The UN’s Palestinian Refugee Problem

By Arlene Kushner

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

UNRWA’s handling of the Palestinian refugee issue, by contrast, has done just the opposite. For implicit in UNRWA’s decision to expand its already problematic definition of a Palestinian refugee to include a mounting number of descendants is the guarantee that the problem remains an ongoing, ever-growing, and thus ever-worsening one. For some Arab leaders, this may be precisely the idea: So long as the Palestinian refugee problem remains visible and acute, Israel remains a convenient scapegoat on which the region’s political, social, and economic ills may be blamed. Yet for the Palestinian Arabs who have remained refugees for decades, and for their children, brought into the circle of dependence, the fact of UNRWA’s granting special refugee status has for the most part made their situation only worse.

If the difference in the two agencies’ respective definitions of refugees seems indicative of different goals—one humanitarian and the other essentially political—their records over the last half century affirm this in a glaring fashion. Since the UNHCR’s establishment, it has always worked toward the achievement of two fundamental aims: The protection of refugees, which includes ensuring respect for a refugee’s basic human rights and disallowing the involuntary return of a refugee to a country where he fears persecution; and the resolution of refugee crises. This latter goal can be achieved through several methods, each of which depends on the specific circumstances of a given refugee population. Nonetheless, precluding the existence of prolonged refugee situations—for the sake of both the refugees themselves and their countries of asylum—has always been of supreme value to the UNHCR.

So, too, did the General Assembly resolution establishing UNRWA intend its mandate to be temporary: It sought “the alleviation of the conditions of starvation and distress among the Palestinian refugees” with “a view to the termination of international assistance for relief” at an early date.10 The provision of direct relief was originally set to end no later than December 1950; yet its mandate has been renewed by the General Assembly every few years, and its current term now runs through June 2008. This begs the question: If UNRWA was set up as a temporary agency, why is it still operating more than half a century later?

One reason, again, lies in its singular definition of a refugee: By conferring the status of refugee on descendants, UNRWA has ensured an ever-growing population in need of its services. Yet a more significant reason has to do with its policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: UNRWA refuses to consider any resolution to the Palestinian refugee issue other than that demanded by the Arab world—the “right of return” to Israel. As explained on its website, UNRWA claims its services to be necessary until repatriation, “as envisaged in UN General Assembly Resolution 194 (III) of December 1948,” is enacted.11 While the legitimacy and applicability of resolution 194, which states that refugees wishing to return to their original countries of residence under certain conditions should be permitted to do so, can be, and is, debated ad infinitum, the fact remains that by staunchly adhering to this resolution, and actively encouraging its beneficiaries to do the same, UNRWA is denying the Palestinian refugees the one thing that the UNHCR takes as its essential purpose for existence: An end to their unwanted status.

Now, it should be noted that by considering a permanent solution the ultimate goal of its agency, the UNHCR is not insensitive to refugees’ preferences. Certainly, the UNHCR recognizes that most refugees forced into exile would prefer to return to their countries of origin. The UNHCR thus encourages voluntary repatriation when conditions permit, such as the cessation of conflict. By providing transportation, financial incentives, and practical help, such as building materials and farming equipment, the UNHCR has successfully enabled the repatriation of such recent refugee populations as the Angolans, millions of whom fled their war-torn country for Namibia, Zambia, and Democratic Congo during the 1990s, and the Sri Lankans, some 300,000 of whom have been able to return to their towns and villages since a Norwegian-brokered truce between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tiger rebels was enacted in 2002.12

When the threats that caused refugees to leave their homes in the first place do not disappear, however, the UNHCR looks to resettlement—whether in a refugee’s country of asylum, or a neutral, third country—as an alternative solution. Often, these two options are the only means of fulfilling the UNHCR’s stated goal of enabling refugees to restart their lives and, ultimately, of ending their status as refugees altogether.

The UNHCR’s record in the area of refugee resettlement is impressive: Since the early 1970s, the organization has undertaken several large-scale resettlement operations, each with successful results.13 In 1972, for instance, when President Idi Amin of Uganda expelled most of the country’s Asian minority, the UNHCR, along with several other international humanitarian organizations, resettled some 40,000 Ugandan Asian refugees in a matter of a few months to 25 countries. Likewise, following a military coup in Chile in 1973, refugees from neighboring countries found themselves faced with a hostile regime in their country of asylum. The UNHCR quickly established “safe havens,” or camps in which refugees who wished to leave the country could receive assistance and protection pending their departure to third countries of asylum. By the following year, thousands of refugees had been successfully resettled to 19 different countries.14

Nor is the Middle East a stranger to the policy of resettlement: In 1992, the UNHCR sought to resettle some 30,000 Iraqis from Saudi Arabia after efforts at voluntary repatriation and local integration were deemed a failure. Between 1992 and 1997, nearly 21,800 Iraqis had been accepted for resettlement; currently, almost all the Iraqi refugees have found new homes.15

For the Ugandan Asians, the Chileans, and the Iraqis, as well as many other populations for whom resettlement is the only option, the process may entail transporting refugees thousands of miles across the world, and helping them adapt to societies in which the culture, language, and social structure are dramatically different. Despite these obstacles, however, the overwhelming number of refugees, particularly young ones, successfully overcome such challenges in order to restart their lives in their new countries. It is remarkable, then, that the Palestinian Arab refugees—many of whom are currently residing in countries whose culture, language, and social structure are identical to their own—have never been offered resettlement as a durable solution to their situation in light of the political unfeasibility of a return to the State of Israel. Indeed, it is widely accepted among the international community—with the exception of the Arab nations—that an influx of over four million Palestinian refugees into Israel is neither a realistic nor an acceptable goal. For this reason, the resettlement of these Palestinians in neighboring Arab countries offers the only realistic hope for a resolution to their decades-long status as refugees.

While it is true that most of Israel’s neighboring Arab countries (with the notable exception of Jordan) have continually denied citizenship to Palestinian refugees and their descendants—many of whom have been born and raised in these countries—it is also true that UNRWA itself has at no point sought to promote resettlement among the refugee population; nor has it attempted to pressure Arab countries into complying with their responsibilities toward these refugees under international law. Instead, by insisting that “the Agency will continue to serve them [the Palestinian refugees] pending just settlement of the refugee problem,”16 UNRWA has taken up the Arab bloc’s mantra as its own, putting political considerations before humanitarian ones. While a “just settlement” could easily be interpreted to mean, as in the case of the rest of the world’s refugees, local integration or resettlement with an aim toward building a new, productive life, for UNRWA the phrase “just settlement” has consistently and solely been interpreted as repatriation to Israel—a solution which, for obvious demographic reasons, would in effect mean the end of the Jewish state, and which therefore is extremely unlikely to happen so long as Israel remains committed to its Jewish character. This has, in effect, ensured the perpetuation of the Palestinian refugee problem indefinitely.

It should be noted here that the assimilation of Arabs who fled from Israel into surrounding Arab populations could have been readily accomplished; repatriation was, for many of the original refugees, not the only, or even desirable, course of action. Early reports, such as an article in the Lebanese newspaper Al-Hayat in 1959, claimed that the “refugees’ inclination—in spite of the noisy chorus all about them—is towards immediate integration,” and Emanuel Marx, writing in The Jerusalem Quarterly in the late 1970s, noted that by 1968, most of the refugees had found work, “were involved in the economy of the host country,” and “had become urbanized in the process.”17

Even today, UNRWA’s unrelenting approach stands in sharp contrast to the natural inclination of the Palestinian refugees to “get on with their lives.” In 1997, badil, a Palestinian non-governmental agency that promotes the right of return, released a report about the refugee camp of Balata in Nablus that expressed concern with UNRWA’s development programs and their potential impact on the right of return. According to the report, Musallam Abu Hilu of the Jerusalem Open University ventured the opinion that “it may well be that development programs have an adverse effect on the refugees’ demand for return; such programs might lead to gradual and unconscious refugee integration and resettlement.”18

Nonetheless, the goal of repatriation has been a cornerstone of UNRWA’s practices and policies. It was thus, in fact, that the Arab nations, when the mandate for UNRWA was drawn up, pushed through a reference to Paragraph 11 of General Assembly Resolution 194 (1948), which states that “the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date....”19 This single phrase has since been offered as the basis of the claim that the Palestinian Arab refugees have a right, often described as “inalienable,” to return to Israel. This reliance on a single clause of a resolution of the UN General Assembly—which as such has no binding status in international law—has been the basis of UNRWA’s consistent refusal over half a century to work towards the resolution of the refugees’ plight in their host countries, and instead to insist upon their so-called “right of return.” The insistence on resettlement within Israel, for example, has guided its policy of preserving pre-1948 communal structures and reinforcing the refugees’ collective attachments to their places of origin, in an effort to ensure the refugees’ lasting commitment to return. Almost immediately after its founding, for example, UNRWA established a register of refugees that assigned every family a number. This number included a five-digit code of origin in “pre-1948 Palestine.” As a report by badil describes it, “the village structure, as it existed prior to the 1948 war, has thus been preserved by virtue of the registration system.”20 Indeed, the Palestinian refugee camps, first established in 1955, were set up according to those villages left in 1948, with neighborhoods and even individual street names replicated, reinforcing the dream of return.21

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