NPR logo Refugees in Lebanon Have Been in Limbo for Years

Refugees in Lebanon Have Been in Limbo for Years

Thousands of Palestinians have fled from a refugee camp in northern Lebanon that has been the scene of fighting between the Lebanese army and Islamic militants. The camp is one of a dozen created in Lebanon after the state of Israel was established in 1948.

Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, Lebanon, talks with Steve Inskeep about the state of Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon.

Steve Inskeep: These aren't actually "camps," are they?

These are sort of camps in the sense that they are cordoned-off areas to some degree that began literally as camps about 60 years ago in 1948, when the state of Israel was established and there was a war between the Israelis and the Arabs. Many of the Palestinians at the time fled Palestine, or were pushed out, and were dispersed into the neighboring Arab countries, including Lebanon. These were people who left Palestine thinking they'd be gone for a few days or a few weeks. As it turns out, they've been here for 60 years. So these camps, which were literally tent camps, have turned into shanty towns. The people in these camps have the legal status of refugees, which means that they're not allowed to work in the country or to own property. But they are also protected under United Nations regulations and have U.N. agencies that provide some services, although at a low level.

So people have been told to just sit around — not for years, but for generations?

Absolutely. The condition of these camps is extremely desperate, partly because of the social conditions and partly because of the internal governance. These are not areas where the Lebanese government itself affects any authority, so you end up with gangs and groups just controlling things as they see fit. There's been a push in Lebanon to change the situation, and to provide these Palestinians with economic rights in order to work and own property and improve their conditions. But, sadly, this has been a controversial issue in Lebanon for a while, and some groups have still opposed it.

What is the reason that people would oppose that?

This links to a more general issue. There are some groups in Lebanon which fear that these Palestinians will end up permanently becoming citizens of Lebanon, thus changing some of the internal political balance of the country. In addition, the main Palestinian demand and the main Arab demand is that these Palestinians are allowed to go home — go back to Palestine. That's increasingly unrealistic, but people realize that one has to come up with other solutions in the meantime.

Is that part of the reason that the camps stay there and stay there – because if Palestinians were integrated into normal life in Lebanon or somewhere else, it might be seen as an acknowledgment that Israel has a right to exist and is going to stay there?

The issues are separated. Their situation is the most desperate in Lebanon because it links to intricate Lebanese politics. Palestinians in other Arab countries live in very different conditions — they work and are integrated in the society. Lebanon has done most poorly by the Palestinians because of Lebanon's own intricate internal problems; and the issue of right-of-return for Palestinians is not necessarily linked with the recognition of Israel. The last Arab peace plan offers full recognition to Israel, but also says that these Palestinians either have to be allowed to return or have to be compensated in some major way. They cannot simply be ignored in terms of their rights.