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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.


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.

UNRWA, the first UN agency charged with the task of aiding refugees, was established by General Assembly Resolution 302 on December 8, 1949. The agency was tasked with directing relief and works programs for the Palestinian Arab refugees of Israel’s War of Independence, who had fled into the neighboring Arab regions of Gaza (then under Egyptian control), Judea and Samaria (then controlled by Jordan), Jordan proper, Lebanon, and Syria.

From the outset, UNRWA was granted an extraordinary degree of autonomy, largely due to pressure from the UN’s Arab bloc. Unlike most other UN agencies, for instance, the appointment of UNRWA’s commissioner general does not require any approval or confirmation from the General Assembly, but is rather left to the discretion of the UN secretary general, in consultation with UNRWA’s ten-member Advisory Committee. In addition, UNRWA’s Advisory Committee wields no executive or operative authority.3 Bound by no existing statute or international compact, it was free to set its own definitions and guidelines—definitions which differ markedly from those used by UNHCR. Thus, it described “Palestinian refugees” as

persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948, who lost both their homes and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict.4

The use of this definition is remarkable in itself, not least because its very short residency requirement—just two years—allows the inclusion of a great number of people who had recently arrived in Palestine, and were thus newcomers to the region; indeed, many of the people who fled Israel at that time had only just arrived from neighboring Arab countries in search of work.

Contrast this with the definition provided by the UNHCR, established just two years later and charged with functioning within the parameters of the UN’s Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. The UNHCR was bound by the Convention, the universal standard for refugee status and the only definition recognized by international law. In this version, a refugee is someone who

is outside his/her country of nationality or habitual residence; has well-founded fear of persecution because of his/her race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion; and is unable or unwilling to avail himself/herself of the protection of that country, or to return there, for fear of persecution.5

By emphasizing “country of nationality or habitual residence,” the UNHCR clearly intends to exclude the kind of transients—for example, a new arrival to the area in question for the purpose of employment—embraced by UNRWA’s definition.

This is not the only way in which the two definitions differ. The UNRWA definition also encompasses many other persons who would otherwise be excluded by the UNHCR. The latter, for example, outlines in detail the conditions under which the status of “refugee” no longer applies, stating that formal refugee status shall cease to apply to any person who has

voluntarily re-availed himself of the protection of the country of his nationality; or having lost his nationality, he has voluntarily re-acquired it; or, he has acquired a new nationality, and enjoys the protection of the country of his new nationality; or… he can no longer, because the circumstances in connection with which he has been recognized as a refugee have ceased to exist, continue to refuse to avail himself of the protection of the country of his nationality.6

By excluding people who have found legal protection from established states, or who have refused to do so when offered, UNHCR has sought to prevent expansion of the definition in ways that would encourage the improper use of UNHCR’s services for political ends. UNRWA, however, has done just the opposite: Not only has it declined to remove the status of refugee from those persons who no longer fit the original description, such as the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who have been granted full citizenship by Jordan, but it confers indefinitely the status of refugee upon a Palestinian refugee’s descendants, now entering the fourth generation. As the organization’s official website explains: “There are several groups and categories of Palestinian refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs): UNRWA-registered 1948 refugees and their descendants, unregistered 1948 refugees and their descendants, internally displaced Palestinians in Israel, and persons displaced as a result of the June 1967 war and their descendants.”7 When UNRWA was first conceived, it did not explicitly include the descendants of Palestinian refugees; however, as its refugee population entered the second generation, UNRWA relaxed the definition of the term “Palestinian refugee” altogether, explaining that “for the purposes of repatriation or compensation… the term ‘Palestinian refugee’ is used with a different, much less restrictive meaning as compared to UNRWA’s need-based definition.”8

Certainly, despite these distinctions in their respective definitions of a refugee, a strong case could have been made for enfolding UNRWA into UNHCR once the latter agency had been established. Indeed, once a broad-based refugee agency had been created, there would seem to be no reason for an additional UN agency charged with the task of assisting a specific group of refugees, with all the bureaucratic redundancy it implies, to continue. Once the UNHCR was created, however, Arab states insisted that Palestinian refugees receiving assistance from UNRWA be excluded from UNHCR’s mandate. As the UNHCR’s website explains, Arab states “feared that the non-political character of the work envisaged for the nascent UNHCR was not compatible with the highly politicized nature of the Palestinian question.”9 Since the Arab states would have had to consent to be signatories for the Convention to have achieved any effectiveness with regard to the Palestinian Arab refugees, the matter of an organizational merger never progressed very far. Ultimately, the Convention exempted those refugees who were under the protection of or receiving assistance from another UN agency. Thus was the anomalous situation of UNRWA firmly established: The sole international agency dedicated to a single group of refugees was permitted to continue independently, marching to the beat of its own drummer.

Whether UNRWA’s autonomy has been beneficial to the Palestinian refugees, however, is a separate question. As the UN acknowledged in its decision to undertake responsibility for the protection and assistance of refugees worldwide, the situation of the refugee involves profound suffering. Without a country to call their own, refugees are denied the basic social, economic, and political rights that most civilians take for granted, and without which a citizen’s ability to lead a productive and fulfilling life is nearly impossible. For this reason, the UN has always sought to end a person’s status as refugee as quickly as possible.



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