Palestinian “Non-IDs” in Lebanon – We Are Not Numbers

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Palestinian boy in a Lebanese refugee camp.
Palestinian boy in a refugee camp in Lebanon. Photo by Samer Manaa.

Abu Mouhammad, 65, hugs his middle son Ahmad, maybe for the last time, before the 25-year-old boards a mid-sized wooden boat leaving from the north shore of Lebanon, near Tripoli, and headed somewhere toward the Mediterranean countries of Europe. Abu Mouhammad has not been able to bequeath his sons and daughters anything except the status of being “Palestinian non-IDs,” and so Ahmad was illegally migrating, off to seek a future elsewhere.

According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, more than 174,000 Palestinians officially recognized as refugees live in Lebanon, while an estimated 4,000 more Palestinians are refugees in the country but do not have any official status. They are stateless – the so-called “non-IDs.”

The statelessness problem arose when Israel conducted its Six-Day War in 1967, occupying the West Bank and Gaza. Afterward, many Palestinian freedom fighters based themselves in Jordan. After the Jordanian Civil War in 1970, these freedom fighters were forced out of the country, and many of them fled to Lebanon (many others went to Syria). Individuals from the West Bank held Jordanian passports, while those who were originally from the Gaza Strip held passports issued by the Egyptian administration. But the Jordanian and Egyptian authorities suspended the renewal of these IDs, and Lebanon did not issue new IDs to them. And so these refugees found themselves stateless.

Yet their lives in Lebanon went on. They married and had children but were unable to record and document their marriages or the births of their children. New generations of unrecognized refugees began coming into existence.

It is hard enough being a Palestinian refugee in Lebanon, because laws in the country restrict their involvement in society; for example, Palestinian refugees are prohibited from entering many professions. But having no identification makes living in Lebanon even more precarious. “Non-IDs — men, women and children — are exposed to arrest and imprisonment for surreptitious entry, though most of them are born in Lebanon and have never left its territories,” explains Souheila Sweid, a human rights activist.

When Palestinians without ID are arrested, they typically are released after two or three months in prison. Though brief, the imprisonment nonetheless creates severe disruptions to the individuals’ daily lives, especially to those who are lucky enough to have jobs.

In 2006, hope came in the form of an oral agreement between the Lebanese government and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) office in Beirut. The state of Lebanon began issuing identification papers to individuals who could demonstrate that they were “non-ID.” This was short-lived, however.  The issuance of ID papers was suspended in 2007 for reasons that were undisclosed but may have been related to fighting that erupted between Islamic “Fateh Al Islam” militants and the Lebanese army in Naher Al Bared refugee camp.

New negotiations between Palestinian representatives and the Lebanese government led to more than 800 cards issued between 2008 and 2010 by the Lebanese general, although these cards had to be renewed annually and didn’t give the holder any rights. After 2010 non-IDs could obtain identification papers issued from the Palestinian embassy in Beirut. But these can be used only for identifying them and not for any other benefits related to their personal status or even to obtain a driver’s license.

Palestinians living stateless in Lebanon complain bitterly that their plight has been ignored by the Lebanese authorities, the PLO, and by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNWRA), which supports the relief and human development of Palestinian refugees.  Osama, a 50-year-old who is stateless in Lebanon, said he knows of many non-ID Palestinians like himself who took the opportunity to return to Gaza via Egypt when the Muslim Brotherhood took power there in 2011 and loosened the border. Hundreds more have emigrated legally, primarily to Europe, through laisse passe, an opportunity to leave and not come back, and many others have left illegally by crossing the Mediterranean Sea. “All the circumstances oblige the Palestinian, especially the non-IDs, to search for solutions out of Lebanon because of the hopeless situation here.”

One of those searching for a solution is Eman, a 38-year-old stateless Palestinian in Lebanon. “This problem has been living with me during all my daily life and has created obstacles in school and my personal status,” he says. “Now I am looking to immigrate to find a humane life and a new future.”

As for Ahmad, who ventured onto a boat to find a new life across the Mediterranean Sea? After three months negotiating a dramatic transition from one country to another, he settled in Norway. He is beginning new life based on good sympathy from the Norwegian authorities, who believe in the young man’s capacities.

And now Abu Mouhammad is preparing his younger son for travel….

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