Middle East

Fighting radicalism with reform in Lebanon refugee camps

Palestinian refugee holds ration book
Image caption Palestinian refugees say they are given meagre food rations and struggle to feed their families

With growing fears about radical Islam and international pressure to improve conditions, Lebanon's government has made improvements in Palestinian refugee camps. But as Wyre Davies reports from Beirut, the changes only go so far.

In the sprawling streets of the Burj Brajneh refugee camp, in the heart of Beirut, almost 20,000 people struggle to make a living.

Mothers try to feed their children with food vouchers from the United Nations, and families live in ramshackle buildings with few of the basic facilities enjoyed by people in wider Lebanese society.

Mohammed Al Shuli's grandfather fled to Lebanon in 1948 from his home in what is now the Israeli city of Acco.

"The camp is miserable, people are poor, they don't have the means to live and they don't even have the legal right to work in Lebanon," says the 24-year-old, who works in a small, family-run pharmacy - where he knows that he, at least, is relatively well-off.

More than 400,000 Palestinians or people of Palestinian descent live in poverty in squalid, cramped conditions in a dozen camps across Lebanon.

Compared to those in other countries in the region, like Syria or Jordan, the refugees have precious few rights.

That has to change, says Hoda Samra Souaiby, from Unrwa - the UN agency which provides aid and assistance.

"Even a refugee has the right to dignity," she says. "At the end of the day the head of a family who cannot cater for the needs of his children feels humiliated."

Rising extremism

Many of the camps have become hotbeds for radicalism and Islamic fundamentalism.

Huge pictures of Palestinian fighters hang from the walls and armed groups are often based in the maze-like alleyways.

In 2007, fighting erupted at the Nahr al-Bared camp, just north of Tripoli, as Lebanese soldiers fought with the the extremist Fatah al-Islam group.

The camp was destroyed and 27,000 refugees were displaced. Basem al-Shabb, an MP from Lebanon's governing coalition, believes improvements are urgently needed.

"The squalid conditions have become oppressing and the rise of Islamic fundamentalists means the camps can fall under their power - threatening the state of Lebanon and the whole area," he argues.

"The problems of the Palestinians in camps could spill over to affect wider society, so we can no longer ignore the misery of 400,000 people."

'Second-class citizens'

The Lebanese parliament has recently passed new measures affecting the refugees but few expect the modifications to change anything.

Image caption Posters in the refugee camp show Palestinians who have died in fighting and are seen as martyrs

While refugees will be able to work legally in some parts of the private sector, public sector jobs are off-limits and they will not get access to state education or health facilities.

One place where the changes have been welcomed is, ironically, Israel - the government there hoping it will weaken the link between the refugees and their desire to return to their former homes.

The fate of more than 4.5 million Palestinian refugees, who lost their homes and livelihoods after the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict, is one of the most contentious issues in the peace talks.

Critics say improvements to the lives of refugees in Lebanon are merely cosmetic and they will continue to live as second-class citizens in a country where they are accused by some of upsetting the delicate social and religious balance.

The Lebanese government says more changes will follow, if only to prevent these camps and their downtrodden residents finding solace in radical Islam.

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