November 30, 2010

"Nahr al-Bared reconstruction delay throws civil rights into spotlight"

More than three years after Nahr al-Bared refugee camp in the north of Lebanon was destroyed, its reconstruction is finally under way. However, the process runs at a slow pace and remains only partially funded as further political obstacles appear on the horizon. Meanwhile, the Lebanese army continues to maintain a tight grip on the camp's residents and attempts to silence any criticism.

Anyone approaching the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp on the highway connecting the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli to the Syrian border can see it -- the first row of houses are four stories high. After three years of tough negotiations, countless obstacles and various delays, reconstruction is actually underway.

The master plan for the reconstruction of the camp was prepared in early 2008, only half a year after a 15-week battle between the Lebanese army and the non-Palestinian militant group Fatah al-Islam that left the camp totally devastated. The camp's 30,000 residents were displaced, some for the third or fourth time since they were expelled from Palestine by Zionist militias in 1948 -- what Palestinians call the Nakba.

Delayed reconstruction

Reconstruction effectively kicked off in November 2009. "There were a number of problems getting the whole thing started, demining in the first place," said Charlie Higgins, Project Manager for the Reconstruction of Nahr al-Bared with the UN agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA). "When we started the backfilling there, the whole archaeological controversy and the related court injunction came up, effectively delaying the process for another five months," he explained, referring to a politically-motivated attempt by Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun in 2009 to stop reconstruction of the camp because of evidence of archaeological remains.

For practical reasons, the project was split into eight stages or "packages". The first stage -- consisting of 149 buildings which house 423 of more than 5,000 displaced families -- is approaching completion, however with significant delay. "We expect to be able to hand over a number of apartments probably in early 2011," Higgins said.

The main reasons for the delay are attributed to the construction company which subcontracted major parts of the work, adding additional layers of management that increased costs while reducing control of progress on site. Higgins said that without UNRWA's constant pressure and threats of penalties, less would have been done.

Most workers on the construction site are Syrians and Palestinians. One of them is "M," a resident of the Nahr al-Bared camp in his twenties. Almost three years ago, his family was permitted to return to the outskirts of the devastated camp. There, they've been living in steel containers, which residents call the "barracks," awaiting the reconstruction of their homes. "When we moved into the temporary housing, we didn't expect to be staying in there for such a long time," M said. "Living in the barracks has always been very difficult."

During the last years, unemployment, harsh living conditions, poverty, desperation and constant psychological stress have diminished M's initial hope for a quick return. Now, he's happy to have an income at least, although his job isn't safe. By working on the first stage, M is witnessing the slow pace of reconstruction. "I have no illusions," he admitted, "it will take a few more years until my family and I will be able to return home."

According to Higgins, UNRWA's efforts to get the contractor to employ Palestinians from the camp caused problems. "Workers need special permits to access the site, and to obtain them they may have to report to the headquarters of the Lebanese Armed Forces in al-Qubbe for investigation. This discourages some people from applying for jobs, and the contractor has cited the time taken as a factor beyond their control that delays the work."

Recently, backfilling work has started in parts of the area designated for stage two of the reconstruction. UNRWA anticipates its completion by autumn 2011. The agency is determined to avoid the delays it encountered in the first sector. In addition, three schools at UNRWA's coastal compound are under construction and will be ready by next summer.

One of the major obstacles on the way to rebuilding the camp is the lack of funding. "We have $120 million, but we still need another $209 million," said Higgins. Yet he remains optimistic that once the initial group of residents have moved into the first homes, donors will be encouraged to make further pledges. According to Higgins, "We'd have a strong case to say: we can prove it can be done. Now, what about the other 16,000 or 17,000 people we need to give back their homes?"

"The adjacent area"

Even more doubtful is the reconstruction of the immediate surroundings of the camp, which have been termed by UNRWA and the Lebanese government as the "adjacent area." The area forms a ring around the official boundaries of the camp and was inhabited by almost 10,000 Palestinian refugees. As the original camp became increasingly densely populated over time, houses grew in height and width, leaving hardly any place for streets and alleys. Consequently, many residents resettled in the camp's adjacent area.

Many homes in the surrounding area were either totally or partially destroyed in the war. The Vienna document of June 2008, outlining the Lebanese government's recovery and reconstruction strategy for the camp and the nearby municipalities, charged a Tripartite Committee consisting of the government itself, UNRWA and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) with the development of a full implementation plan for recovery and reconstruction in the adjacent area.

However, the committee was never formed. UNRWA denies having a role in the reconstruction of the adjacent area, limiting its responsibility to the camp's original site. Palestinian refugees living in the adjacent area are entitled to benefit from UNRWA's services as their registration with the agency is valid regardless of where they reside. UNRWA stresses its current infrastructure and efforts in the adjacent area have to be considered as temporary and within the agency's emergency response to the displacement of the residents.

Speaking on behalf of the PLO, Marwan Abdelal said bluntly: "In political terms, there's no partnership."

The Lebanese government has not taken part in any participatory mechanism, nor has it presented a plan for the adjacent area or undertaken any significant recovery efforts yet. However, it has compensated residents of the third-ring or outlying area of the camp for war-related losses.

Problems in the adjacent area have deep roots. Decades ago, zoning laws were violated when Lebanese private land plots were subdivided in order to sell them to Palestinians. This illegal practice is common to many Lebanese villages and poor neighborhoods. The Lebanese government and its appointed official responsible for the reconstruction of the camp, Sateh Arnaout, have made it clear that the zoning laws will be strictly followed. However, if the reconstruction in the adjacent area has to happen according to Lebanon's zoning laws, half of the existing buildings would actually have to be demolished.

In addition, approximately 90 percent of the refugees' land purchases before 2001 were never fully entered in the Lebanese land registry and remain listed under the name of the former Lebanese owners. Even worse, since 2001, Palestinians are forbidden to own or inherit property. Legal reconstruction and registration is therefore impossible.

"Palestinian residents in the adjacent area whose houses were totally destroyed are the first victims of this policy, as the government still blocks their reconstruction," said Abdelal. "At least we've successfully intervened concerning the rehabilitation of the partially demolished homes."

At a recent conference at the American University of Beirut, Rana Hassan, a Master of Urban Policy and Planning candidate at the university's Architecture and Design Department, stated that a different approach is needed by the Lebanese government. She cited precedents such as the reconstruction in south Lebanon's villages and Beirut's southern Dahiya suburb after the destructive Israeli invasion of Lebanon in July 2006. Nevertheless, the Lebanese government's Recovery and Reconstruction Cell (RRC) seems to stubbornly insist on strict adherence to zoning laws when it comes to Nahr al-Bared.

No freedom of movement

Three years after the end of hostilities in Nahr al-Bared, the refugee camp and the adjacent area remain a military zone. Checkpoints manned by the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), a rigid permit system and recently reenforced barbed wire restrict access to the camp. For years, residents have protested this access regime without success. UNRWA's Higgins said that the agency believes the return of the first residents will be a change on the ground that could lead to more positive developments on access in general.

However, Abdelal argued that "The war has ended three years ago, so there's no need for the army's presence anymore."

Nor has the army eased its entry restrictions in response to the construction. "We haven't seen any significant change on access over recent months," Higgins acknowledged. Although Lebanese citizens can enter without special permits, they're subjected to questioning at the checkpoints. The refugees' permits are valid longer than before, but visitors or nongovernmental organization personnel face even more difficulties to obtaining entry permits.

Within the camp, hardly anyone dares to speak up against the LAF. "Freedom of speech is massively restricted," said Ismael Sheikh Hassan, an architect and urban planner who has worked with the community-based Nahr al-Bared Reconstruction Commission for several years. "Anyone in Nahr al-Bared can be arrested by the military intelligence and be held without access to family, lawyers, etc.," he explained. He says there are many cases that were never publicized, partly due to the fact that hardly any journalists manage to obtain army permits to access the camps.

Sheikh Hassan is convinced that under military siege, the camp's economy will never be able to function. Its residents are now almost completely dependent on international assistance.

"More importantly," Hassan said, "under the army's restrictions, there is no chance for reestablishing relations between the camp and the surrounding communities to return to a level of normality."

Even if some restrictions were relaxed, Hassan stated, any prolongation of the militarization and siege of the camp might have irreversible consequences. "Economies and consumer patterns might shift and Nahr al-Bared might never be able to return to its previous economic role in the region," he said.

Silencing the critics

In mid-August, Sheikh Hassan was arrested at a checkpoint when entering Nahr al-Bared. He was held for three days. His interrogation revealed that he was apparently detained because of an article he wrote for the Lebanese newspaper as-Safir describing the conditions in Nahr al-Bared. After his release, it remains unclear whether he'll have to appear in front of a court.

"The situation is gray," Hassan explained. "There is no official court date. But also, there's no acquittal that I'm innocent."

Over the past few months, the LAF have been conducting a campaign of intimidation against its critics. Recently, the director of a nongovernmental organization operating in the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp had his entry permit revoked after criticizing the LAF. Also, since July, the LAF refused to issue permits to the staff of another organization, the Palestinian Human Rights Organization (PHRO).

Ghassan Abdallah, the PHRO's director, is an outspoken opponent of the LAF's permit regime and intimidation practices in Nahr al-Bared. The PHRO recently released a report examining restrictions on freedom of movement in the camp [.pdf]. On 5 October, Abdallah was invited by Lebanese military intelligence to have a cup of coffee at the al-Qubbe army base. When he arrived at the base four days later, Abdallah was interrogated for three hours and even threatened with torture. In particular, Abdallah was questioned about a dialogue meeting on the LAF's access policy to Nahr al-Bared that he had co-organized.

"The security zone," Abdallah said, "is neither legal, nor humane. There's no excuse for it after three years." However, army intelligence doesn't accept this kind of criticism, he said. He expressed his outrage that after an official meeting where the Lebanese-Palestinian Dialogue Committee and the LAF were represented, he was interrogated by military intelligence.

On 16 October, Lebanese activist and blogger Farah Kobeissi was arrested at the al-Abdi checkpoint at the northern entrance to Nahr al-Bared and interrogated for 14 hours after protesting against the army which denied her entry to the camp. During the protest, she held a banner stating: "No to the humiliating permits in Nahr al-Bared Camp."

The LAF maintains full authority over the camp, which it is not reluctant to display. Three months ago, it unveiled a monument dedicated to the fallen Lebanese soldiers of the Nahr al-Bared battle at the northern entrance to the camp.

Construction worker "M" is upset that the monument doesn't mention the fifty Palestinian civilians who were killed in the conflict. "This is the wrong place for this statue," he said. "They shouldn't have put it right in front of our camp."

Palestinians a "special category"

Nahr al-Bared isn't just a Palestinian refugee camp that was destroyed and has to be rebuilt. It showcases the difficult situation of the more than 400,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, who have faced massive discrimination for more than sixty years.

At the American University of Beirut, associate professor Sari Hanafi closely observes Palestinian-Lebanese relations. He understands Lebanon's desire to have full control over its territory and inhabitants. "However," he said, "when you talk about sovereignty, you have to define who's subjected to it." For decades, Lebanon's Palestinians have been treated as a special category.

Hanafi stressed that Lebanon finally has to clarify the Palestinians' status, bear the consequences and abolish their discrimination. "If it considers them foreigners," he said, "they need to be given the possibility to work, own property and join the professional syndicates. If it considers them refugees, they have to be given all their refugee rights according to the 1951 Refugee Convention."

The debate on the Palestinians' legal situation is directly connected to the Nahr al-Bared camp, where the Lebanese police have established a center. According to the Vienna document, "community policing" is to be implemented in the camp. The project is funded with $5 million by the United States. On the ground however, the LAF and the military intelligence remain in charge. Many residents compare their rule to the former Deuxieme Bureau, the military intelligence service which had harsly controlled the Palestinian refugee camps the 1950s and '60s.

Hanafi considers the police deployment as highly problematic, as long as the inhabitants' status isn't clearly defined. "I see the police stationed in Nahr al-Bared as a counterinsurgency police, not a community police," he said. "There's no agreement with the local popular committee. On the contrary -- the first thing the police did was outlaw all the Palestinian structures there."

"In any case: If any Lebanese police in Nahr al-Bared were to implement the current discriminatory law, nearly anyone in the camp would have to be arrested -- for owning property, for working in forbidden professions, etc," Hanafi added.

Hanafi said Palestinians have legitimate reason to fear the police. "They are right in saying: 'Before you bring the police, let us know if we can have shops, associations and a popular committee.'"

Earlier this month, the UN Human Rights Council reviewed the human rights situation in Lebanon. Many member states accused Lebanon of discriminating against the Palestinian refugees. Their recommendations focused on freedom of movement, property rights and access to all professions -- which were rejected by the Lebanese government. Similarly, Norway's specific request to allow free entry into and exit from the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp was also rejected by the Lebanese delegation.

The Nahr al-Bared refugee camp highlights every aspect of the problematic relationship between Lebanon and the Palestinian refugees within its borders. However, the Lebanese government would be better served by viewing the camp as a chance to radically change the traditionally conflict-ridden relationship in which Palestinians are only viewed as a "security issue." This could be achieved by respecting Palestinians' civil rights and seriously engaging in the reconstruction of the camp.

This report was first published here by Electronic Intifada.

November 29, 2010

"Swiss Vote In an 'Illegal Law'"

Just a year after banning the construction of minarets, Swiss voters have approved a right-wing initiative demanding the automatic expulsion of criminal foreigners. The initiative violates international law.

The Swiss People's Party (SVP) triumphs: "Swiss vote for SVP!" Indeed, once again the right-wing populist party has scored a remarkable win in a national vote, after 53 percent of Swiss voters expressed their support Sunday for the party's deportation initiative.

Majorities in Switzerland's French speaking cantons opposed the initiative, while the Swiss-Germans mostly agreed. There, only in one canton (Basel- City) the initiative failed, while in all others there were majorities reaching as many as 66 percent of the vote.

Human rights organisations such as Amnesty International (AI) are "shocked" by the result. In a statement, AI speaks of a "black day for human rights in Switzerland." AI says the SVP's success is based on a xenophobic campaign.

The deportation initiative aims at establishing a mechanism enabling automatic expulsion of criminal foreigners. During its three-year campaign, the SVP has claimed that Swiss authorities are downplaying criminality among its 1.8 million foreign inhabitants. Using widely criticised black-sheep- placards, the party vowed to "establish security."

The Swiss Law on Foreigners had been totally reformed only a few years ago. In effect since early 2008, it allows Swiss authorities to revoke residence permits of foreigners convicted to long-term prison sentences. According to the Swiss Federal Court, sentences of more than one year qualify for deportation.

Marc Spescha, lawyer and expert on migration law says "there's absolutely no need for legislative action and aggravation of the current practice." According to the Federal Office for Migration (FOM), Switzerland expels 350 to 400 foreign criminals yearly. After the implementation of the deportation initiative, the FOM expects the number to rise to 1,500 expulsions a year.

Recently elected Swiss Justice Minster Simonetta Sommaruga is now charged with implementing the deportation initiative. However, her task is far from easy. "From a constitutional point of view, the initiative is not workable without violating international law and treaties," says Spescha.

The SVP has published a catalogue of crimes for which convicts will face automatic deportation. The list includes serious crimes such as murder or rape, but also vaguely defined offences such as betraying the social security system. "In accordance with the rule of law, however, cases have to be examined individually and interests have to be balanced in respect of the principle of proportionality," says Spescha.

In international law, the non-refoulement principle guarantees that no person can be deported to countries where they could face persecution. Further, the European Convention on Human Rights and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child are violated.

The initiative also puts in question the Swiss-EU Bilateral Agreement on Freedom of Movement of Persons. Swiss Justice Minister Sommaruga said she'll make sure the implementation of the initiative will be compatible with international law. No one knows how she'll do that while respecting the initiative's content.

Opponents of the deportation initiative were split. The government and a parliamentary majority made up mainly of liberal parties unsuccessfully pushed for a counter-proposal to the initiative. The refugee rights organisation Solidarité sans frontières (Sosf) opposed both the counter- proposal and the initiative, as did the Green Party and parts of the Social Democracts.

Sosf's Secretary General Moreno Casasola said the counter-proposal supported a multi-class society, where foreigners are treated differently by the law than are Swiss nationals. "Even though in comparison to the SVP initiative it's progress in terms of juristic application, at its core it remains xenophobic."

The Swiss Refugee Council (SFH) meanwhile supported the counter-proposal. Secretary-General Beat Meiner said: "After the approval of the anti-minarets initiative a year ago, anybody should have realised that the deportation could get about 60 percent of the votes if there was not counter-proposal confronting it. Thinking that the initiative could be beaten without the option of a counter-proposal is unworldly and pure reverie."

Sosf's Casasola rejects these allegations and blames the proponents of the counter-proposal for the SVP's success. "The deportation initiative wouldn't have been successful if there was straightforward, steadfast opposition. The tactic of using the counter-proposal has clearly failed."

The Swiss People's Party currently holds 55 of 200 seats in Switzerland's National Council. Its recent success is largely based on xenophobic campaigns. Damir Skenderovic, professor of contemporary history at the University of Fribourg says that the SVP has been pushing its anti-migration agenda with vast resources for the last 20 years.

"The SVP's campaign was absolutely dominant and pushed by the party's massive financial resources," he said. "Opposition was hardly visible." In Switzerland, party and campaign financing isn't regulated. Skenderovic says that a debate on establishing transparency is now necessary.

This report was first published here by IPS Inter Press Service.

November 19, 2010

"Lebanon Pressured to Improve Palestinians' Lot"

Abu Yussif doesn't want to talk about his work any more. "It's not going to help and nothing will change anyway," he says. The tall, white-haired Palestinian has just returned from work and relaxes in his little garden in the refugee camp Bourj ash-Shamali near the southern Lebanese city of Tyre.

Abu Yussif is a pharmacist. But the massive discrimination against Palestinians on the Lebanese labour market has forced him to give up his profession and work as a taxi driver.

Palestinian refugees and their descendants have been living in Lebanon for 62 years. Unlike their relatives in Jordan or Syria, they face massive legal discrimination. Lebanon is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention. But it has ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and embodied the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in its constitution.

"According to the Refugee Convention, we'd have the right to access our host country's labour market freely after three years," says Suhail al-Natour at his office in Beirut. Al-Natour heads the Human Development Centre, a Palestinian human rights organisation. "After Palestinians were excluded from working in the public sector, the Lebanese government has restricted their access to employment in the private sector," he says. "What was left were the lowest, hard jobs that most Lebanese wouldn't do."

Despite their residence in Lebanon, the approximately 250,000 Palestinian refugees are treated sometimes worse than foreigners. Access to jobs is restricted in various ways. Some professions are forbidden, many others require a work permit. In addition, approximately 30 liberal professions are controlled by syndicates. Further, Palestinians can't run their own shops or companies, as they're not allowed to own property.

For Palestinians, two options remain, says al-Natour: "Either they work inside the refugee camps, where the Lebanese state doesn't exert its authority and forbidden jobs can be practised. Or they work illegally and avoid inspections by the authorities." The labour market within the impoverished refugee camps is limited. For well-educated Palestinians it hardly poses an alternative.

At sunset, Mahmoud Aga usually goes to a small plantation outside Tyre, where he grows some fruits and vegetable and relaxes from his workday. For 15 years he's been working for a Lebanese company in Tyre. "Palestinians can't join the engineers syndicate, so I'm forced to work illegally," he says. Often working on-site, he's directly dealing with Lebanese principals. "Currently I'm overseeing the construction of a public school. Of course the Lebanese authorities know I'm Palestinian."

Aga enjoys working for his company and says his employer doesn't exploit his situation by paying him a much lower wage, as it is often the case with Palestinians. "However, I have no social rights or insurance."

Professional syndicates in Lebanon systematically deny Palestinians access. Sari Hanafi, associate professor at Beirut's American University explains: "Some of them have by-laws that restrict membership to Lebanese citizens. Others apply a reciprocity clause. However, the absence of a recognized Palestinian state makes the application of this principle impossible."

In mid-August, the Lebanese parliament amended the Labour Law. It hasn't touched the powerful position of the syndicates, however. Suhail al-Natour says that in theory the law is supposed to be above the syndicates’ rules. "Practically however, the syndicates rule."

The amended Labour Law obliges Palestinians to obtain a work permit for all jobs and eliminates the required fees. Al-Natour is far from happy, though: "There won't be more Palestinians applying for work permits, because many procedural problems remain in place." A contract with a Lebanese employer is a precondition for obtaining a permit. Al-Natour argues that employers wouldn't issue contracts as they'd have to pay for social security and declare the wage. "They benefit from exploiting Palestinians, so they don't want to change anything in the labour relations."

Similarly, Sari Hanafi stresses that neither the employee nor the employer have an interest in signing a contract. "Both would pay for the social security fund, knowing the employee wouldn't benefit from it." In summer, the parliament also amended the Social Security Law, allowing legally employed Palestinians to benefit from end-of-service indemnities. However, they remain excluded from family, illness or maternity payments.

The Palestinians' disenchantment with what's been loudly praised as a rights 'reform' made them lobby even harder at the international level. At the ninth session of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) within the UN Human Rights Council held in Geneva earlier this month, the review dedicated to Lebanon revealed the increasing awareness especially among European member states concerning the Palestinians' dire situation in Lebanon.

Rola Badran, observing the conference for the Palestinian Human Rights Organisation, says she's satisfied with the UPR session. "It showed that the rights issue of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon is on the international agenda. The Lebanese delegation seemed annoyed and under pressure and repeatedly insisted on directly responding to states' interventions that criticised the situation and recommended improvements," says Badran.

Criticism mainly focused on the denial of property rights, discrimination on the labour market and the lack of freedom of movement, as most of the Palestinian camps are encircled by the Lebanese army. But Badran is pessimistic about Lebanon changing its policy.

"At the UPR session, they repeated their usual excuses by stressing Lebanon's limited size and financial means." And, with a slightly sarcastic laugh in her voice she adds: "Lebanon's unwillingness is best illustrated by the delegation's statement that the Palestinians' presence has already been for so long and that Lebanon is still waiting for the Palestinians' return to their homeland."

This report was first published here by IPS Inter Press Service.

October 4, 2010

"Wolf Back at Swiss Doors"

Wolves have resettled in Switzerland. Their appetite for sheep and even cattle has sparked fierce debates in the mountain republic. Nature conservation organisations demand the implementation of herd-protection measures. However, alp farmers are sceptical about their practicability and costs.

"On Jun. 24, the wolf attacked our 60 sheep for the first time, killing five of them. A week later, five of the 200 sheep on the neighbouring alp were slain. The next night, the wolf killed ten more sheep." Armin Andenmatten, tenant of the Alpage du Scex in the canton Valais in south-western Switzerland, looks serious as he tells how his nightmare began. The tall and strong farmer explains that all sheep herds in the area had to be taken down to the valley immediately after the wolf attacks.

Alpage du Scex extends over an area of 450 hectares located between 1,200 and 2,500 metres above sea level. Its steep and rocky terrain includes forests, grassland, creeks and waterfalls. The view on some of Switzerland's highest peaks is stunning, and only cowbells break the silence.

Andenmatten's weather-beaten face looks thoughtful as he continues to tell how in July his cattle were attacked, leaving two cows dead and one seriously injured. Before, wolf assaults on cattle hadn't happened and were considered very unlikely. In early August, the canton Valais authorised the killing of one of the two wolves detected on Alpage du Scex. Soon after, hunters shot the predator.

Historically, the widespread clearing of the forests and the disappearance of prey animals during the 16th century forced the wolves to nourish on domestic and farm animals. Consequently, wolf hunting was intensified and in the second half of the 19th century, the predator was eradicated in Switzerland.

A whole century later, the wolves have returned to the Swiss Alps. Nowadays, 15-20 individual wolves are believed to live here, their number is on the rise, and the emergence of packs is forseeable. According to the national wolf monitoring project, wolves have killed at least 62 sheep and two cows so far in 2010. Last year a record-high 358 livestock were slain.

Ralph Manz, who works for the Valaisan section of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) considers the wolf's return to Switzerland "a great event in environment conservation." At the Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN), Reinhard Schnidrig says a majority of Swiss people welcome the wolf's return, while aggrieved parties in the mountain cantons are against it.

Indeed in the Valais, there is fierce resistance against the wolf. "It's not because we're stubborn people, but because we're the most affected. The Valais is the entry of the wolf to Switzerland," says Roberto Schmidt, a local National Councillor of the Christian Democratic People's Party (CVP). He argues that the wolf has no place in Switzerland. "Our country is too densely populated and the mountainous regions are too cramped."

On a European level, the wolf is protected by the Bern Convention of 1979. Roberto Schmidt and several other parliamentarians have successfully pushed for a downgrading of the wolf's protected status and the facilitation of its hunt in Switzerland.

"Our aim is to prevent the emergence of wolf packs. This way, the problem could at least be limited to the presence of individual wolves," says Schmidt.

Reinhard Schnidrig of FOEN doesn't consider the shooting of wolves a sustainable solution. "In order to minimise losses of farm animals in the long run, priority has to be given to protecting the herds," he explains. Mirjam Ballmer, project manager for environment conservation policy at the non- governmental organisation Pro Natura agrees and adds: "The wolf is back, that's a fact. We need improved herd-protection measures, even though they cost."

Over the years, livestock breeding in the Swiss Alps has adjusted to the absence of predators. In the Valais, sheep herds are mostly grazing freely and unprotected, which has repeatedly been criticised by the WWF and Pro Natura. Kurt Eichenberger, responsible in the WWF for biodiversity, says there's no alternative to adjustments. "Even if the wolf could be hunted, it would again and again immigrate from Italy and France and profit from unprotected sheep herds."

Herd-protection measures usually involve dogs and shepherds. Small herds are joined in order to facilitate their protection. Reinhard Schnidrig of FOEN says such measures are working well. "There are hardly any wolf attacks on protected herds and even if it happens, only very few animals are killed."

Unlike in other cantons, in the Valais such measures have hardly been implemented. There, sheep breeding is mostly done as a hobby or sideline and flocks are relatively small and heterogeneous. Kurt Eichenberger argues that in light of this, investment in herd-protection measures and shepherds is the only promising way for sheep-keeping in future." National Councillor Roberto Schmidt says that capacious herd-protection measures would cost the canton Valais 14 million Swiss francs yearly; a sum he considers totally disproportionate.

The image of the Swiss Alps presented to visitors doesn't meet reality. While as for tourists and 'flatlanders' the mountains are an idyllic area for recovery and sports, alp farmers do hard and low-paid work in an extremely harsh environment.

"There's a lack of understanding between city and countryside," says Valaisan politician Roberto Schmidt. The Valais, he say, shouldn't "become an Indian Reservation, just because city-dwellers like to find pure and untouched nature here. We do also have the right to cultivate our region!"

Valaisan WWF spokesperson Manz meanwhile finds it "incredible to demand from the world's poorest countries to protect lions and tigers, while we here are incapable of living with the wolf."

This report was first published here by IPS Inter Press Service.

August 28, 2010

"A missed opportunity - Lebanese reform failes to ease situation of Palestinian refugees"

Last week's decision by the Lebanese parliament to improve the employment situation of Palestinians has gained wide media attention and praise around the world. In fact, however, the reform hardly changes the refugees' dire conditions in Lebanon.

In short, there is no such thing as "Lebanon granting civil rights to Palestinians", as many media outlets' headlines recently wrongly proclaimed. The approximately 250.000 Palestinians living in Lebanon are still not allowed to work in any profession they like, they still aren't permitted to either own or inherit property and they still can't enjoy freedom of movement, as most of their refugee camps are surrounded by Lebanese army positions and checkpoints.

In June, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt had proposed a bill granting Palestinians various civil rights such as full employment or ownership rights. Immediately the draft law sparked an intensive discussion within Lebanon's political spectrum. It effectively split the parliament along secterian lines: While Sunni and Shiite parties voiced support, Christian parties vowed resistance. The parliamentary debate was postponed in order to allow for a consensus across the political frontlines.

Over the past few years, Palestinian organizations, activists and international bodies such as the International Crisis Group, Human Rights Watch and the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) have increasingly pushed for a civil rights reform. Events such as the war in Nahr al-Bared refugee camp in 2007 and the perceived security threats arising from the camps have also convinced many Lebanese that the living conditions of Palestinians required drastical improvement.

Rex Brynen, professor of political science at the Canadian McGill University and coordinator of the Palestinian Refugee ResearchNet wonders: "Is it really in Lebanon's interest to have a quarter million alienated, impoverished and marginalized refugees in its borders – thereby creating the conditions for another Nahr al-Bared?" He argues that extending civil and economic rights to the refugees would reduce the risks of radicalization and make it easier to sustain a dialogue on other unresolved issues.

Under Lebanese law, Palestinians are considered stateless foreigners, even though most of them were born and have spent all their life in the country. Most skilled professions have been forbidden for Palestinians, they're left with choosing between working illegally and therefore being vulnerable to exploitation, doing low-paid menial jobs or emigration.

During the negotiations over the civil rights reform, Jumblatt's original proposals were watered down massively – largely due to the Christian parties' fierce opposition. For Brynen, the outcome is a disappointment. Sari Hanafi, Associate Professor at the American University of Beirut and Palestinian activist reacts similarly and states: "Palestinians can't be happy about it at all."

Hanafi explains that still Palestinians can't work in many liberal professions regulated by syndicates. Even though they may no longer be excluded by the law, they remain discriminated by the syndicates' rules. Many skilled professions in fields such as law, medicine or construction remain off-limits to Palestinians.

Lebanon's so-called 'civil rights reform' isn't worth its name. "The new law will be useful if it is the first step to further reform," says Rex Brynen and adds: "I fear, however, that it will forestall additional reform."

The original version of this report was published here in the Swedish weekly newspaper Arbetaren.

July 6, 2010

"Swiss Knives Out for Migrants"

The disputed 'black sheep' placards may soon return to Swiss streets. The country's Federal Council and parliament have validated a right-wing initiative calling for the automatic deportation of criminal foreigners.

Foreigners make up almost 22 per cent of the country's 7.8 million inhabitants. These include people of European origin. Campaigns against foreign residents have become regular to Switzerland.

In 2008, the right-wing Swiss People's Party (SVP) handed in an initiative demanding automatic expulsion of foreign criminals. The list of covered crimes includes rape, murder, robbery, drug-dealing, burglary and betrayal of the social insurance system.

The SVP launched the initiative in 2007, only a few months ahead of national elections. Its campaign mainly built on a controversial banner depicting a black sheep being kicked out of the country, accompanied by the words "Establish security".

The campaign was harshly criticized by migrants' organisations, left-wing parties and the Federal Commission against Racism. The Swiss Refugee Council (SFH) called the initiative "extremely questionable" and said its implementation would violate international law.

Automatic deportation of convicted foreigners contradicts the non-refoulement principle in international law, which prohibits expulsion to countries where a person could face prosecution. The initiative also violates the Swiss constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights.

Because of the agreement on free movement of persons with the European Union, almost two-thirds of Switzerland's foreign population can't be expelled. The initiative therefore creates a discriminatory split within the foreigners, because it effectively only concerns people of non-European origin.

Despite the efforts of the Green Party and the Social Democrats (SP), the Federal Council and both chambers of the parliament have failed to invalidate the initiative. Swiss citizens will be asked to cast their vote Nov. 28 this year.

In the National Council, debates were heated. Walter Wobmann (SVP) said: "In Switzerland the people are sovereign and the sovereign doesn't have to pay attention to an elastic, undefinable international law." He said "Switzerland can't become a land of milk and honey for foreign criminals."

Andrea Geissbühler (SVP) claimed that "most of those foreign criminals are unteachable and laugh about our system. Once they leave prison, they straightaway commit the next crime." She added that foreigners "don't pay fines, as most of them anyway live at the state's expense."

Currently, 350 to 400 foreigners are being deported yearly in application of the existing law. Alard du Boys-Reymond, director of the Federal Office for Migration (FOM), expects the number to quadruple in case the initiative is approved.

Fearing the initiative's success, the government and a parliamentary majority support a counterproposal which will be presented to the voters. But this is largely congruent with the deportation initiative. But it does seek practicability and accordance with international law. Under the counterproposal, the degree of penalty and not the commitment of specific offences will decide automatic expulsion.

The counterproposal split the left, as some representatives chose to support it. "We try to avoid the worse. It's a choice between pest and cholera," said Maria Roth-Bernasconi (SP).

"Most supporters of the counterproposal basically agree with the SVP's agenda-setting, but regard it as poorly shaped," says Balthasar Glättli, secretary-general of Solidarité sans frontières (Sosf).

Gianni D'Amato, director of the Swiss Forum for Migration and Population Studies at the University of Neuchâtel stresses that other parties have often tried to take the wind out of the SVP's sails by making concessions. "This way the discourse is moved in favour of the SVP, putting the right-wing party into a hegemonic position."

The success of the SVP in the past four elections has frightened the rest of the political spectrum. The right-wing party increased its share of the vote from 12 percent in 1991 to 29 percent in 2007. It holds 55 of 200 seats in the National Council.

The SVP launched or announced migration or asylum-related initiatives ahead of the past four elections. "In Switzerland's direct democracy, initiatives not only force a nationwide vote, but also put political pressure on the legislature and shape the agenda-setting," says Gianni D'Amato.

Adrian Hauser from SFH says foreigner criminality is often hyped up by the right-wing in order to spread fear. Gianni D'Amato adds that the discourse suggests that the origin of a person is the main cause for her or his deviant behaviour. "In contrast, deviance of Swiss citizens is usually explained with psychological factors."

This report was first published here by IPS Inter Press Service.

June 18, 2010

"Swiss Plan to Gag Refugees"

Only two years after its last revision, the Swiss Asylum Act is about to be 'reformed' again. The changes include a gag order on political activism for asylum-seekers and a modification of the concept of a refugee.

Ever since Switzerland adopted the Asylum Act in 1981, it has constantly been tightened, largely at the expense of the refugees, as in most European countries.

In 2007 and 2008, Switzerland implemented a harshly criticised reform of the Asylum Act. Soon after, in spring 2008, Justice Minister Eveline Widmer- Schlumpf announced new measures to "reduce the attractiveness of Switzerland as a target country for asylum-seekers."

The latest reform proposals have now passed the consultation procedures and have been submitted to parliament for approval.

During the consultation procedure, 45 non-governmental organisations responded with a detailed statement slamming the proposed law revision as "unnecessary" and "baseless". Denise Graf, refugee coordinator of Amnesty International (AI), says the reform is unnecessary. "The annual number of asylum requests has in the last three years constantly been between 10,000 and 16,000. We're far from the record highs in the end of the nineties, when more than 40,000 applications per year were filed."

A highly controversial part of the revision is the plan to punish "abusive political activism" by asylum-seekers. The Federal Council argues that a number of asylum-seekers engage in exile politics only for the purpose of fabricating new reasons to be granted asylum.

Graf says the offence is insufficiently defined. Balthasar Glättli, secretary- general of the migrants' rights organisation Solidarité sans frontières (Sosf) says the provisions are "elastic", as it is up to the court to judge in particular cases. Adrian Hauser, spokesperson for the Swiss Refugee Council (SFH), says authorities would face serious difficulties proving that someone's political activities in exile are motivated by abusive motives.

Amnesty International's refugee coordinator points out that in their home countries, refugees often operate underground, as their activism is considered illegal. "Once in Switzerland," Graf says, "many asylum-seekers keep up opposition politics, but undercover. After a while, an exiled refugee may start to uncover his political activities, which could then be seen by the authorities as 'abusive'."

All three organisations regard the proposed measure as an attack on freedom of speech. "It's a totally unacceptable attempt to silence asylum-seekers," says Glättli. SFH's Hauser stresses that the European Convention on Human Rights only allows for restrictions of fundamental rights if national security, territorial integrity or public safety are in danger or to prevent disorder or crime. "Here and now, this is not the case."

Berhanu for instance had his asylum request rejected a few years ago. Having studied agricultural economics and development sciences, he once worked as an official in a regional administration in his home country Ethiopia. On a study visit to Europe in 1989 he learnt about ethnic unrest in his home region, and was warned that he'd be arrested if he were to return.

Berhanu, now staying illegally in an emergency centre near Zurich, says his political work ultimately aims at improving conditions in Ethiopia, that could enable him to return. His party, the Ginbot 7 Movement for Peace and Justice, opposes the authoritarian regime of the People's Revolutionary Democratic Front.

"Exile politics is about trying to voice out the situation and human rights abuses in our country to the rest of the world," says Berhanu. "At the same time, it's also a transfer of ideas and procedures aiming at the democratisation of Ethiopia and an attempt to strengthen home-grown opposition parties."

At a demonstration for the liberation of an imprisoned opposition leader in Geneva, Berhanu learnt about Switzerland's plans to sanction political activism of asylum-seekers. The gag order is "a law aligning with dictatorial regimes," he says. Even though open protest activities in the future may not be possible any more, Berhanu is optimistic that the Internet will allow him and his fellows to continuously mobilise to reach their objectives.

Switzerland is trying to modify the concept of a refugee. Until now, the country's asylum law has mostly targeted "untrue refugees", a distinction made to define people who migrate mainly for economic reasons. Under the new law proposal, people so far considered "true refugees" are being targeted, too.

This revision is a reaction to a decision by the former Asylum Recourse Commission (now the Federal Administrative Court) in 2005. The Commission had decided then that conscientious objectors and deserters from Eritrea would be granted asylum because their potential punishment in their home country would be politically motivated.

Fearing a rising number of asylum-seekers from Eritrea, the former right- wing justice minister Christoph Blocher and his successor Eveline Widmer- Schlumpf worked on measures to prevent the influx of Eritrean refugees. The number of asylum-seekers now seems to have become the decisive criteria.

This report was first published here by IPS Inter Press Service.

March 31, 2010

"Calls to End Forced Deportations Follow Custodial Death"

Human rights organisations have been demanding an independent inquiry into the death of a Nigerian asylum seeker who died while being deported and a stop to all forced repatriations.

Switzerland's sixth deportation flight of 2010, scheduled for the evening of Mar. 17 with 16 Nigerians on board, never took off. Among the prisoners was Alex Uzowulu, 29, whose asylum claim had been previously rejected.

According to the cantonal police of Zurich, Uzowulu refused to board the flight and "could only be constrained by the use of force." Uzowulu's arms and legs were tied up and a helmet put over his head and police claim that, thereafter, "he suddenly showed health problems." He was unbound but never revived.

The director of the Federal Office for Migration (FOM), Alard du Boys-Reymond, who happened to witness the deportation later told Swiss Television that the police acted professionally.

Eyewitnesses, however, accuse the officers of being brutal and acting "like animals." Following Uzowulu's death, the FOM has temporarily halted further special repatriation flights.

Uzowulu is the third casualty related to forced deportations from Switzerland in 11 years. In 1999, a Palestinian asylum seeker who was bound and gagged with tape suffocated to death. Two years later, a Nigerian asylum seeker died in deportation custody, after police officers pressed him to the ground.

A first autopsy by the Institute of Forensic Medicine of the University of Zurich offered no clear conclusions on the cause of Uzowulu's death. The Nigerian had been on hunger strike for a few days preceding the deportation, the authorities admit. Fellow prisoners, however, claim the young man had refused food for a much longer time.

Du Boys-Reymond said it did not matter that the deportee had been on hunger strike, but that he was declared healthy on the day of deportation. In general, he added, "it should be that only healthy persons can be deported."

Christoph Hugenschmidt, speaking on behalf of the human rights group 'augenauf' (open eyes), accused du Boys-Reymond of hypocrisy. "We have documented dozens of cases where sick and unhealthy persons have been deported," he said.

To the police statement that Uzowulu was listed as as a drug-dealer, Hugenschmidt reacted by saying: "What does that mean? He was never convicted as a drug dealer!" The activist accused the police of slander and defamation in order to condone the Nigerian's death.

Switzerland has not adopted Schengen norms and still detains rejected asylum seekers for up to two years ahead of their repatriation.

Cristina Anglet, of the solidarity network 'Solinetz' in Zurich and who regularly visits deportation prisoners at the Zurich airport said that following Uzowulu's death at least 10 of the inmates had gone on a hunger strike. "I visited on Monday (Mar.22). On the fourth floor, where mostly Africans are imprisoned, almost everybody refused food. Additionally, I knew about people on hunger strike on the second floor."

Hugenschmidt is appalled by the authorities' efforts to play down the hunger strike. "Someone may just have died from the consequences of a hunger strike," he said. Several rights organisations such as Amnesty International and various cantonal left-wing parties have demanded an independent inquiry into Uzowulu's death.

Balthasar Glättli, secretary-general of 'Solidarité sans frontières' (Sosf), an organisation promoting migrants' rights, prefers an international body such as the Committee against Torture to investigate. "The department of public prosecution is the wrong body to probe, as its ties with the police are much too close."

As a Schengen state, Switzerland is obliged to implement the European Union's 'Return Directive' according to which it has to set up an effective forced return monitoring system by spring 2011. Amnesty International demands that no forced deportations are carried out without independent monitoring.

Sosf's Glättli remains sceptical: "Monitoring only makes sense if the deployed observers are present during the whole process. I'd prefer if deportees were accompanied by lawyers who could legally represent and defend them." Glättli says that during forced deportation detainees are often trussed up. "The authorities put up with the death of people."

Sosf states that the right of individuals to physical integrity, and therefore their protection from potentially deadly deportation procedures, have to be regarded as more important than Switzerland's desire to remove people from its territory.

This report was first published here by IPS Inter Press Service.

March 12, 2010

"Nahr al-Bared camp still far from being rebuilt"

After the Palestinian refugee camp Nahr al-Bared was totally destroyed in a war in 2007, the Lebanese government promised the 30.000 refugees a quick reconstruction and the return to the camp. However, the government's words haven't materialized yet, while the camp remains under the tight grip of the Lebanese army.

„Nahr al-Bared wasn't destroyed to be rebuilt. It was destroyed and that's it. I want to emigrate!“ These are the words of Marwan Hamed, a 30-years old Palestinian refugee currently living in a 18 square meters 'temporary shelter' on the outskirts of Nahr al-Bared refugee camp in northern Lebanon. After fleeing to a school in the near Beddawi refugee camp in May 2007, he has returned to Nahr al-Bared early 2008. Having lived in an iron barracks for almost two years, Hamed has lost any hope that the camp would be rebuilt, living conditions would improve and he could find work.

In May 2007, a 15-weeks battle between the non-Palestinian militant group Fatah al-Islam and the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) erupted in Nahr al-Bared. The fighting left 54 civilians and approximately 400 soldiers and militants dead. The refugee camp was left totally destroyed and while it was under sole control of the LAF, homes were burnt down, blown up and systematically looted.

Already during the war, former Lebanese prime minister Fouad Siniora made three promises to the refugees: “Your displacement is temporary, your return definitive and the reconstruction of Nahr al-Bared certain.” The government's willingness to rebuild Nahr al-Bared is remarkable keeping in mind the conflict-ridden past of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. Camps destroyed during the civil war such as Tel az-Zataar or Jisr al-Basha were never rebuilt and the rejection of permanent resettlement of Palestinian refugees remains one of the very few consensuses within Lebanon's political arena.

After the government along with the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA) and the grassroots Nahr al-Bared Reconstruction Commission (NBRC) launched a master plan for the reconstruction of the camp in February 2008, a donor conference was held in Vienna in June 2008. In the document outlining its recovery and reconstruction strategy for Nahr al-Bared, the Lebanese government states the camp “will not return to the previous environmental, social and political status quo ante that facilitated its takeover by terrorists.”

Over and over, prime minister Siniora vowed Nahr al-Bared once rebuilt would come under the authority of the Lebanese state and its security forces, thereby becoming a “model camp” for the other official eleven Palestinian refugee camps on Lebanese soil. At the iron barracks, cynicism and frustration reign. Marwan Hamed angrily asks: “Nahr al-Bared is supposed to be a model? A model for what? A model for unemployment, depression and denial?”

About two thirds of the camp's inhabitants used to live in the original core of Nahr al-Bared, which was totally destroyed. After most of the rubble was removed, the foundation stone for the new camp was laid in spring 2009. Reconstruction has only started in November though, as in summer a moratorium issued by Lebanon's state council stopped all works. At a time where power struggles blocked the formation of the new government, Michel Aoun, leader of the Free Patriotic Movement abused the finding of antique ruins under Nahr al-Bared's rubble to file a plea. The process was also delayed by the wast amounts of unexploded ordnance and the expropriation of the land from its private owners.

Charlie Higgins, UNRWA's Project Manager for Nahr al-Bared's Reconstruction, is pleased by the start of the reconstruction, but warns: “We've just crossed the starting line and it's been a long time actually getting to the starting line.” At NBRC's improvised offices in Nahr al-Bared everybody remains quite realistic, too. Abu Ali Mawed, a member of NBRC says: “People are everything but optimistic regarding reconstruction. There were too many unfulfilled promises and the pace of the process is very slow.” Mawed adds he'd start to feel optimistic only when seeing the first people living in their homes.

At UNRWA's heavily-guarded compound in Tripoli, Higgins says not technical difficulties were the worst to overcome, but administrative, legal and political ones. “The reconstruction of Nahr al-Bared is not a completely accepted issue in Lebanon. There are people who, for one reason or another, object to rebuilding Nahr al-Bared,” he says and warns that he expects further difficulties in the future.

One of the problems ahead is that UNRWA has so far only been able to raise about a third of the 328 million dollars required to rebuild Nahr al-Bared. “This does neither surprise us nor should it stop us from moving ahead,” says Higgins, who's optimistic that UNRWA will raise more money once donors see the first buildings going up.

For Amr Saededine, an independent journalist following the events in Nahr al-Bared, a major problem is the Lebanese army's role: “The government permitted the army to even interfere in the planning of the reconstruction.” He feels reminded of how in the 19th century Baron Haussmann under Napoleon III planned Paris: The LAF look at Nahr al-Bared solely from a security perspective. Saededine says the LAF had unsuccessfully tried to forbid the building of balconies, but – as did Israel in Jenin camp – insisted the streets would be broad enough so tanks could enter. He blames the civilian offices on the Lebanese side for hiding behind the LAF: “All these civilians working in their specific field, reconstruction, need to get approval by the army. But it's about rebuilding a civilian area, not about something else!”

The LAF have declared Nahr al-Bared a military zone. The army has sealed-off the bulldozed core of the camp and also controls and limits access to the surrounding area, where almost 20.000 refugees have temporarily resettled. Without special permits issued by the army's secret service, entering Nahr al-Bared isn't possible. Journalists either aren't allowed in or are accompanied by soldiers – even during interviews.

Cutting off Nahr al-Bared from the surrounding Lebanese communities not only negatively affects relations between Palestinians and Lebanese, but also hampers the camp's economic recovery. Before the war, half of Nahr al-Bared's customers were Lebanese, as they profited from the camp's cheap prices and the ability of businessmen to sell on credit. Since autumn 2007, when the first refugees were allowed to return to the camp, many businesses have re-opened. This superficial impression is misleading, however.

In Jar al-'Amr, a neighborhood at the southern edge of the camp, an old woman running a grocery store complains: “In the beginning I was alone. Now, several others have opened in the same street and I sell far less.” Similar complaints can be heard all over Nahr al-Bared, as tiny grocery stores, coffee shops, bakeries and sandwich restaurants are abundant. The Palestinian-Arab Women League (PAWL) runs several programs to provide local entrepreneurs with in-kind grants. Sahar Itani, who coordinates the programs, says that the market is saturated, as the customer base is limited to those living inside the fenced-off camp.

Further down the street in Jar al-'Amr, Rima Ghannam and her husband have spent the last two years rebuilding their damaged, totally looted and partly burnt carpenter workshop. Small factories and companies like their's weren't as unusual in Nahr al-Bared as in other camps. Before the war, access to the camp was unlimited and business was prosperous. Ghannam proudly points at the new machines in the workshop and says: “We've rebuilt it the way it was. However, we need to display our work in a big gallery not in a small room and wait until a customers comes and buys it.”

Ghannam says that using lower quality raw material and selling piece by piece is difficult. She explains: “If we were able to return to producing collections of beds and furniture, the situation would certainly improve.” Being highly indebted and cut-off from their customers, she hopes the army will open the checkpoints, thereby facilitating traffic to the nearby highway connecting Tripoli to the Syrian border.

The LAF meanwhile claim their security arrangements “aim first and foremost to preserve people’s safety through preventing the infiltration of terrorists and wanted people, smuggling of weapons, explosives, and illegal material.“ In contrast, UNRWA's Charlie Higgins considers the LAF's security arrangements “a significant barrier to the recovery of the camp in every sense.” He describes the economic situation in the camp as “stuck.”

In October, the LAF dropped the requirement of permits for Lebanese citizens to enter the camp. However, the number of Lebanese customers has hardly increased, as they still face delays, searches and questioning at al-Abdi, the only checkpoint they're allowed to enter from. Several Lebanese citizens have reported using their old permits again, as their entry would be quicker.

Within Nahr al-Bared, the army and its secret service rule at will. The refugees have become very careful talking openly and in public about issues related to these institutions or the Lebanese state. The secret service has abused the refugees' difficult situation and recruited countless informants, especially women, whose services they mostly 'pay' with phone cards.

Recently, the Internal Security Forces (ISF), Lebanon's police, have set up a post at the northern edge of the camp. Their current role seems to be limited to patrolling the streets. Marwan Abdulal, leader of the theoretically left-wing Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and the Palestine Liberation Organization's (PLO) person in charge for the reconstruction of Nahr al-Bared says “the problem is that when the ISF entered, the army remained present instead of making place for the ISF.” He demands the transformation of Nahr al-Bared from a military into a civilian area and the withdrawal of the army.

Future security arrangements in Nahr al-Bared are currently heavily debated. The Lebanese government intends to keep Nahr al-Bared under the state's sovereignty and introduce the Anglo-Saxon model of community policing in the camp. The U.S. currently fund a US$ 6 million program to train the ISF. Saededine criticizes the idea as absurd: “They drop it with parachutes and make Nahr al-Bared a testing field. It's neither implemented in Lebanon nor anywhere in the region.” He argues that the Lebanese government is prioritizing the implementation of community policing to having a dialogue with the Palestinians leading to an agreement.

Meanwhile, the PLO prefers to to keep up Palestinian self-governance and reform the camp's popular committee. It proposes the formation of an internal police coordinating with the popular committee and the ISF, which would be stationed outside the camp. The PLO's Marwan Abdulal, himself a resident of Nahr al-Bared, says that introducing direct Lebanese policing in the camp wouldn't work: “If the law remains discriminatory, but should be enforced, the experiment is doomed to fail.”

Indeed, implementing current Lebanese law in Nahr al-Bared would mean the ISF had to arrest basically everyone, says Saededine: “Palestinians aren't allowed to own property, to work in many professions, to open shops etc.” Obviously, the implementation of Lebanese law in the camp would mean to engage in a serious discussion of civil rights for Palestinians in Lebanon. In no other Arab country, Palestinians have been facing as much legal discrimination as in Lebanon.

For Abdulal it is clear: “It's impossible to have Lebanese state security without human security for Palestinians. Palestinians need to be given civil rights.” In a positive step, in 2005 the Lebanese-Palestinian Dialogue Committee (LPDC) was established by the Lebanese Council of Ministers. The committee's mandate is to improve living conditions of the country's 250.000 Palestinian refugees. So far however, the LPDC's impact has been marginal and the most important issues such as giving Palestinians free access to the Lebanese labour market haven't been tackled.

Nahr al-Bared's reconstruction is a very political undertaking and all sides involved regard it as deeply connected to the future of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and their relationship to their host country. There are opportunities and indeed, some Lebanese political actors are willing to fundamentally change the Palestinian's situation to the better. However, many obstacles remain and developments in Nahr al-Bared over the last two and a half years indicate an ongoing hegemony of security considerations regarding the treatment of Palestinians in Lebanon, which contradicts all the nice words and promises.

The original version of this report was published in the Swedish weekly newspaper Arbetaren.

January 18, 2010

"Nahr al-Bared's economic recovery hampered by military siege"

More than two years after the end of the fighting, the war-torn Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared, located in northern Lebanon, is far from the model the Lebanese government has promised the camp would become. Instead, reconstruction of the camp is delayed, the area is a military zone with restricted access, and the camp's economy is stalled and residents are largely unemployed.

Following a 15-week war in the summer of 2007 between the Lebanese army and the militant group Fatah al-Islam, who occupied portions of the camp, Nahr al-Bared was totally destroyed. So far, about two-thirds of its 30,000 Palestinian inhabitants have returned and resettled on the camp's outskirts. One of them is Jihad Awed, who sits in front of his tiny clothing store and tells about the good times before the war. "My shop was larger and I sold more products. It went well and I made a living. I sold between $130 to $200 per day."

Having returned to Nahr al-Bared after the war, Awed started to sell shoes, but went bankrupt. He sold his wife's jewellery and opened his new store, which barely makes $30 a day. "I can't live on it. The rent is $100 per month. I buy cigarettes and coffee and my income is gone," Awed explains.

Charlie Higgins, Project Manager for the Reconstruction of Nahr al-Bared with the UN agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA), describes the economic situation in the camp as "stuck." Higgins says that "It hasn't changed very much since the early months after the end of the fighting. The economy has not regenerated and the employment situation has not significantly improved."

He explains that residents are still living in a temporary environment and partly haven't returned to Nahr al-Bared. The camp has also lost its linkage to the surrounding Lebanese communities. Higgins states that "The area remains within a military perimeter and that has effectively regulated and to some extent prevented the re-establishment of the close integration that existed before."

Indeed, most of the shopkeepers in Nahr al-Bared blame the lack of customers from outside for their terrible situation. Nasser Nassar, who refills and sells cooking gas canisters, claims that "The checkpoints and the siege [by the Lebanese army] are the biggest problem." He explains that unlike before, Lebanese customers prefer to buy outside the camp, adding, "Why should they come to the camp, requiring permits and subjecting themselves to being searched and having their IDs checked?"

Unlike other Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, Nahr al-Bared once was an open economic hub for the whole region. According to a 2008 survey by UNRWA, about half of its customers were Lebanese. Since the fighting ended, the Lebanese army has maintained control over what remains of the camp, including its destroyed centre and heavily-damaged adjacent area, as well as the Palestinian refugee population that called Nahr al-Bared home. Access to the camp is only possible with special permits issued by the army's intelligence service.

Various non-governmental organizations have attempted to recover Nahr al-Bared's economy. Premiere Urgence (PU) has provided 220 entrepreneurs with in-kind grants. Julien Mulliez, PU's head of mission, says: "Recovery of the economy is obviously compromised by the current conditions of access to Nahr al-Bared. The problem is that access to the camp is dependent on prior authorization [by the Lebanese army], resulting in fewer customers visiting the camp."

The Palestinian-Arab Women's League (PAWL) has conducted five similar projects. Sahar Itani, PAWL's Program Coordinator, says she fears for the sustainability of the beneficiaries' businesses. "It's because of the limited customer base that's currently available in the market in Nahr al-Bared," she explains. "We've reached a market saturation situation."

In his clothing store, Awed complains that the camp's merchants are selling to each other, while everybody is just sitting around. "The money circulates on the same spot. Nothing comes in," he says.

Hassan Mawed, the president of Nahr al-Bared's traders' committee, estimates that Lebanese account for less than five percent of all current customers. According to Mawed, "This is far from being enough to boost Nahr al-Bared's economy. In fact there's some kind of bartering going on in the camp."

Sakher Sha'ar is a hairdresser whose salon is located on Nahr al-Bared's former main street. Sha'ar laments the lack work, explaining that "There are 29 barber salons here. As long as nobody can enter from outside, 29 are too many for the area."

A few blocks down the street, Salim Mawed has a barber shop. He says his daily sales are about $20 compared to approximately $35 before the war, when he owned his shop. "Now I have to pay rent for the salon, the tools etc.," he says. "In the end nothing remains."

Before the war, around two-thirds of Nahr al-Bared's labour force worked within the camp's boundaries. As Palestinian refugees face heavy legal and social discrimination in the Lebanese labour market, working outside the camp is difficult. Unemployment has re-enforced the will of many to emigrate. Mawed says that "If they opened the door to emigration, nobody would stay. I'd be the first one. I'd leave everything here."

Since mid-October, the Lebanese army has allowed Lebanese citizens to enter the camp without extra permits, but only through al-Abdi checkpoint at the northern edge of the camp. However, the army's procedural change has neither attracted more Lebanese customers nor facilitated access to the camp.

A journalist who requested anonymity recently entered Nahr al-Bared along with a Lebanese friend. "We counted 11 commands and questions to move 10 meters: 'Your ID! Open! Step out! Park!' It's terrible. This is a civilian area, not an army base! It's collective punishment of the people."

A Lebanese employee of a non-governmental organization operating in Nahr al-Bared requesting anonymity says she still uses her permit, although she could enter without, as access is easier and quicker: "I rather spend 20 to 30 minutes more in our field office helping people instead of waiting until my name is cleared."

The Lebanese government has declared that once rebuilt, Nahr al-Bared camp should become a model for better relationships between Palestinian refugees and their Lebanese hosts. But Hassan Mawed is tired of hearing this talk over and over. Raising his voice, he asks, "A model for what? A model for a prison? For a siege, checkpoints and humiliation? It should be a model that gives us freedom, civil rights, the right to work and property rights!"

Reacting to increasing complaints by residents, the media, local organizations and parties as well as international organizations operating in Nahr al-Bared, the army recently issued a statement claiming the security arrangements "aim first and foremost to preserve people's safety through preventing the infiltration of terrorists and wanted people, smuggling of weapons, explosives, and illegal material."

However, Marwan Abdulal, the Palestine Liberation Organization's official in charge of the reconstruction of Nahr al-Bared, has demanded the army lift the siege of the camp. According to Abdulal, "The basic requirement for the recovery of the camp's economy and social life is the removal of the checkpoints or at least the abolishment of the permits."

Similarly, UNRWA's Charlie Higgins considers the Lebanese army's security arrangements "a significant barrier to the recovery of the camp in every sense." It remains uncertain if the Lebanese government and the army will respond to these complaints and allow Nahr al-Bared to be rebuilt or if the siege will remain in place and the promises unfulfilled.

This report was first published here by Electronic Lebanon.

"New Lebanese security approach rejected by Palestinians"

Recent inter-factional clashes in Lebanon's Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp once more illustrated the fragile security situation in some of its Palestinian camps. Lebanese plans to take over security within the camps are rejected by the Palestinians.

The new year had hardly begun when the sounds of gunfire and rocket- propelled grenades rocked Ain al-Hilweh camp on the outskirts of the Lebanese coastal city Saida. The most recent clash broke out when fighters belonging to the militant Islamist group Jund ash-Sham attacked an office of the mainstream Fatah movement within the camp. The fierce fighting was contained and eventually stopped when the camp's security committee intervened.

Ain al-Hilweh and other refugee camps are home to various Palestinian nationalist groups, but also host different Islamist forces that the Lebanese government considers a threat to the state's security and stability. In 2007, one of those groups called Fatah al-Islam engaged the Lebanese army in a 15-week battle in Nahr al-Bared, the country's most northern camp. Nahr al- Bared was reduced to rubble, and 30,000 fled.

Lebanon hosts around 250,000 Palestinian refugees, many living in 12 officially recognised refugee camps. They have no education or employment rights comparable to the Lebanese. The Cairo Agreement of 1969 put the camps under control of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), and banned Lebanese security forces from entering.

Although the Lebanese government withdrew from the Cairo Agreement in the late 1980s and theoretically reclaimed its rule over the camps, the state has refrained from exercising its authority. Politically, the camps have been ruled by popular committees, while security committees have been serving as an internal police force.

When in 2006 Fatah al-Islam trickled into Nahr al-Bared however, the camp only had a weak popular committee and no functioning security committee. The Palestinian parties were divided, and consequently failed to push the well-armed Islamist group out of the camp, effectively allowing it to take over.

At the 2008 international donor conference for the recovery and reconstruction of Nahr al-Bared, the Lebanese government declared that once rebuilt the camp would "not return to the environmental, social and political status quo ante that facilitated its takeover by terrorists", but be put under its authority.

It announced that the rule of law would be enforced in the camp by community and proximity policing through the Internal Security Forces (ISF). Pointing to the destroyed camp as an experimental ground, the government stressed that success in Nahr al-Bared would promote a security model for other Palestinian refugee camps.

In October 2009, a senior ISF delegation toured the United States to study community policing. The visit was part of a programme sponsored by the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Narcotics and Law Enforcement. Assistance under the programme includes construction of an ISF police station, and equipment such as patrol vehicles and duty gear. Since 2006, the U.S. government has provided Lebanon with more than half a billion dollars in security assistance.

Community policing is an approach to police work in specific, well-defined areas. In theory, it builds on mutually beneficial ties between police and community members, and emphasises community partnership and problem solving. The community police benefits from expertise and resources existing within communities.

Marwan Abdulal, the PLO person in charge of the reconstruction of Nahr al- Bared doesn't like the idea of implementing the concept in the camps. "It doesn't take into account the peculiarity of Lebanon and the Palestinians' presence in Lebanon," he says. If Lebanese law remained discriminatory, and is enforced, he said the experiment is doomed to fail.

"The concept is fashionable. The word 'community' sells," says Amr Saededine, an independent journalist. He says community policing is about getting people to spy on one another, and report to the security service. Ghassan Abdallah, director general of the Palestinian Human Rights Organisation, points at polls indicating that a large majority of the refugees do not trust the Lebanese security forces, and object to them controlling the camps.

Beirut and the government palace are far from the ruins, rubble and muddy streets of Nahr al-Bared. Here, the reality is different. More than two years after the war, about 20,000 refugees have returned to the outskirts of the camp, which is still surrounded by army posts, barbed wire and five checkpoints. Access for Palestinians and foreigners is only permitted with extra permits issued by the Mukhabarat, the Lebanese army's intelligence service.

The Mukhabarat constantly patrol the streets and have been recruiting scores of new informants. An atmosphere of fear has spread across Nahr al-Bared. People avoid talking about sensitive issues such as the Lebanese state or its security apparatus in the presence of people they don't know.

Women especially are recruited. Informants mostly get paid in phone cards. Others receive practical benefits like easier access to the camp. A social worker who doesn't want to be identified says, "It's as if they planted a virus within society, which is difficult to get rid of." Living under military rule and having no security committee, the camp's residents are unable to clamp down on the informants.

The army's control over daily life "makes people explode at some point," says Sakher Sha'ar, a hairdresser in Nahr al-Bared's main street. "Why do they treat us this way? Why don't they treat us like the residents of the surrounding Lebanese communities? We're not their enemies." Many refugees remember the Palestinian revolution in the late 1960s which was a reaction to the humiliating rule of the army's intelligence branch known as the 'deuxième bureau'. The uprising started in Nahr al-Bared.

A few months ago, the ISF set up a police post at the northern edge of Nahr al-Bared. The PLO's Marwan Abdulal welcomes steps to transform the military zone into a civilian area. But he says "the problem is that when the ISF entered, the army remained present." Indeed, the ISF's role in the camp is currently almost zero, while the army keeps control, intimidating and arresting people.

The Lebanese ministry of interior seems unsure how to let the ISF enforce the law. "They would have to imprison the whole camp," says journalist Amr Saededine. "Palestinians are forbidden to own property, to work in many professions, to open a shop, to found a civil society organisation..." Serious law enforcement in the camps by the ISF would ultimately require a fundamental change in Lebanon's discriminating law.

The issue at stake in Nahr al-Bared is not just its future security arrangements, but its governance in general. The PLO has realised the need for a reform of the popular committee. Abdulal suggests a civilian body similar to a municipality, consisting of the parties as well as representatives of the civil society.

On internal security, the PLO suggests self-governance to counter the government's intention to introduce community policing. Pointing to the successful model practised in Syria, Abdulal says there should be a Palestinian police force attached to the popular committee and coordinating with the ISF, which should remain outside the camp.

A similar model has informally been practised in most Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. Their security committees have been coordinating with the Lebanese authorities, and have repeatedly handed over suspects to the state. Amr Saededine argues that if there was a serious attempt to re- organise camp governance and security, one would have to look at how society itself used to solve its problems, "but dropping the Anglo-Saxon concept of community policing by parachutes on the camp is irrational."

After some Lebanese media recently reported on a stun-grenade attack in Rashidiyeh camp in Lebanon's south, Sultan Abu al-Aynayn, a Fatah official, accused them of bloating up this personal act and depicting it as having political and security dimensions. He argued that this steady focus on Palestinians as a security problem obscures their demands for civil and social rights.

Abdulal insists that it is impossible to have Lebanese state security without human security for Palestinians. "There has to be a general feeling of security among Palestinians, in the political, economic, social and cultural sense."

In Lebanon, Palestinians are still seen solely through security eyes. In Nahr al- Bared, the government has allowed the army to play a major role in the reconstruction project. It hasn't shown will to revise its treatment of Palestinians and finally - after more than 60 years of their presence - abolish the legal discrimination against them. Current developments in the laboratory called Nahr al-Bared point to a one-sided imposition of direct rule on Palestinians rather than a "mutually beneficial partnership" between them and their hosts.

This report was first published here by IPS Inter Press Service.

January 8, 2010

"Police Smash School for Undocumented Migrants"

The Zurich police have raided and demolished an autonomously run school where undocumented migrants held language classes. The raid came as the Swiss government admitted that its harsh treatment of undocumented asylum- seekers has partly failed, and following an announcement that it is again planning a revision of federal asylum law.

Several police officers, half of them in riot gear, stormed the Autonomous School Zurich (ASZ) Thursday. After chasing away the squatters and holding off protesting supporters with pepper spray, officers started confiscating teaching materials and technical utilities. The police partly demolished the single-storey building and removed its windows, leaving it uninhabitable.

The ASZ had started operating at the Allenmoos School on Zurich's outskirts last April, when activists squatted the empty building. The autonomous school operated according to do-it-yourself principles. Anyone could take, or offer, courses for free. As a result, a broad variety of training ranging from open-source computer courses to classes in solar energy fundamentals was available.

The biggest group using the facilities has been the grassroots association 'Education for All' founded by migrants and anti-racist activists to support undocumented migrants. The project is intended to be a form of resistance against exclusion, discrimination and oppression, the association claims.

Teacher Ruedi Salzmann who witnessed the police raid said he was taken aback. "We expected to stay until summer." The Zurich city council had said late November that it tolerated the occupation, and expected it to last until summer 2010, when construction for a new project was due to start. The city council argued that removing the squatters would only lead to further occupations and more costs as buildings would have to be guarded.

Michael Raissig, an activist with the Right-to-Stay Collective says many volunteers have invested a lot of time and energy in running the project. "It's a hard blow for us that all we've built up is demolished within a few hours and without prior warning."

Switzerland is estimated to host 100,000 to 200,000 so-called 'sans- papiers', undocumented migrants. Over the past few years, the country with a population of almost eight million has repeatedly tightened its asylum policy. In 2009, approximately 16,000 people applied for asylum in Switzerland, while about 5,000 asylum-seekers either 'voluntarily' left the country or were deported.

In September 2006, a harsh revision of the asylum law was accepted by 68 percent of voters. The revision meant asylum claims would only be looked into if the requesting person presented valid identification papers such as a passport. Some migrants don't bring identity papers with them; others who fled oppression were never issued papers by their authorities for political reasons.

In late December, the Swiss Federal Office for Migration came up with new proposals to "facilitate" the current asylum regime. It stated that certain measures such as the non-admission decision had failed to increase the number of asylums seekers properly declaring their identity, as in 2009 only 29 percent (compared to 26 percent in 2006) of the asylum seekers actually presented valid documents.

The Federal Office for Migration now plans to consider asylum claims even if the applicant doesn't present proper identity papers. But it intends to cut appeal deadlines for negative decisions by half to 15 days.

Harsh asylum laws have pushed more migrants into illegality, and their asylum claims were either denied in the first place or at a later stage during the regular process. 'Sans-papiers' teacher Ruedi Salzmann says for Swiss authorities asylum seekers "cease to exist as soon as they receive a negative decision. However, the fact is that they're still here." Through the squatted school for undocumented migrants, he said, these people became visible and audible again.

Bah Saidou, himself a 'sans-papiers', was one of the teachers at ASZ. He taught other migrants the basics of German language. He's upset about the police raid and says having no place to teach and learn has dire consequences for himself and his fellows, as learning the German language facilitated their integration into society. "Most of us live in emergency centres and don't have access to education. The autonomous school has for many of us been the only chance to educate."

Zurich police said they carried out the raid due to an illegal and dangerous electric cable installed by the squatters. Mario Cortesi, spokesperson for the city police, said the raid was due to security reasons; a caretaker from a nearby school suffered an electric shock when he checked the wires. The squatters say the city had offered to install a provisional cable but failed to do so, forcing them to help themselves.

"This is just a pretence to get rid of the school and oppose the unwelcome self-initiative by the 'sans-papiers'," says Michael Raissig. His colleague Saidou says if the problem was really only technical, matters could have been discussed together to find a solution. "But simply raiding the school and confiscating all our material isn't a solution."

Raissig says their project isn't dead. Teacher Salzmann says 'Education for All' is discussing future steps and that there's a strong consensus to continue. "We'll look for a new place and are ready to hold classes in public squares or facilities."

This report was first published here by IPS Inter Press Service.