Page last updated at 02:23 GMT, Wednesday, 2 April 2008 03:23 UK

Non-ID Palestinians in Lebanon limbo

By Mike Sergeant
BBC News, Sidon

Mohammed and Maysa with relatives
Mohammed and Maysa (centre) face many problems over their status

Mohammed and his sister Maysa are Palestinians, but they have no passports and no identity cards.

They are not even given the status of refugees. Legally, they don't seem to exist at all.

They are among about 3,000 so-called "non-ID" Palestinians in Lebanon.

Many don't qualify for aid and have been unable to leave the refugee camps, find jobs or even get married.

"Last year the government prevented me from doing my exams," says Mohammed, a 21-year-old student.

"They arrested me because I don't have an ID. Without an ID, I can't do anything."

"We face many problems," says his sister Maysa. "No travel, no marriage, no work. We live in the camp like a prison."

Their mother Aida has lived a life of regret.

"It's my husband's problem," she says. "If I had known at the time what a big issue this would be for us, I would never have married him."

Late arrivals

Aida's husband is one of the original "non-ID" Palestinians who came to Lebanon in the 1970s. His lack of official status has been passed on to his children.

Their situation is very different from that of the majority of Lebanon's 400,000 Palestinian refugees. Most come from families who fled here when the state of Israel was created in 1948.

Ragheb Bitar
I was forced to be a fighter. If this continues, I will tell my children and my grandchildren to be fighters too
Ragheb Bitar
But the "non-ID" Palestinians arrived more than 20 years later via Jordan. Many of them came to Lebanon to fight for the Palestine Liberation Organisation after its expulsion from Jordan in 1971.

"They cannot move out of the camp. They cannot work officially. They cannot register their marriages, their births, their deaths.

"They cannot own a car or a motorbike. So they face a lot of problems," says Mireille Chiha of the Danish Refugee Council, an organisation which has been working with the families.

On a hill overlooking Ein al-Hilweh, the biggest refugee camp in Lebanon, I meet one of the original "non-ID" Palestinians.

Surrounded by chickens and almond trees, Ragheb Bitar looks every inch the proud former warrior. He fought in many wars against Israel.

But for the past 20 years, he hasn't been able to go beyond the camp's perimeter fence or see some of his children.

"People without IDs, we are all prisoners," he says. "I was forced to be a fighter. If this continues, I will tell my children and my grandchildren to be fighters too."

Promised liberty

That is a possibility that is worrying the Lebanese government. Relations with the Palestinians have a complex and turbulent history.

With hundreds of thousands of refugees already registered in this small country, the authorities have been reluctant since the 1970s to accept any extra burden.

But that could finally be about to change.

Dr Khalil Makkawi represents the Lebanese government. He says "non-IDs" will now get similar status to the others.

"They will be able to move freely from one place to the other," he says "They will have the liberty to do whatever they want just like other Palestinians in Lebanon."

The process of documenting the "non-ID" Palestinians will begin over the next few weeks. Why the change of policy?

It's partly an acceptance of the reality that these people are Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon, with nowhere else to go.

Dr Makkawi also says that there is a potential security risk, if thousands of people are living in the camps with no official identity.

Equality for "non-ID" refugees, though, won't help solve a much bigger issue.

The fate of all the 400,000 Palestinians in Lebanon is still unsettled, after almost 60 years.

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