The exceptional condition of Palestinian statelessness and Palestinian dispersal extends itself to all political, economic, social and humanitarian spheres. UNRWA's mandate does not provide protection for Palestinian refugees nor can they appeal to the assistance of UNHCR whose mandate specifically exempts them from its protection. This aberration is particularly significant, not only for refugees living under Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza, but also for those Palestinian refugees who are temporary residents in various countries, mainly Lebanon, Syria and Jordan (1). Thus, UNRWA's operations in these countries, the refugees' legal status and their rights are subject to host government policies without recourse to international agreements delineating refugee rights.
Palestinian refugees have access to public services exclusively through UNRWA and while they remain in exile and stateless, the responsibility of implementing UN Summit agreements can only be exercised by the United Nations particularly in reaching the required agreements with host governments for the implementation of UN targets and goals. Strangely UNRWA does not consider poverty eradication as part of its mandate and does not participate in UN Inter Agency Task Forces.
The availability of systematic and comprehensive statistical information on Palestinians is limited. This is underlined by the absence of Palestine from UNDP's annual Human Development reports which even fail to incorporate existing indicators compiled through other United Nations agencies such as UNICEF, UNESCO, and UNRWA. The latter is the main source of educational and demographic statistics with other information appearing in occasional studies conducted by UN agencies, the PLO and NGOs.
Notwithstanding these limitations, all existing data concur that disquieting socioeconomic trends are emerging within Palestinian refugee communities as underlined in UNRWA's 1992 report to the UN General Assembly: "It was disconcerting to see that after 45 years, most of the refugees, not only in Lebanon and the Gaza strip, but in other fields as well continued to live in extreme poverty. Many families were still deprived of that basic element of life, an adequate shelter, to provide protection from the heat, cold and rain. It was sad to witness that under the pressures of demographic growth and worsening political, social and economic factors, the standard of living was gradually being eroded even further. The future seemed bleak unless, in the foreseeable future, a political solution ending the plight of the refugees could be found(2)."
In view of the variations in the socioeconomic contexts of host countries, this report deals with Palestinians residing in Lebanon, where limitations on basic civil rights provide an additional dimension to the common hardships of Palestinian refugees. The Palestinian community in Lebanon counts 350,000 registered refugees, more than half of whom live in twelve refugee camps and their peripheries, located inside or near five major Lebanese cities and towns. They constitute 11% of refugees registered with UNRWA and 10.4% of the general population in Lebanon. The complexity of the Lebanon model, serves as an appropriate background for investigating the unique situation of monitoring the implementation of UN summit commitments through a United Nations Agency, rather than a member country.
In 1991, the Middle East peace process was launched and in 1993 the Oslo Agreement was signed between the PLO and Israel. The question of Palestinian refugees was not included in the negotiating agenda nor in the agreements that followed. As a result, Lebanon announced its refusal to accept the long-term presence of Palestinians on Lebanese soil and requested their eventual transfer to other countries. It tightened restrictions on the employment and freedom of travel of Palestinians and curtailed post-war UNRWA reconstruction projects of Palestinian camps. This Lebanese attitude was instigated by Israel's well-known opposition to the repatriation of Palestinian refugees to their original homes and villages in Palestine, in contradiction with UN resolution 194 which affirms their right of return, and by Israeli insistence on Palestinian permanent resettlement in Arab host countries against their will.
In the same period, UNRWA introduced austerity measures because contributions were not keeping up with refugee population growth and inflationary costs. Unlike other UN Agencies, UNRWA is particularly vulnerable since it is funded directly through voluntary pledges from individual UN member states. Widespread Palestinian fears of United States and Israeli pressures to dissolve UNRWA were corroborated at a donor meeting in March 1995. The agency's five year plan (1994-1999) stated that discontinuance has become inevitable even though "to discontinue its services unilaterally prior to a resolution of the refugee problem would seem inconsistent with the historical evolution of the Agency's mandate and role."(4)
In short, the last five years have witnessed the unprecedented political, social and economic marginalisation of Palestinian refugees. As demonstrated by the situation of refugees living in Lebanon, diminishing resources and the increasing isolation of Palestinian civil society have further pauperized wide sectors of the community. Community leaders, NGOs and UNRWA have repeatedly warned that poverty levels will continue to rise unless Palestinian national rights are respected, international commitments are reaffirmed, and an agreement is reached with the Lebanese authorities to ease civil rights restrictions.
The spread of poverty has not been accompanied by a correspondent rise in unemployment indicating the high incidence of hidden unemployment or underemployment. Most Palestinians can only work as casual laborers and the average individual income ($44) is a quarter of the Lebanese minimum wage ($161) while the average family income ($228) is below the poverty line(7). The proportion of working adult males has remained relatively stable between 1988 and 1996 and there is a marked rise in the proportions of Palestinian women and children entering the labor force(8) (Table 2). In eight years, the ratio of working children has doubled, and among them a quarter are estimated to be girls(9). In the same period, the ratio of working women has tripled from 5% to 16%. On average, women's earnings are derisory with 69% of female headed households securing incomes below the minimum wage as compared to 26% of all Palestinian households (Table 3 )(10).
Concerted efforts are deployed by NGOs and UNRWA to promote training and income-generation. It is estimated that more than 40% of Palestinian women have taken vocational training and that half of currently working women are skilled. Yet only 29% manage to secure above minimum wage earnings including university educated women (11). Clearly, these programs are unable to combat poverty in the absence of minimum civil rights guarantees. The quandary of Palestinians is that gaining these rights is conditional on the existence of a political climate which reassures Lebanon that, in its turn, the international community intends to respect and protect the repatriation rights of Palestinian refugees and their national identity.
A 1991 WHO assessment stated that "almost all Palestinian camps suffered from serious problems relating to quantity, quality, maldistribution and interrupted water supplies" (13) and that the resultant "unplanned house connections" have increased the risk of water contamination. In eight out of twelve camps, the quantity of water contracted by UNRWA from water companies had not changed since the 1950s and 17% of camp inhabitants still relied on public water taps for their daily supply. In addition, "onsite sullage and excreta disposal is a threat to public health in most camps"(14) since demographic growth within confined camp areas, the rise in water consumption, coupled with the lack of improvements in the sewerage systems have overloaded existing sewers, and have resulted in sewage overflow on roads and pathways. As for solid wastes, these are dumped in uncovered collection points causing extensive insect and rodent infestation
In mid-1995 UNRWA secured funds (nearly 17% of its budget) to overhaul camp infrastructure but these environmental health projects cannot service Palestinians living outside UNRWA administered camps. Therefore, the availability of essential services will continue to be a major cause for concern as 23% of households do not have access to public water supplies, 42% are not connected to a public sewage network and 23% use open sewage pipes. In displaced and Palestinian agglomerations outside the camp 16.7% of housing is constructed of mud and wood, and 10.2% is built of corrugated iron. (15)
UNRWA managed to secure permission to construct shelters for a small number of displaced Palestinians and evictees (nearly 500 shelters between 1991 and 1995), but these efforts barely cover one tenth of housing requirements for the displaced alone. Camp dwellers suffer from conditions of extreme overcrowding with average households consisting of two rooms at 2.4 persons per room. To date, the Palestinian community has not been approached by either the Lebanese authorities or UNRWA to discuss envisaged solutions to outstanding housing issues and the fate of refugee camps in Beirut.
Falling school attendance is coupled by a rising incidence of premature school departure. Although UNRWA drop-out rates between 1990 and 1994 diminished at the elementary level from 7.7% to 5.9%, they increased at the preparatory level from 14 to 16% mainly due to a rise in girl drop-out ratios from 13% to 17.3%. These rates are the highest in all UNRWA fields at nearly double the current Agency-wide ratios of 2.5% and 9.1% respectively(20). Various surveys have indicated that the real Palestinian drop-out rates in Lebanon are much higher, affecting 22% of pupils and 33% of girls attending preparatory school. Interrupted schooling during the long years of conflict and displacement are coupled with 50% of schools operating on double shift, and 43% accommodated in unsatisfactory premises. All these factors are discouraging many children from returning to school. According to UNRWA teaching staff, schools are directed to achieve an 80% success rate at the end of the academic year, and many pupils are promoted to higher grades regardless of actual performance. Two recent surveys have confirmed that financial causes affect only 10% of drop-outs since two thirds of working children(21) and 50% of young girls(22) stated that they left school because of poor scholastic performance or other school connected reasons (distance from home, regulations, teacher indifference or maltreatment).
At the secondary level, poverty is the major cause of falling enrollment rates from 28% in 1990 to 15% in 1995. The high cost of private education in Lebanon along with the termination of PLO secondary schools and scholarship funds have meant that few young Palestinians can enjoy the privilege of extending their education towards the tertiary and technical levels. In 1993 UNRWA took the exceptional step of opening a secondary school in Lebanon with plans pending for two other similar establishments. Although barely absorbing one tenth of applications, the Agency has become the principle venue of advanced education for Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, including vocational training and the provision of a few university scholarships. High competition and the program's limited size have been detrimental for women with very low female participation at 4% of vocational trainees and 33% of University scholarship holders.
The erosion of the educational standards of children and young girls threatens to reverse the advances achieved in population literacy levels. Varying estimates, ranging from 36% to 60%, concur that semi-literacy is rising among Palestinian children. The half dozen NGOs offering short-term intensive vocational training in Palestinian camps affirm that poor scholastic standards are seriously obstructing the effectiveness and impact of their programs. At the same time, existing adult literacy programs have been unable to address the problem of child and youth semi-literacy since remedial educational programs aiming at scholastic reintegration are also necessary.
The search for fundamental remedies is affected by imbalanced budget distributions. UNRWA's spending on education in Lebanon is lower than in other fields. Between 1994 and 1995 its education budget in Syria and Jordan was raised by 6% and 9% respectively but remained the same in Lebanon, despite a 4% rise in student enrollment, and the exceptional circumstances of the Lebanon context. Between 1992 and 1995 there was a 40% drop in trainees at the UNRWA/UNESCO in-service teacher training program which aims to upgrade and standardize professional qualifications and, in 1996, the Agency froze the employment of university educated teachers.
On the level of maternal and child health care, existing clinics appear to cover a significant proportion of community needs with infant mortality rates at 30-40/tho. and child mortality rates at 48.9/tho. The number of pregnant women, infants and children monitored by UNRWA clinics is commensurate with the annual birth incidence. The majority of births are attended by professionals, with 55% occurring in NGO clinics and 20% at UNRWA contracted private clinics. Only 1.4% of births rely on unregistered midwives(24).
At 4.1 per woman, the fertility rate in Lebanon's Palestinian community is deemed to be diminishing due to higher educational standards, as well as financial and war-related factors. Average birth rates have dropped from 7.1 for illiterate women to 2.6 among women with secondary education(25). Nevertheless, a recent random sampling reveals that 66% of married women have borne between six to sixteen children and that 20% became pregnant in adolescence. Two thirds of consequent pregnancies (second and above) occurred while the women were still caring for an infant. The average miscarriage rate was one per mother, with 22% having miscarried between two and eleven times. In addition, nearly 20% had delivered stillborn children(26). They exhibited limited knowledge of their physiological conditions since long years of war have led to the neglect of reproductive health programs. It was only in 1993, that a family planning program was introduced by UNRWA and thus far, it services 4% of Palestinian women of reproductive age. Community awareness of reproductive health issues remains very low and reflects itself on women's inability to relieve and avert the results of an increasingly strenuous and exacting mode of life.
Similar to trends around the world, the effect of poverty on women is profound especially since one fifth of Palestinian families consist of female headed households. Close to two-thirds of the emerging female labor force are estimated to be women with children and 40% are heads of households. PLO subsidies for destitute families, particularly widows, are irregular and are often cut for long periods. Welfare assistance from UNRWA and NGOs are estimated to cover only 20% of female headed households. As economic obstacles increase, younger women are becoming less educated and less skilled yet the average age at marriage is rising and one quarter of female headed households are families supported by single women. These trends underline that women of all marital situations and ages are becoming more burdened while being less equipped and with access to few adequate support systems.
The Copenhagen declaration also calls upon all concerned to "create comprehensive conditions that allow for the voluntary repatriation of refugees in safety and dignity' in accordance with the International Declaration of Human Rights. This is contained in UNRWA's mandate which affirms that the agency will not be disbanded until UN resolution 194 is implemented. It is then strengthened by UN recognition of the right of return as an inalienable national right for Palestinian refugees (UNGA Res. 3236, 1974). Refutation of these rights and guarantees would undermine the credibility of international commitments and international legitimacy. It would constitute a precedent threatening many world-wide gains in human rights and sustainable development
Beyond the coordinated efforts of a group of NGOs, whose aggregate budgets do not exceed three million US$, action plans to reduce and eliminate poverty for Palestinian refugees have not been formulated by any of the concerned actors: the PLO, UNRWA or the host government. Rather, existing strategies focus on the permanent elimination of social protection through UNRWA's dissolution. The vulnerability of the community is deepened by excessive negligence in information and data collection, thus minimizing the acuteness of its deprivation, denying it access to available poverty eradication programs and hampering the elaboration of self-help initiatives. This is exacerbated by the absence of participatory mechanisms between the community and UNRWA in policy-making, program design and assessment, as well as means to resolve host country restrictions.
In the face of existing obstacles and reversals, NGOs working with Palestinian refugees have adopted advocacy and lobbying campaigns as well as research projects to disseminate information and to explore methods for stopping the degradation of Palestinian refugee conditions. Campaigns to preserve UNRWA and improve its services are at the top of their agenda. They also seek to upgrade the involvement of other United Nations Agencies and their links with the community. These are the minimum requirements for launching strategies to reduce and eradicate poverty and to empower Palestinian refugees in starting self-reliance initiatives that will ameliorate their economic circumstances.
2) Report of the Commissioner-General of UNRWA; Official Records of the General Assembly, Fourty Eighth Session, Supplement No. 13 (A/48/13)
3) Haddad, Antoine, Poverty in Lebanon; E/ESCWA/SD/1995/8/Add. 2; United Nations; Executive Summary, p.1
4) The Role of UNRWA and Its Future; UNRWA Headquarters, Amman; March 1995 5) Op. cit, Executive Summary, p.1
6) Tabari, Samia & Zakharia, Leila; Data compiled for a research study on Palestinian women in Lebanon, to be published in 1997.
7) Al Madi, Yussef Haidar, Palestinian Refugees in camps and communities in Lebanon, UNICEF & PLO Bureau of Statistics, October 1996, p. 84 (Arabic version)
8) Compiled from various separate studies conducted by UNICEF and the PLO Bureau of Statistics between 1988 and 1996.
9) Shaaban, Hussein; Palestinian children in the Labor Market (in Lebanon); UNICEF, October 1996, p 45 (Arabic version)
10) Tabari, Samia & Zakharia, Leila; Palestinian Women in Lebanon: Health, Work Opportunities and Attitudes; Centre for Lebanese Studies, Oxford; August 1996, p. 26 & 29
11) Ibid, p.26
12) Report of the Commissioner-General of UNRWA; Official Records of the General Assembly, Fifty First Session, Supplement No. 13 (A/51/13), p.10
13) El Sharkawi, Dr. Fahmi H.; Assessment of the Environmental Health Conditions in Palestine Refugee Camps in Lebanon Field, April-June 1991; WHO Regional Office for the Eastern Mediterranean; p.5
14) Ibid; p.7
15) Al Madi, Yussef Haidar, Palestinian Refugees in camps and communities in Lebanon, UNICEF & PLO Bureau of Statistics, October 1996, p. 52 (Arabic version)
16) Report of the Commissioner-General of UNRWA; Official Records of the General Assembly, Fourty Eighth Session, Supplement No. 13 (A/48/13), p.18
17) Tabari, Samia & Zakharia, Leila; data to be published in 1997
18) Stastical Yearbooks 1989-90, 1993-94 & 1994-95, Dept. of Education, UNRWA Headquarters - Amman
19) Al Madi, Yussef Haidar, Palestinian Refugees in camps and communities in Lebanon, UNICEF & PLO Bureau of Statistics, October 1996, (Arabic version)
20) Op. cit.
21) Shaaban, Hussein; Palestinian children in the Labor Market (in Lebanon); UNICEF, October 1996, p 82 (Arabic version)
22) Tabari, Samia & Zakharia, Leila; data to be published in 1997
23) Al Madi, Yussef Haidar, Palestinian Refugees in camps and communities in Lebanon, UNICEF & PLO Bureau of Statistics, October 1996, p. 59 (Arabic version)
24) Ibid, p 67
25) Ibid, p.73
26) Tabari, Samia & Zakharia, Leila; Palestinian Women in Lebanon: Health, Work Opportunities and Attitudes; Centre for Lebanese Studies, Oxford; August 1996, p. 3 to 16
Rex Brynen * email@example.com * 14 March 1997