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.