Rajah, a mother of four living in the Shatila refugee camp in the heart of the Lebanese capital, Beirut, dreams of going back to Palestine.
"My dream is to go home. This place is terrible," she said referring to the dilapidated refugee camp, which the UN says houses 12,000 Palestinians.
"We don't have anything here and my children suffer. They are ill and I can't get proper health care. My husband does construction work, but he is also off work because he is ill, so we have to beg and borrow," she said with a big sigh.
Aid workers say that part of the problem is that the rights of 400,000 Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon are restricted. They are not allowed to own land and they are legally barred from many of the country's best paid jobs.
A walk around Shatila camp, which adjoins the sprawling and downtrodden Sabra neighbourhood of Beirut, is testament to the misery that many Palestinians living in Lebanon have to endure.
People are forced to brush past the exposed electricity wires and water pipes that protrude into Shatila's narrow streets. And the stench of sewage is everywhere under the hot midday sun.
"Many people have been electrocuted because of this and some have died," Rajah said referring to the exposed wires.
There are some 400,000 Palestinian refugees registered in Lebanon with the UN Relief Works Agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) and about half of them still live in camps, although not all of them are as bad as Shatila. The first wave arrived over half a century ago when the first Arab-Israeli war erupted in 1948.
About half of the Palestinian refugees still live in camps, and although not all are as bad as Shatila, aid workers say the the Palestinians face worse conditions in Lebanon than in neighbouring Jordan and Syria, where they are well integrated and have better facilities.
"They have few labour and property rights," said Hoda Samra Souaiby, a spokeswoman for UNRWA in Beirut. "There are many areas in which Palestinians are deprived,"
Palestinian refugees have been denied the right to own property since 2001, when a decree was issued saying that Palestinians were not allowed to own homes in the country.
The government said it passed the law to support of the right of return of Palestinians.
However, given the continuing tense security situation in Israel and areas governed by the Palestinian Authority, aid workers believe that conditions are not conducive for their early return.
"The real problem is that Palestinians are being dealt with on a security basis and not a humanitarian one. We have to organise Lebanese-Palestinians on the basis of respecting international laws that stipulate a refugee should be treated as an equal citizen but without the citizenship," said Ghassan Abdallah, the Palestinian Human Rights Organisation in Beirut.
"Here they applied the second part regarding nationality and forgot about equality," he added.
"This is a real nightmare for them," Souaiby stressed.
RESTRICTIVE LABOUR LAW
Until mid-2005, a total of 72 professions were restricted to Lebanese only, including all the high profile jobs such as medicine and law. This left very few job opportunities for the Palestinians and other migrant communities.
The situation improved, on paper at least, on 7 June, when the government issued a memorandum allowing Palestinian refugees to work in 50 of the 72 professions previously reserved for Lebanese, but they are still barred from several high-ranking ones, such as medicine and law.
And according to the Palestinians themselves there is still deep-rooted discrimination.
"A young man trained at one of our social centres in Shatila camp in IT applied for a job in three Lebanese companies, but was turned away," said Ahmed Halimeh of Popular Aid for Relief and Development (PARD), a Lebanese NGO that helps displaced people. "Employers said they would not employ him because he is not Lebanese," he added.
The teenager in question has now opted to open a computer shop in the refugee camp instead.
"The Palestinians are traditionally only employed in low wage and daily labour jobs, this is something which we cannot change easily," Halimeh complained .
Abdallah, at the Palestinian Human Rights Organisation, maintained that despite the June memo allowing refugees into more professions, the situation remained much the same.
"The truth is nothing much has changed on the ground, they still can't work as lawyers or doctors, and so most Palestinian workers continue to work the same way they did before and without the legal cover," he said.
UNRWA is not mandated to provide legal protection to refugees. "We do however, advocate with officials from a humanitarian point of view," the UNRWA spokeswoman noted.
A TRAGIC HISTORY
Sabra and Shatila are in the poorest areas in Beirut and are now mainly home to Palestinians, although some Syrians and some Lebanese gypsies also live there. Both settlements were originally established in the 1950s to accommodate Palestinians fleeing the war in the Occupied Territories.
Walking into Shatila, there is a memorial square where people killed in the refugee massacre of 16 September 1982 are buried. Now known as Martyrs Square, the ground is a memorial place with graphic photos of dead bodies of women and children.
The slaughter of hundreds, some say thousands, of Palestinians, was committed by the Phalangists, a right wing Christian militia that was allied to the Israelis during their occupation of Beirut in 1982.
The Phalangists carried out the killings in revenge for the murder of their leader, Bashir Gemayel shortly before he was due to be sworn in as President of Lebanon. They believed Gemayel had been killed by the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and entered the camp looking for its members.
There is no official death toll for the massacre that ensued, but estimates range between 800 and 3,500.
Today, although the camp is peaceful, there are still bitter memories.
"I buried people here, we covered the bodies with metal sheets and then earth so that they would not be eaten by animals," Halimeh said referring to the spot where three brothers died together during the fighting.
Shatila also came under attack from Lebanon's Shi'ite Amal militia in 1986.
Although there is peace now, conditions in the camp have deteriorated.
"It's a hopeless situation here now," said Jamile Ibrahim Shehade, the head of one of 12 social centres in the camp. "There are 15,000 people living in one square kilometre,"
The centre she runs provides basic facilities such as a dental clinic and a nursery for children. It receives assistance from Norwegian People's Aid and the Lebanese NGO, PARD.
"This whole area was nothing before the camps were here and there has been very little done in terms of building infrastructure," Shehade explained.
Continued misery in camps has taken a heavy psychological toll on the residents of Sabra and Shatila, aid workers there say. Tempers run high as a result of frustration from the daily grind in the decrepit housing complex.
According to a 1999 survey by the local NGO Najdeh (Help), 29 percent of 550 women surveyed in seven of the 12 official refugee camps scattered across Lebanon, had endured physical violence.
Aid workers also warn that drug abuse is increasing in the refugee communities. They say hashish and cocaine consumption is rising fast.
ASSISTANCE IN CAMPS LIMITED
Countrywide, UNRWA runs 87 schools and 25 primary health care centres that cater for the refugee population. However, these barely cover the Palestinians' basic needs and many communities are still without electicity and a reliable source of clean drinking water.
"Schools are doing double shifts and electricity and water are still very problematic," Shehade said.
Health services for the Palestinians leave much to be desired, although there is collaboration between UNRWA and the Lebanese Ministry of Health in some fields like the treatment of HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis patients, the control of outbreaks of infectious diseases and the provision of vaccines used in national immunisation
"Palestine refugees are not treated at the expense of the Lebanese government," Souaiby said.
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]
Source: BEIRUT- IRIN – 03/10/2005