By Kamal Abouchedid

Abstract: This paper investigates the way Palestinian refugees aged 15-24 perceive the challenges they endure in refugee camps and gatherings; alongside the actions they take within their communities to counter multilayered vulnerabilities. Studies on refugees in Lebanon have included youth as subjects or samples to study their attitudes, perceptions, and demographic characteristics. Despite the proliferation of studies on refugees and displaced communities in Lebanon, youth have not been engaged as participants who share their subjective experiences about the challenges they face and interact with in marginalized contexts. 

This paper seeks to fill this gap in the literature by drawing on the subjective experiences and meanings that resonate with Palestinian youth about the challenges they endure and how they counter them through civic action and community engagement. It first furnishes background information about the Palestinian refugee status in Lebanon and rationalizes the importance of studying youth engagement in civic action. Second, it discusses the methodology employed in data collection from 10 refugee camps and gatherings in Lebanon in 2019 utilizing 48 Focus Group Discussions (FGDs). 

Findings show that the legacy of threats was strongly ingrained in the minds of young Palestinians, exacerbating their perils and anxieties. Participating youth also narrated the positive outcomes of volunteer work and civic engagement in addressing societal problems within their communities. Their narrative has shown a tendency towards autonomous civic action away from the influence of factions that govern the camps. 

Through the dissemination of FGD results, this paper will share lessons and insights derived from the subjective experiences of young refugees, curated into strategies aimed at empowering them to bolster their resilient livelihoods, self-reliance, and civic participation in community development.


Throughout Lebanon, there are a variety of vulnerable communities who endure multiple deprivations, with young adults, particularly young refugees, facing multilayered challenges. Despite burgeoning research on refugees and displaced communities in Lebanon, few policy studies investigate how young refugees perceive the challenges they endure in marginalized contexts and the actions they take to bolster their resilient livelihoods, self-reliance, and participation in community development.

Palestinian youth face a unique set of protracted challenges including social exclusion, marginalization, and armed conflict, tied to complex history that dates to the Palestinian Nakba of 1948, when around 750,000 Palestinians were pulled out of their towns and villages in Palestine to the neighboring countries, including Lebanon.1

This paper draws on the subjective experiences and meanings that resonate with Palestinian youth about the challenges they endure and how they counter them in marginalized contexts. Research suggests that youth social responsibility closely relates to civic engagement aiming at redressing community problems.2 This paper seeks to fill this gap in the literature by focusing on Palestinian youth civic action and community engagement, which has not been adequately explored in refugee contexts in Lebanon.

One explanation for the distinct paucity of studies on the civic engagement of Palestinian youth is the dominant interest of policymakers in the living conditions of Palestinian refugees for humanitarian intervention. As such, studies and reports have slanted towards normative analyses of the socio-economic and demographic characteristics of camp dwellers, often focusing on poverty, unemployment, and lack of access to quality education.3 Quantitative measures have also been used to measure the well-being of Palestinian refugees. For instance, Salti, Chaaban, Irani, and Mokdad (2020) developed a youth well-being index comparing Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon (PRL) with their brethren from Syria (PRS). One key finding revealed the female edge in educational attainment, urging the need for gender-specific strategies for the school-to-work transition for both PRL and PRS.4 Given the deep-rooted poverty in refugee settings, health and food insecurity among Palestinian refugees have been also investigated. Ghattas et. al. (2015) surveyed the living conditions, health, and status of food security among Palestinian refugee households in Lebanon, revealing high levels of severe food insecurity in the population.5

Another line of research has examined the governance structures of the camps that constrict poverty alleviation. Using focus group interviews as an alternative to employing vernacular of socioeconomic and sociodemographic variables in refugee studies, Hanafi and Long (2010) studied governance structures in Nahr al-Bared and Beddawi refugee camps in Northern Lebanon and Ein El Hilweh in Sidon, South Lebanon in 2017–18.6 The study concluded that the lack of legitimate governance structures in the camps has hampered the improvement of socio-economic and living conditions of refugees, threatening the security of Palestinians and Lebanese alike.

With the influx of displaced Syrians in Lebanon in 2011, a segment of studies has investigated Palestinian refugees’ attitudes to displaced Syrians in their newly adjoining environment. Nilsson and Badran (2019) examined Palestinians’ perceptions of refugee camp life and attitudes towards displaced Syrians using focus-group interviews in Ein El Hilweh camp in Sidon. The study showed relative deprivation of Palestinian refugees due to displaced Syrians who were accused of taking Palestinian jobs and increasing poverty in the camp.7

More recently, the topic of youth radicalization has been added to the stock of literature on young people in Lebanon. Although there is a lack of consensus on a standardized definition of radicalization it has been tied to exclusion, poverty, and racism. One thesis has argued that radicalization finds fertile ground in poverty-stricken areas characterized by rampant unemployment and inequalities.8 For instance, in a study on radicalization in Pakistan, Naz et al. (2022) found that militancy, terrorism, and radicalization have foundations in deep rooted poverty and unemployment environments.9 Taking Ein El Hilweh as a research site that has been historically depicted as a seedbed of violence, Saadi (2020) concluded that the degrading socioeconomic conditions and the lack of human rights for refugees in both the host country and the camps have been associated with the rise of radical and extremist ideas among Palestinian youth.10 Depending on the camp, some factions go to lengths in recruiting Palestinian youth to bolster their political and military presence, taking advantage of their degrading socioeconomic conditions and dire need for jobs and income. Some of these factions are extremist and tend to indoctrinate youth with radical ideas that gain traction in poverty environments. Saadi’s study has ignored discussing counterweights to the faction-oriented political economy of the camps and potential radicalization such as civic action undertaken by Palestinian youth.

This paper departs from previous normative studies in that it is neither based on demographic nor socioeconomic screening of the living conditions of Palestinian refugees—it is a qualitative study aiming to convey how Palestinian youth in marginalized contexts characterize the challenges they face and how they counter them through civic action. From a methodological standpoint, this paper has analyzed far more data than previous studies on refugees in Lebanon did. It involved 391 young males and females in 48 FGDs drawn from 10 refugee camps and gatherings.

Palestinian youth were invited to respond to the following questions:

1. Do you feel worried or threatened by a certain group, surroundings, or certain events?

2. In your opinion, what are the best ways to address the problems of the community around you, and are you willing to participate in them?

Discussing these questions from the prism of young refugees is key to evidence-driven policymaking that resonates with the youth as they aspire to mitigate, as far as possible, marginalization in refugee camps and gatherings.

The following section discusses background information on the demographic characteristics and living conditions of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. It is succeeded by a discussion on the study's methodology and its operational field measures. The findings obtained from FDGs are discussed and analyzed in a subsequent section, followed by conclusions and policy recommendations.

Background of Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon

Palestinians in Lebanon live either in refugee camps, informal gatherings, or within cities made up of mostly middle- and upper-class Christians.11 According to the Socio-Economic Survey of Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon conducted by the American University of Beirut (AUB) and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) in 2010, six out of ten registered refugees live in 12 UNRWA Palestinian Refugees camps, while 38% live in approximately 27 informal gatherings near the camps or within Lebanese neighborhoods.12 It is worth noting that Palestinian camps do not only accommodate Palestinian refugees but also displaced Syrians and Palestinian refugees from Syria (PRS) who fled the Syrian war that started in 2011.

According to Totah (2020), not all Palestinian refugee camps are geographically secluded. Some Palestinian camps such as the Shatila camp are embedded within Lebanese residential areas. On the other hand, the borders of other camps are clearly demarcated by Lebanese security checkpoints such as Ein El Hilweh refugee camp in Sidon, South Lebanon.13 Palestinian political groups and factions govern these camps — an arrangement dating back to the 1969 Cairo Accords.

Estimates of the Palestinian refugee population in Lebanon are contradictory. The standard population estimate of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon cited in the literature is 450,000,14 which is close to the estimate provided by the UNRWA, which stood around 475,075 as of January 1, 2019.15 However, the Lebanese government's sponsored Lebanese-Palestinian Dialogue Committee, which launched the first-ever census in 2017, provided a much lower estimate, standing at 174,422 Palestinian refugees in 12 refugee camps and 156 informal gatherings.16 The lack of accurate statistics is not conducive to furnishing data for proper policymaking or for planning and sustainable development programs addressing refugee needs.

It is common knowledge that Palestinian refugees in Lebanon endure degrading living conditions, inequalities, and social exclusion. Their persona non grata status17 is the main challenge for realizing their full potential given that they are treated as pariahs often living in extreme deprivation. Most notably, Palestinians face significant difficulty in obtaining work permits to access the formal labor market.18 The youth are the most affected segment of refugees because they are curtailed from accessing decent jobs due to discriminatory labor laws. Since 2005, Palestinian refugees have been granted permission to occupy about 70 professions. In 2021, the Ministry of Labor granted Palestinian refugees the right to work in trade-union regulated professions.19 Whether this ministerial decision will be implemented remains to be seen, given that syndicates and orders must amend their rules and regulations to allow Palestinians to work in designated professions such as engineering. Overall, the decision of the Ministry of Labor has stirred discriminatory discourses against Palestinian refugees.

Based on analyses of FGDs on the professional life experience of Palestinian youth in marginalized contexts in Lebanon in 2019, participants considered citizenship as the main barrier to their employment in 22 focus groups, followed by the discriminatory labor law voiced in 11 focus groups. The least pronounced barrier was identified in preferential treatment in access to jobs favoring Syrian workers20 (see Graph 1).

Graph 1: Barriers to Employment in the Eyes of Palestinian Youth in Lebanon

In most countries, higher educational achievement corresponds with greater employment success. This is not the case of Palestinians in Lebanon. The UNRWA is the subsidiary organ of the United Nations that caters for the educational needs of Palestinian children and youth. According to the statistical bulletin of the Center for Educational Research and Development in Lebanon (CERD) in 2022-2023, there were 38,205 Palestinian students enrolled in UNRWA schools, constituting 3.54% of the total number of students in the K-12 system in Lebanon. Gender parity is achieved among Palestinian students with 48% being males and 52% females.21 Palestinian students follow the Lebanese curriculum to align with national curriculum standards by virtue of educational laws, but are excluded from the Lebanese labor market as they work up the ladder of education due to the glass ceiling set by Lebanon's discriminatory labor laws and regulations.22 Thus, the paradigm shift from the ‘care and maintenance’ regime in the 1990s to refugee support towards self-reliance and resilient livelihoods23 is impeded by occupational restriction laws, including restrictions on refugees’ employment and freedom of movement.24

Against this backdrop, Palestinian youth react to the challenges of unemployment in different ways. A study on the public sphere of Palestinian youth revealed that most Palestinian males in the sample said they spend their time in sedentary leisure (cafes and computer centers for gaming), while females spend their time private spheres at home or with relatives. Sports, cultural activities, and volunteering work stood at 15%,25 representing a nuanced yet promising civic engagement that is worth buttressing among the youth as a counterweight to unemployment, poverty, and social exclusion (see Graph 2). This last element represents the core of this paper.

Graph 2: The Public Space of Palestinian Youth



1: Muhammad Ali Khalidi, ed. (2001). Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon (Beirut, Lebanon: Institute for Palestine Studies, 2001)

2: Hope, E. (2015). Preparing to Participate: The Role of Youth Social Responsibility and Political Efficacy on Civic Engagement for Black Early Adolescents. Child Indicators Research. 9. 10.1007/s12187-015-9331-5.

3: Khalidi, A.; Tabbarah, R. (2009). Working unprotected: Contributions of Palestinian refugees residing in camps and some gatherings to the Lebanese economy, report on 2008 household survey and qualitative research.

4: Salti, N., Chaaban, J. Irani, A. and Al Mokdad, R. (2020). A Multi‑Dimensional Measure of Well‑being among Youth: The Case of Palestinian Refugee Youth in Lebanon. Social Indicators Research, 154, pp. 1-34.

5: Ghattas, H., Sassine, A., Seyfert, K., Nord, M. & Sahyoun, N. (2015). Prevalence and Correlates of Food Insecurity among Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon: Data from a Household Survey. PloS one. 10. e0130724. 10.1371/journal.pone.0130724.

6: Hanafi, S. and Long, T. (2010). Governance, Governmentalities, and the State of Exception in the Palestinian Refugee Camps of Lebanon. Journal of Refugee Studies, 23(2): 134–159.

7: Nilsson M., Badran D. (2019). Conflicts and Relative Deprivation in Ein El Hilweh: Palestinian Refugees in the Shadow of the Syrian Civil War. Journal of Refugee Studies. 1-21,

8: Neumann, P. R. (2013). The trouble with radicalization. International Affairs, 89(4), 873-893.

9: Naz, A.A., Ullah, S.I., Khan, M.N., & Khan, N.A. (2022). Spreading Terrorism, Militancy, and Radicalization in Malakand Division Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Pakistan: An Analysis of the Economic Factors. Clinical Social Work and Health Intervention, 13(3), pp. 24-33. DOI:10.22359/cswhi_13_3_03.

10: Saadi, M. R. (2020). Youth Radicalization: The Case of Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon. Unpublished Master Thesis, Lebanese American University.

11: Martin, D. (2014). From spaces of exception to ‘campscapes’: Palestinian refugee camps and informal settlements in Beirut. Political Geography Vol. 44, pp. 9-18.

12: Socio-Economic Survey of Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon, American University of Beirut (AUB Study), December 2010.

13: Totah, F. (2020). Palestinian Refugees between the City and the Camp. International Journal of Middle East Studies. 52. 1-15. 10.1017/S0020743820000768.

14: Siklawi, R (2019) ‘The Palestinian Refugee Camps in Lebanon Post 1990: Dilemmas of Survival and Return to Palestine’. Arab Studies Quarterly (41(1): 78-94.



17: Belényesi, P. and Abuhaydar, Z. (2017). The Palestinian-Lebanese paradox the socio-cultural conundrum of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon: law, economics, and culture. Society and Economy 39(2): 251–270.

18: Shalan, M. (2019). In pursuit of self-reliance – perspectives of refugees in Jordan. Archnet-IJAR, Vol. 13 (3), pp. 612-626.


20: Abouchedid, K. (2021). “The Professional Life of Palestinian Youth”, in (El-Amine, A., Editor), Youth in Marginalized Settings in Lebanon: Lebanese Poverty Pockets, Palestinian Camps, and Syrian Gatherings, pp. 27-48 Beirut: Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs, American University of Beirut, and Lebanese Association for Educational Studies (LAES).


22: Shuayb, M. (2014). The art of inclusive exclusions: educating the Palestinian refugee students in Lebanon. Refugee Survey Quarterly, Vol.33(2), pp. 20-37.

23: Carpi, E. (2019) ‘Towards a Neo-cosmetic Humanitarianism: Refugee Self-reliance as a Social-cohesion Regime in Lebanon’s Halba’. Journal of Refugee Studies 33(1): 224-244.

24: Shalan, M. (2019). In pursuit of self-reliance – perspectives of refugees in Jordan. Archnet-IJAR, Vol. 13 (3), pp. 612-626.

25: Abouchedid, K. (2021). “The involvement of Palestinian Youth in between the Public Social Space, Participation, and Retreat”, pp. 41-57, in (El-Amine, A., Editor), The Involvement of the Youth in the Social Space between participation and Retreat Beirut: Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs, American University of Beirut, and Lebanese Association for Educational Studies (LAES).

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Feb 11, 2024
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