel irony for the 45,000 refugees crammed into it.
According to the UN, Palestinian refugees are residents of what was Palestine who lost their homes and livelihoods in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. At the time there were around 900,000. Today, they and their descendants number nearly four and a half million.
Those that came to Lebanon are scattered among 12 camps. Mar Elias is the smallest with just over 1,400 registered refugees. In total there are nearly 400,000 on Lebanese soil, a tenth of the country’s entire population. They are not allowed to own land or property and cannot use the Lebanese healthcare system.
In 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon in response to raids into its territory by the Lebanon-based Palestine Liberation Organisation. The PLO was forced out of the country, leaving the refugees behind, with health, education and employment systems abandoned.
Days later, events in the camps of Sabra and Shatila leapt to the world’s attention. Christian militia, sent to flush out PLO militants, massacred between 700 and 3,500 people, most of them civilians.
But when the dust settled, the refugee camps were forgotten. The settlers fell back into their difficult routine, with the UN left to oversee basic aid…basic in the barest sense of the word. Only two medical centres serve 600 patients each a day in Ain al-Hilweh. And 7,500 children are shared out among just nine schools.
Unemployment of up to 70 percent is partly due to dozens of professions- doctor, lawyer, architect to name but three- being banned for refugees. Building material is also forbidden. This is the Palestinian refugee problem that needs a ‘just solution’ if the tabled Middle East peace plan is to proceed.