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Education and the Palestinian refugees of Lebanon: A lost generation?

Source: Refugee Participation Network 21 (April 1996)

by Lina Abu-Habib

In 1948, the first wave of Palestinian refugees arrived in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt to seek what was thought to be a temporary refuge. A second exodus, mainly to Jordan, followed in 1967 as a result of the defeat of Arab armies during the third Arab-lsraeli war. In 1970/71, thousands of Palestinian refugees fled from the civil war in Jordan to Lebanon. At present, the total estimated population of Palestinian refugees in the Arab world is about two million. According to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), 320,000 reside in Lebanon. This number is contested and estimates vary between 250,000 to 400,000.

In Lebanon, Palestinians were housed in refugee camps, and their care was mandated to a specially formed temporary UN body, the UNRWA. Refugee status varied greatly according to the host country. In Jordan and Syria refugees enjoyed rights comparable to those of Jordanian and Syrian citizens and had access to state services and benefits. In Lebanon, Palestinians were granted a status of temporary refugees with fewer rights and limited access to services, while responsibility for their welfare lay with UNRWA. However, only registered Palestinians living inside or in the proximity of official camps were eligible for, or had access to, UNRWA services. Palestinians in Lebanon were denied work permits and hence the right to work in the country. In the early seventies, before the start of the Lebanese civil war, Palestinian workers constituted a substantial pool of illegal, unskilled labour in construction, agriculture and factories. In the early days, UNWRA was also an important employer, counting on its pay roll several hundred Palestinian men and women in different clerical, technical, professional, and managerial jobs.

Until the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) had been a major employer and provider of social services to Palestinian refugees. It is estimated that the PLO absorbed around 10,000 full-paid soldiers and militia men from among Palestinian refugees. It also employed several thousand persons in its politico-social infrastructure. This situation, along with remittances received from Palestinians working in the Gulf countries, ensured a relatively stable minimum livelihood for most refugee families.

Inevitably, Palestinian refugees be came enmeshed in the Lebanese war (1975-1990), triggering antipathy from different sections of the Lebanese population.

Shrinking provisions
As of 1985-86, the socio-economic situation of the Palestinian refugee population started to deteriorate dramatically as a result of the combined effect of sieges and persecution coupled with the general collapse of the Lebanese economy. This was exacerbated in 1990-91 by the Gulf crisis, resulting in the expulsion of tens of thousands of Palestinian workers from Gulf countries and severance of substantial financial aid to the PLO from Arab oil countries. Prior to this the PLO had already laid off numbers of military and civilian cadres; vast majority of these were young males in their teens with limited skills. This particular group posed a critical problem, and continues to do so. Released en masse in refugee camps, there was little productive activity that they could under take, and after years of living as fighters, their social integration was a challenge for their communities.

UNRWA provides primary education for the population of officially registered camps. Secondary education, a prerequisite for access to university, was never considered to be within UNRWA's temporary mandate. Until 1982, the PLO used to fill this gap by running secondary schools and by securing university scholar ships in Lebanon and other sympathetic countries. This PLO policy contributed to ensuring a high level of educational attainment amongst young Palestinian men and women, until the mid 1980s. With the collapse of the USSR and the expulsion of Palestinians from Arab Gulf countries, as well as the closure of most PLO institutions following the PLO's forced departure from Lebanon in 1983, access to secondary and higher education became increasingly difficult.

In the 1980s, at a time when extra capacity was needed to absorb an increasing number of uneducated and unemployed youth, UNRWA started facing financial difficulties. The quality and extent of its services had to be gradually reduced, particularly health care and education provision. Distributions of food rations and daily meals to nursery schools and social centres were also run down.

Under these circumstances, very few options were left for providing education to adolescents. UNRWA schools were unable to meet growing demand and increase in population size. Budgetary cuts meant fewer classrooms had to cater to a higher number of students; in addition, parents had to meet part of the schooling costs, which proved to be prohibitive in most cases. Access to Lebanese schools remained extremely limited due to cost, distance, or both. With little and/or poor schooling, most Palestinian youths were unable to progress to further technical or academic education. Drop-out rates in creased affecting girls more than boys, as investment in education of girls is considered a lesser priority. The remaining option, that of technical education or vocational training, is also limited in scope. UNRWA runs a technical institute with places for only a few hundred students every year. Other outlets for technical education are the private sector and NGOs. The private sector provides technical education of varying quality and cost, accessible to only a small number of refugees, so that vocational and training programmes provided by NGOs remain the most popular option. Unfortunately, very few programmes appear to be responding to local demand. In fact, development workers have observed that, particularly in the case of young women, vocational training in 'traditionally feminine skills' such as sewing and hairdressing is unlikely to lead to an economically productive activity or an improvement in status. Short-term vocational training for young men has a slightly better prognosis especially in the case of specific construction skills due to the construction boom and the demand for cheap labour. Still, the impact of foreign-funded vocational training programmes is far from satisfactory when looking at economic and social benefits and improvements. [Picture above:VDSA vocational training at Bourj al-Barajneh refugee camp.]

New approaches
VDSA (Vocational Development and Social Association), a Palestinian NGO officially created in 1986 and supported by Oxfam UK and Ireland, the European Union, and other European agencies, is perhaps among the very few to consciously depart from the conventional trend of vocational training and education in its attempt to address the problems of refugees seeking professional training and education. After years of running typing courses for women and men, flower arrangement for women and plumbing and electrical installations for men, VDSA realised a number of short falls in this approach. The market had become over-saturated with people with similar qualifications and in the case of more specialised courses (e.g. typing, languages...), the methods and curriculum were so outdated that students could not meet the standards required.

Women were particularly disadvantaged in this process. Whereas men equipped with some training were in most instances able to find manual work outside the boundaries of the camp (despite their non-eligibility for work permits), similar options for women did not exist.

In a growing climate of religious fundamentalism and conservatism within the Palestinian community, women were mostly confined to the camps and there fore had even fewer work opportunities; the number of offices, hairdressing salons or sewing factories is fairly limited in refugee camps!

All this convinced VDSA of the need to think through and adopt a new strategy for vocational training. Such a strategy would look at the changes in the situation of the local and regional employment markets, the outlets available for Palestinians given their current legal status, the need to challenge traditional gender roles, and the possibilities for extending support to graduates in terms of job placement or self employment. There was also a need to explore uses of vocational training programmes in promoting refugee rights for education and employment and actively disseminating gender awareness.

Although this process is now well under way, its impact is still limited and offers little long-term prospect. In the absence of any relaxation of laws on the employment of Palestinian refugees, very little can be done to equip them with long term marketable skills which will ensure sustainable livelihoods. Still, the efforts of NGOs such as VDSA serve a number of purposes, such as introducing new and professional ways of working amongst associations involved with the Palestin ians. But perhaps the most important achievement is the challenge that NGOs such as VDSA and others are introducing as an option to more traditionally defined gender roles and social relation ships, at a time when growing conservatism seems to isolate an already marginalised and impoverished population even further.

What future?
For those few fortunate young refugees, mostly men, who do manage to go through mainstream academic education, the prospect of building a professional career in Lebanon remains grim, due to the restraints imposed by employment regulations - a few months ago, a number of Palestinian physicians were asked to stop working as it became illegal for them to practice medicine under the current laws. The main aspiration for most Palestinian youths wanting to go to university, or for those who have completed it, is to emigrate to Scandinavia and other Northern countries, a matter now made more and more difficult by increasingly xenophobic immigration laws.

So long as the peace negotiations in the region are at a standstill, the situation and status of the Palestinians of the diaspora, most particularly in Lebanon, remain in limbo. Meanwhile, there is great reluctance to discuss even their rights to basic services such as health, employment and education. With so little investment in education in general, and more specifically, in secondary education, the level of skills of the Palestinian refugee population in Lebanon is likely to decrease even more, jeopardising any remaining potential for economic independence and productivity. Especially alarming is the loss in education for those who are now in their teens. Whatever political decisions are taken in the future, remedying shortcomings in education for these generations is going to prove difficult, and the impact will be a long lasting one. As for the present, keeping thousands of unskilled and idle youths trapped in camps by poverty and by official indecision concerning their status is not the best way to contribute to a lasting peace in the region.

Lina Ahu-Hahih is a programme officer with Oxfam UK and Ireland in Lehanon. She is currently working with Oxfam HQ's gender and development team, specialising on the Middle East.

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