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The UN’s Palestinian Refugee Problem

By Arlene Kushner

How to solve their plight and end the half-century-long crisis.


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In the aftermath of World War II, when it became apparent that millions of destitute refugees were not going to be attended to by existing organizations, the United Nations saw fit to establish an agency—the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR)—to coordinate assistance to them. The UNHCR worked in accordance with the binding parameters and regulations of the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, adopted in Geneva in 1951. In the decades that followed, as the problem of refugees increasingly took on a global dimension, the need arose for a global organization dedicated to their assistance. Thus did a relatively small and specialized agency expand into an organization with offices in over 100 countries, an annual budget of $1 billion, and the ability to provide both legal protection and emergency relief. Today, the UNHCR’s makeshift blue tents have become immediately recognizable symbols of humanitarian assistance to millions of displaced people around the world. Combined with measures such as monitoring national compliance with international refugee law,the UNHCR takes as its ultimate goal the attainment of long-term or “durable” solutions to refugee crises, such as voluntary repatriation or resettlement in countries of asylum or “third” countries. To date, the UNHCR has helped over 25 million people successfully restart their lives.
There is one group of refugees, however, for whom no durable solution has been found in the more than fifty years since their problems began: Palestinian Arabs who fled Israel in the period 1948-1949 as a result of its War of Independence. Originally numbering between 500,000 and 750,000 persons, there are today more than 4 million refugees, the majority of whom live in or near one of 59 camps in five areas, making for one of the world’s largest and most enduring refugee problems.1 There is no practicable solution to their situation in sight.
The plight of the Palestinian refugees is, at first glance, fairly surprising. Whereas the rest of the world’s refugees are the concern of the UNHCR, the Palestinians are the sole group of refugees with a UN agency dedicated exclusively to their care: The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which operates independently of the Convention on refugees. The differences between the two agencies are striking: In addition to classifying Palestinian refugees by a distinct set of criteria, UNRWA, through an international aid package of several hundred millions of dollars a year, serves as the main provider of healthcare, education, relief, and social services for its client population—the sort of assistance UNHCR usually devolves to refugees’ countries of asylum. Moreover, while the UNHCR actively seeks durable solutions to refugee problems, UNRWA has declined to entertain any permanent solution for the Palestinian refugees, insisting instead on a politically unfeasible “return” to pre-1967 Israel.2
By operating outside the norms accepted by the international community, UNRWA has succeeded in perpetuating a growing refugee problem. By establishing its own definition of a “Palestinian refugee” and actively encouraging resettlement in Israel, UNRWA not only has failed to resolve the Palestinian refugee issue, but has also lost sight of its original humanitarian goals, subordinating them instead to the political aims of the Arab world. Moreover, by hiring from within its own client population, UNRWA has at best created a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy with regard to terrorist activity in its midst, and at worst has become so enmeshed in the terrorist population as to be effectively held hostage by it. In the final analysis, UNRWA’s handling of the Palestinian refugee issue is both antagonistic to the achievement of peace in the Middle East and detrimental to the plight of the refugees themselves.
Given these failings, and in light of the existence of an entirely separate and far more successful UN strategy for dealing with refugees under the aegis of UNHCR, a serious reconsideration of the value of UNRWA’s continued existence seems in order.

Arlene Kushner is the author of Disclosed: Inside the Palestinian Authority and the PLO (Pavilion, 2004) and has written reports on UNRWA for the Center for Near East Research.






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