Results of the first official census of Palestinians in Lebanon released Thursday revealed that the population is considerably smaller than previously estimated.
The census found that 174,422 refugees lived in Lebanon’s 12 camps and “gatherings” – significantly fewer than the long-standing and widely used estimate of 450,000.
“There was a lot of talk about the number of Palestinian refugees in the country, and we were hearing record numbers in political circles, but this committee put things in perspective,” Prime Minister Saad Hariri said at the release event.
“The government launched the census, and we have today a good outcome. Some were talking about 400,000, 500,000 or 600,000 [refugees] but today the number is clear. There are 174,422.”
The initiative was spearheaded by the Lebanese Palestinian Dialogue Committee, a governmental group, with the aid of the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics and Lebanon’s Central Administration of Statistics.
In less than a year after its official launch in February, the LPDC completed its ambitious goal.
Titled “The National Population and Housing Census of Palestinian Camps and Gatherings in Lebanon,” the census counted the number of inhabitants in the camps as well as geographical areas outside camp perimeters where at least 15 Palestinian families live, called “gatherings.” Gatherings were broken down into two groups: those who lived on the outskirts of camps, largely due to conflicts such as the 2007 clashes in the Nahr al-Bared camp near Tripoli, and those in other cities or villages with significant Palestinian populations.
Areas with populations below 15 families were not included in the census.
The findings came as a surprise to some, as the standard estimate of the Palestinian refugee population in Lebanon cited by local and international media as well as aid groups has long stood around 450,000. This figure was based upon the number of refugees registered with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).
As no census in Lebanon had ever taken place, UNRWA’s registration records served as the most reliable go-to source for an estimate.
However, UNRWA has never claimed that the number of registered refugees in Lebanon should have served as a de-facto headcount for the population.
“We have 469,331 refugees officially registered with UNRWA in Lebanon,” Huda Samra, spokesperson for the U.N. agency, told The Daily Star. “This reflects the number of Palestine refugees in Lebanon who come to us to register for benefits, which include educational, vocational and health services.”
Deaths or relocation outside the camps and perhaps to other countries are not necessarily reported to UNRWA. According to Samra, the number of registered refugees only pertains to the number of refugees who have come to the agency, opening a file to receive benefits.
“There are also Palestinians who are in Lebanon who don’t register with UNRWA because they don’t need our services so we don’t have any records of them.” Samra said. “The number of registered refugees is not a headcount of the population.”
As a key stakeholder with valuable resources and data, UNRWA provided technical assistance to the LPDC as a consultant.
“From our side, we look forward to the outcome of the census because it means we will have additional data to our figures which would help us better plan our services in coordination with the Lebanese authorities,” Claudio Cordone, director of UNRWA affairs in Lebanon, previously told The Daily Star.
In addition, the census revealed that 35.8 percent of Palestinian refugees reside in the southern city of Sidon. The area hosting the second-largest amount of Palestinian refugees, at 25.1 percent, is north Lebanon, with Tyre – also in the south – hosting 14.7 percent. Beirut is home to 13.4 percent, the Chouf 7.1 percent and the Bekaa Valley 4 percent.
As a result of the aversion of Lebanese lawmakers to investigate the country’s sectarian demographics as well as the troubled history of Palestinians in Lebanon, negotiations between Lebanon’s political parties and Palestinian factions took place over three years before critical stakeholders approved conducting a census.
“This is the first time the main Lebanese parties – particularly the Lebanese Forces and Kataeb – have reached a point where they both agree this is necessary,” Imane Chamas, communications expert at the LPDC previously told The Daily Star.
At Thursday’s event, Hariri praised this historic cooperation with a joke.
“I would really like to commend the work of this committee and task force. There was calm dialogue taking place at the Grand Serail despite divisions. Knowing what we were doing to each other outside this room, you would be astonished to see the way we worked together inside,” the prime minister said, laughing.
Hariri, along with other members of the LPDC, Thursday repeatedly emphasized that the arrival of the first ever reliable figures of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon would finally put to rest fear-mongering estimates from politicians and uncertainty in policy for aid groups.
“These findings demonstrate the need to conduct censuses in all fields in a factual manner without exaggeration, because of the importance of such data,” Hassan Mneimneh, chairman of the LPDC, said.
“Such data benefits international bodies and allows them to undertake programs to help address situations instead of improvising.”