BEIRUT (AFP) – Thousands of Palestinian refugees gathered on Sunday outside UN headquarters in Beirut to demand basic civil rights in Lebanon, such as a choice of jobs and ownership of property.
The protest organised by Palestinian and Lebanese non-government organisations was initially due to be held outside the parliament building in downtown Beirut.
“The police outside parliament usually ban any protest there,” said Maher Shehadeh, one of the Palestinian organisers. So the protesters gathered instead several hundred metres (yards) away outside the UN headquarters.
Maher said 6,000 people were taking parting in the peaceful protest.
The Palestinians travelled in buses from Lebanon’s 12 refugee camps for the Beirut gathering organised by Palestinian and Lebanese non-governmental organisations.
“Working is a right,” “We want to live in dignity,” read placards carried by the protesters.
“I have the right to own property,” said another, summing up the frustration of the tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees who live in dire conditions in Lebanon.
The UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA) lists almost 400,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, a country of four million inhabitants.
But Lebanese and Palestinian officials say the actual number may be as low as 250,000 as UNRWA does not strike off its list those who move to other countries.
The majority of UNRWA-registered refugees live in dire conditions in the camps across and are denied basic civil rights.
Under Lebanese law, Palestinian refugees can not own property or hold most white collar jobs (doctors, engineers, lawyers, architects) and are stuck in low-paid employment.
They are also denied social security and medical aid in state hospitals.
“There are 10 to 15 of us who live crammed in our room. Our children have no future and those who are sick end up dying at the doors of hospitals,” said Mahmud Rashid, a farmer from Rashidiyeh camp in south Lebanon.
Oum Rabih Ghneim who accompanied her husband to the protest from northern Lebanon said their home in the Nahr al-Bared camp was destroyed during deadly fighting between Islamists and the Lebanese army in 2007.
“We are not even allowed to buy a one-room apartment,” in the northern port city of Tripoli, she said.
Sunday’s protest came days after heated debate in parliament among MPs who support granting broader rights to the refugees, including the right to obtain social security, and others, including Christians, who expressed reservations.
Many politicians fear the permanent resettlement of refugees in Lebanon arguing that it would tip the fragile demographic balance in the country, where 64 percent are Muslim and 35 percent Christian.