Recent amendments to Lebanese law grant work permits to Palestinians in the private sector, and some welfare benefits, and are an important step in the right direction, according to the UN's agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA), but many Palestinians say they fall short of what they had hoped for.
The new law, which took effect on 17 August, allows Palestinians to work in all professions open to foreigners; and work permits, which hitherto cost US$300, are free of charge.
Palestinians can also benefit from end of service payouts from a special account in the Social Security Fund and have the right to medical treatment in the event of work-related accidents.
However, a major grievance is that Palestinians are still barred from working in professions like medicine, engineering, law, real estate management, and accountancy.
The new law has changed very little, said Layla el-Ali, head of Association Najdeh (AN), a Palestinian NGO in Lebanon.
"Palestinians never took out many work permits, as they mainly work inside the [Palestinian refugee] camps or are self-employed." According to AN, 249 work permits were issued in 2007-2009 and of these only four were new.
UNRWA estimates that 425,000 Palestinians live in Lebanon, the UN website IRIN reports in a discussion about Palestinian reaction to the change in workplace laws.
"The socio-economic conditions in all 12 camps in Lebanon are deplorable," said Salvatore Lombardo, director of UNRWA affairs in Lebanon. "An increased number of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are deprived of the enjoyment of a decent standard of living."
Lebanon's professional unions don't want Palestinians to compete as doctors, lawyers, engineers
The new law fails to address the causes for discrimination and inequality, Ahmed Moor wrote in the Guardian last week.
For instance, parliament waived work permit fees, but the process of applying for those permits remains prohibitively cumbersome. Before hiring a Palestinian, a Lebanese employer must demonstrate to the ministry of labour that a Lebanese national cannot perform the job. It's this bureaucratic hurdle that forces many unskilled Palestinian labourers to work without permits – and the new law does nothing to mitigate its effects.
Furthermore, many Palestinian professionals are prohibited from working as doctors, lawyers or engineers because the professional syndicates here disallow their participation. The government can remove all barriers to employment, but if organised labour doesn't do the same, the effect will be minimal. That's why the new law hasn't changed the status quo in meaningful ways.
Sixty years and still treated as foreigners
In Syria, where some 472,000 registered Palestinian refugees live in nine official and three unofficial camps, the refugees have the same rights and privileges as Syrian citizens, except citizenship.
In Jordan the 1.9 million registered refugees have full Jordanian citizenship with the exception of about 120,000 refugees originally from the Gaza Strip who are eligible for temporary Jordanian passports, according to UNRWA.
UNRWA has criticized Lebanon for not adhering to basic human rights such as allowing refugees to work in certain professions and own property.
"Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are regarded as foreigners and thus effectively excluded from civil and socio-economic rights," said Lombardo.
"This is in part due to the fact that several rights are conditioned on the principle of reciprocity, which in the absence of a Palestinian state creates an insurmountable impediment."
Although the new law has cancelled the reciprocity principle, the AN's el-Ali said it did not go far enough. "We wanted to cancel the reciprocity laws from social law, as well as lift the ban on becoming a member of professional syndicates," thereby allowing Palestinians permanent residency, the right to own property and access to all jobs, she said.
Fear of settlement
The granting of more rights to the mainly Sunni Muslim Palestinians, who make up about 10 percent of Lebanon's population, has met fierce opposition. Many fear permanent residency may lead to naturalization and permanent settlement, thus upsetting Lebanon's fragile confessional balance.
Ali Kasem, head of a group of Palestinian law graduates, disputes this: "Naturalization means you cancel your old nationality. Permanent residency means you keep your nationality until you return home. The biggest dream is to return to our Homeland."
El-Ali doubts Palestinian human rights will be addressed any time soon due to divisions in Lebanese politics. "I am afraid it will be hard to make any other changes in the near future."
Palestinian refugee Chehade Zaher is a doctor at the Palestinian Red Crescent clinic in the Bir Hassan area of southern Beirut. He has been offered a better paid job in a private Lebanese clinic, which he is considering. "The problem is that I would be working there illegally and if there is a problem I can face arrest."
Like many Palestinians, he worries about his pension eight years away. "My brother is a driver and he has money put aside. I have nothing. So if the clinic doesn't work out I am thinking of becoming a taxi driver when I retire."