Palestinians in Lebanon are perceived as a “social security threat” and experience daily hurdles as they try to attain their basic right to education, healthcare and social services.
Because they are refugees, Palestinians face institutionalised discrimination that fuels their unemployment and systematically marginalises their lives. For example, they cannot go to public schools, own property or practise regulated professions.
Lack of access to the Lebanese job market forces many Palestinian children to engage in child labour because their parents believe that work at an early age offers children more opportunities than education.
In Lebanon, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) operates 81 primary schools and five secondary schools. Of note is the fact that Lebanon is the only country where UNRWA secondary schools exist within the Arab region. Palestinian refugees have limited access to public secondary education and many students cannot afford the high cost of private secondary schooling.
In terms of higher education, refugee students also cannot afford public and private universities due to the constantly rising college costs in a country grappling with a deep economic crisis. To continue offering education, many universities have decided to dollarise a significant portion of their tuition in order to survive the financial meltdown and sustain student services.
As a result, dropout rates among refugee students have recently increased by 18% due to high levels of extreme poverty within the Palestinian community in Lebanon, according to 2021 figures from the Palestinian Return Centre.
Both male and female students drop out at a rate of 39%, 10 times higher than Lebanese students, whereas those with high school diplomas or university degrees constitute a minority and are twice less likely than their Lebanese counterparts to have these qualifications.
Palestinians’ right to education
Although Lebanon is a signatory nation to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, Lebanese laws discriminate against Palestinian refugees on the basis of race and national origin.
Amnesty International, for instance, reports that “limitations on the right to education, the right to be registered, and the right to social security” remain a major obstacle preventing Palestinian refugees from securing a dignified life.
The Lebanese authorities also enforce multiple measures that restrict Palestinian refugees’ access to private education, citing infrastructure issues and lack of space for local students.
This narrative raises an important question regarding the systemic oppression of refugees in Lebanon: is Lebanon intentionally tormenting Palestinian refugees by blocking refugee education?
To answer this question, we posed it to four Palestinian sophomores majoring in business at a private higher education institution in Beirut, the capital of Lebanon. We also asked them to suggest solutions to help refugee students cope with the challenges.
According to Hamza, a 20-year-old student majoring in marketing: “What is happening is driven by hatred and ignorance … Not to be able to afford education means that a decision has been made at the highest level to make our lives miserable. There is no future without education.”
Similarly, Sara stated: “Denying us our right to education serves one purpose, which is the colonisation of my homeland, Palestine … I wouldn’t have been able to enter university if it were not for the scholarship I got from a foreign donor.”
Ali concurred: “The authorities are making quality education inaccessible for everyone, not just for Palestinians. This hurts locals and refugees alike. The government should realise that they are destroying Lebanon and the country will not rise again without equality of education.”
Finally, Samer argued that refugees around the world had been made scapegoats for the benefit of the “global powers”.
Specifically, he said: “It is obvious that refugees’ education is not a priority for the international community who do not really care about the lost generations that wars create … They will strive to keep this social division whereby the poor stay poor and rich people become wealthier.”
When it came to potential solutions, all four students agreed that refugees should be allowed to work after graduation in order to reduce child labour and increase the integration of refugees into the Lebanese social tapestry.