Guy Goldstein

It’s time to rethink UNRWA

(AP/Khalil Hamra 2015)
(AP/Khalil Hamra 2015)

In the labyrinth of Middle Eastern geopolitics, the saga of Palestinian refugees emerges as an emblem of enduring discord. The narrative, often veiled in a shroud of victimhood and villainy, barely scratches the surface of a deeply rooted bureaucratic maze. At the heart of this maze lie the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), each with its distinct mandate, defining and dealing with Palestinian refugees.

The first layer of this complex narrative unveils the divergent definitions of a refugee under UNRWA and UNHCR. UNRWA, with a narrow lens, defines a Palestine refugee as an [Arab] individual whose “normal place of residence was Palestine during the period 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948,” and who faced dispossession due to the 1948 conflict. However, the tale didn’t end here; UNRWA, in a significant departure from the norm, extended its mandate in 1965 and again in 1982 to include all descendants of the original refugees, irrespective of their personal circumstances. This extension, though seen as a benign act of inclusivity, carries with it a torrent of implications.

On the flip side, UNHCR, the global guardian of refugees, operates under the broader umbrella of the 1951 Refugee Convention. This convention, a cornerstone of refugee protection, casts a wide net but pointedly excludes Palestinians due to UNRWA’s exclusive mandate.

Herein lies a stark contrast—a divergence that not only skews the numbers but also casts a long shadow on the protection and rights afforded to Palestinian refugees.
As we delve deeper into the narrative, the numerical disparities unfurl. The expanded definition by UNRWA swells the number of registered refugees to over 5.6 million, a figure that would plummet to a mere 5% under the stringent criteria of UNHCR4. This numerical chasm is not just a matter of statistics; it’s a reflection of the diametrically opposite philosophies underpinning the two agencies’ mandates.

A chasm of protection yawns between the two mandates, further complicating the narrative. UNRWA, while offering assistance, abstains from providing international protection, leaving Palestinians in a legal limbo, vulnerable to the caprices of host countries. UNHCR, on the other hand, extends a protective cloak alongside assistance to refugees under its aegis, a privilege not afforded to Palestinians.

The tale of refugee status doesn’t conclude with the mere affixing of a label. Under UNHCR’s watch, a refugee, upon acquiring the nationality of the host country, sheds the refugee mantle, embracing the rights and privileges of citizenship. However, the offspring of refugees born in the new homeland are not branded as refugees, a principle starkly contrasting with UNRWA’s framework.

Moreover, the role of host countries in shaping the destiny of refugees under these two distinct frameworks cannot be overemphasized. Under UNHCR’s mandate, host countries are encouraged to provide a path to citizenship and an opportunity for refugees to rebuild their lives. Conversely, the host countries of Palestinian refugees, operating under UNRWA’s framework, often maintain multi-generational “refugee camps” funded by the UN, with no clear path to citizenship or integration into the host society. This stark contrast further exacerbates the precarious situation of Palestinian refugees, entangling them in a perpetual state of displacement.

The implications of these disparate definitions and mandates are far-reaching. The narrative of Palestinian refugee status, embroidered with the twin threads of UNRWA and UNHCR’s divergent mandates, weaves a complex tapestry, rendering it a unique, enduring, and contentious issue on the global stage. The entanglement of Palestinian refugee status in the vines of bureaucratic definitions underscores the necessity for a nuanced, informed discourse devoid of reductionist tendencies.

UNRWA’s mandate, a deviation from the norm, morphs the descendants of the original Palestine refugees into refugees themselves, a notion alien to UNHCR’s guidelines. This deviation not only burgeons the number of refugees but also perpetuates the refugee status, creating a generational saga of displacement.

As the discourse around Palestinian refugees rages on, it’s imperative to dissect the bureaucratic intricacies, to delve beyond the superficial narratives, and to foster a dialogue grounded in understanding and empathy. The lives entwined in these disparate threads continue to hang in the balance, awaiting a semblance of resolution in a landscape fraught with contention and political manoeuvring.

Comparing refugee agencies (c) Revenue Path LTD 2023
About the Author
Sales and Marketing consultant by day, passionate Zionist and Israel advocate by night.Oleh Chadash, 3rd Generation Holocaust Survivor, torchbearer.
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