Lebanon: ‘Yes to Emigration’ at Baddawi Refugee Camp

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The Palestinian refugee camp of Ain El-Helweh, near the southern Lebanese coastal city of Sidon, on January 31, 2014. (Photo AFP- Mahmoud Zayyat)

By: Abdel Kafi al-Samad

Published Thursday, February 6, 2014

“Yes to Emigration” is the new slogan of a number of young men at the Baddawi refugee camp in North Lebanon. Some see it as a reaction to the miserable conditions of the country’s refugee camps, but other observers believe it’s a different kind of activism – perhaps with the goal of permanently settling Palestinians in other countries, invalidating the right of return.

On February 2, several young men gathered in the Baddawi camp, waving placards demanding emigration assistance. They marched for a short distance in the camp before dispersing.

The 50 protesters were mostly residents displaced from Lebanon’s Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp – which was destroyed in 2007 – currently living in the Baddawi camp. Their signs read: “We want to emigrate, we want to live, and we want our right to work in dignity”; “Yes to emigration”; and “I want to live in dignity.”

The protest caught the attention of more than one party. A number of representatives from NGOs and Palestinian factions in the Baddawi camp held a meeting and issued warnings against what they termed “unconscious calls for emigration on justified social grounds.”

Khaled al-Yamani, activist and member of the Social Security Committee in the camp, told Al-Akhbar that the meeting he attended “was meant to explore ways to deal with those youths, so that their protest does not become a [viral] phenomenon.”

Yamani admitted the camp has many problems, from unemployment to social suffering and despair, something he said is “undeniable.” However, Yamani said, “We fear this is a good cause being twisted for bad reasons, because there is a difference between emigrating to work or study, and collective emigration. … The opinion of 50 youths does not express that of 40,000 residents in the camp.”

A follow-up meeting is scheduled on February 6 in the camp, called by the Social Security Committee “Sharek” and NGOs. Yamani said the meeting will work to “raise awareness among young people, rather than accusing them of deviancy or treason.”

Yamani stressed, “The issue of mass emigration is serious, and would violate red lines and undermine the right of return.” He continued, “Conflating this with individual emigration reflects a lack of awareness and incorrect interpretation of what is happening and what is being hatched against the Palestinian cause, and it reinforces the plots against our people that have been going on for decades.”

Particularly troubling to Palestinians in the diaspora are recent reports about a plan by US Secretary of State John Kerry to facilitate the immigration of Palestinians outside Palestine, especially in Lebanon and Syria, to Australia, Canada, and other nations. In Kerry’s plan, however, any Palestinian wishing to immigrate to these countries must first waive his or her right to return to their land, Palestine. Meanwhile, a romanticized view of life in these would-be host countries is being touted to Palestinians.

But these concerns cannot obscure the difficult reality in which the people of Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon live. Their miserable conditions mean that calls for immigration as such will find an echo among some segments, especially young Palestinian refugees.

Indeed, according to studies and data collected by the Popular Committees in the Baddawi camp a few years ago, it was found that up to 55 percent of young Palestinian refugees are unemployed. This percentage would have no doubt increased after the residents of Nahr al-Bared fled to Baddawi following the conflict of 2007, and then with the arrival of hundreds of families who fled the Yarmouk refugee camp in Syria.

During the Lebanese civil war and the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, hundreds of families came to Baddawi from the refugee camps in Beirut and South Lebanon.

Several factors have aggravated the suffering of Baddawi residents. For instance, the camp is not open to its surroundings, unlike Nahr al-Bared, which acted as a major market for the surrounding areas of Akkar and Tripoli.

Furthermore, UNRWA, the UN agency in charge of Palestinian refugees, has been dramatically scaling back its services – including social, healthcare, and education offerings – exacerbating poverty rates and unemployment among the refugee population.

The third factor is that the Lebanese “perception” of the Baddawi camp and other refugee camps, focuses on security considerations more than anything else. This makes any Palestinian an undesirable commodity in the Lebanese job market.

Labor laws already greatly discriminate against Palestinians, as the government bans Palestinians from many professions. In addition, Syrian workers, forced by desperate conditions to accept low wages, now compete with Lebanese and Palestinian labor.

Against this backdrop, there are fears that some might be seeking to take advantage of the difficult situation of the refugee camps in the diaspora, to force the Palestinians to accept mass emigration. With this in mind, a number of NGOs in Baddawi are trying to establish whether this applies or not to the recent protests, because each case would require a different approach.

In this regard, Hassan Fraijeh, an activist, wrote on his Facebook page, “We do not doubt the patriotism of any person seeking to emigrate, because we know that they might be after a decent life and their livelihoods.” However, he believes that a Palestinian exodus from the camps “would indirectly contribute to undermining the refugee cause, or in other words, invalidating the right of return.”

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.


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