Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, August/September 1996, Page 9
The Lost Tribe
Palestinians Expelled by Libya Stranded in Makeshift Camp
By Salma A. Shawa
It is not unusual for Palestinians to be expelled or ousted. It is also not unusual for them to live a nomad’s life while dreaming of returning to their “homeland.” Daily humiliations have to be perceived as bringing the dream closer. However, reality constantly reminds Palestinians that they are abandoned and “stateless.”
“These pictures look great after being colored,” said a visiting diplomat at the UNRWA headquarters in Gaza. “How did you manage to develop pictures of 1948 refugees so professionally?” The answer to that question was, unfortunately, that the pictures were not of 1948 refugees. There were taken in 1995.
The current chain of misfortunes started for the refugees pictured with the U.N. blockade of Libya in 1992. This was followed by Libya’s attempt to expand employment opportunities for its own nationals. This was accompanied by a widening gulf of distrust between the Libyan government and the PLO, especially after the signing of the Oslo accords. In September 1995, Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi announced that all Palestinians in Libya, estimated at 30,000, would be expelled.
He meant it to be a blow to the newly formed Palestinian Authority. His message to the Palestinian Authority was, “If you do not have sovereignty, do not claim to be in control. Iif you cannot provide shelter for your citizens, do not pretend to be their governor.” Unfortunately, he chose to make his point at the expense of real Palestinians—new-born babies, frail grandparents and eternally unemployed teachers.
The expulsions began. Palestinians were put on ships without a destination. Lebanon and Syria accepted a fraction who had lived there previously. Egypt allowed Palestinian expellees with valid travel documents to pass through its land, but none were allowed to stay for more than 24 hours. Thirty-six Palestinians were stranded for several weeks at the Rafah border between Egypt and Gaza, waiting for permission from the Israeli authorities to enter Gaza.
But the majority of those expelled had no place to go. The next month, in October 1995, Addafi redefined the order to allow the luckless Palestinians to return to Libya until their “government” finds a better place for them.
A makeshift camp at Saloum, on Libya’s border with Egypt, already has come into being at the end of August 1995, when the first Palestinians were expelled. The number of its residents has varied from 200 to 600 ever since. The estimated number currently is 159 people, comprising 19 families. Most of the residents are “low-income earners” who were in Libya “solely because no other country will have them.”1 One-third of the residents are women, and five families are headed by single women. Children constitute a third of the camp residents.
A temporary Untied National inter-agency mission was formed in October 1995 to study andassess the conditions of Palestinians stranded at the Libyan-Egyptian border. The effort was led by the United Nations High Commission for refugees (UNHCR) and included UNRWA and UNICEF. These agencies coordinated with Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) and the Palestine mission to the Arab League to provide some basic needs for the camp residents. The inter-agency mission’s role was very modest and was not aimed at changing the quality of life in the camp.
UNRWA cannot provide these refugees with food or health services on a regular basis since it does not operate in either Libya or Egypt. Palestinian refugees are excluded from the “1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees,”2 and therefore do not receive the full support of UNHCR.
The U.N. mission does not play any role in finding a permanent political solution for the refugees in the camp. According to U.N. officials, the Saloum camp is a political problem that has to be solved among the Arab governments. According to official Libyan sources, UNHCR is “politically cross-eyed,” since it blames the hardships being suffered by the camp’s occupants on the differences between Arab regimes instead of advocating their return to their Palestinian homeland.3International efforts toward Palestinian refugees generally have been confined to giving assistance rather than confronting Israel and forcing it to let the refugees return to their homes. In practice, U.N. agencies do not “intervene in inter-Arab disputes” unless Western interests are jeopardized, as in the case of the Gulf war. One of the few human rights organizations that has mentioned the case of the expellees from Libya was the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, which suggested to CNN that these Palestinians might be “news,” and that their story is troublesome enough to be heard.
Most of the Palestinians in the camp left Libya in September and October of 1995 because their employment contracts were ended by the Libyan authorities. Some of the camp inhabitants are said to have been departed by the Libyan government directly from prison. There is one Palestinian who suffers from severe psychological problems and is said to constitute a danger to other camp residents.
Most of these resident have Egyptian travel documents and several have family links with Egypt. But in the cases of Palestinian men married to Egyptian women, the Palestinian men and their children are denied automatic residency in Egypt.