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Lebanon allows Palestinian refugees to work legally

Lebanon is a small, mountainous country which gained its independence in 1943. Long the refuge of persecuted minorities, the country has an extremely mixed populace, with over seventeen officially recognised religious sects.

Around 60% of the population is made up of Shia and Sunni Muslims (as well as other smaller Islamic sects) and Christians (of all denominations) account for nearly 40%.

From 1975 until 1990, the country suffered a long civil war and a short war with Israel occurred in 2006, which left 1,200 Lebanese dead and many thousands homeless.

But with growth of 9% in 2008 and 2009 and a boom in construction and tourism, the Lebanese economy is buoyant again and most people are enjoying a better life again.

There is however one group of people who continue to struggle in this heart of the Middle East. Over many decades, Lebanon has experienced large influxes of Palestinian refugees, who are estimated to number between 250,000 and 400,000 people. Most of these have settled in one of 12 refugee camps, which are sprawling slums of cheaply-built dwellings with open sewers running down the alleyways.

Up till now, there have been considerable restraints on how these Palestinians were able to improve their lives, even though the children of some families in Lebanon are already fourth-generation.

One key difficulty has been the lack of legal status. The Lebanese parliament has finally just passed a law which gives some legal status to the Palestinians, allowing them to work legally for the first time. Some areas of work are still restricted, such as public sector roles and professions like medicine, law and engineering, where membership of

Lebanese syndicates is required. Nevertheless, the new law is an important step forward, because those who are employed in the private sector will be able to claim for any work-related accidents or go to court if they are being mistreated. They will also be eligible to pay into retirement and social security funds.

However, Palestinians in Lebanon are still not allowed to buy property, even though living conditions in the camps are squalid. And they will continue to be denied access to state medical and educational services. These are provided by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) which is very short of funds.

Many Lebanese would prefer the Palestinians to return to their original homes, even though these are mostly situated in areas which are now in Israel. And if the Palestinians choose to stay, some feel it is the responsibility of the international community to invest more money in UNRWA. But at least, with the legal right to work permits, the way is a little more open for the Palestinians living in Lebanon to find better jobs and improve life for themselves and their families.

Laurinda Luffman signature