Refugee Week: Who cares for refugees?

World Refugee Day, and Refugee Week in Australia, were recently celebrated in recognition of refugees, past and present, globally and nationally. It aimed also to raise greater awareness of the continuing plight of refugees.

To better understand the United Nations (UN) agencies which are responsible for refugees, the following information has been compiled.

There are two UN refugee agencies:

1. the UN Relief and Works Agency For Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), which is only for Arab refugees from Mandate-era Palestine, and

2. the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which is for all other refugees in the world.

The UNHCR defines a refugee as someone who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable… or… unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.”

UNRWA defines a refugee as someone “whose normal place of residence was Palestine during the period 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948, who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 Arab–Israeli conflict”. The definition itself does not cover their descendants. Yet UNRWA, uniquely, treats the descendants of Palestinian refugees from the 1940’s, ad infinitum, as if they too are refugees, even if they are natives and/or citizens of other countries. International law does not treat the descendants of any other refugee group in this way. Further, the UNRWA definition only applies to Arabs; Jewish refugees from Mandate-era Palestine are excluded.

UNHCR was established “to lead and coordinate international action for the worldwide protection of refugees and the resolution of refugee problems.” UNRWA was established “to carry out direct relief and works programmes for Palestine refugees.” It is not aimed at solving their problems.

UNRWA had 5.1 million registered refugees at the end of 2014, nearly all of whom are not in fact refugees because they have never fled from anywhere. They are the descendants of refugees, nearly half of whom are citizens of other countries. Some 2 million of these Palestinians are citizens of Jordan, and another 2 million live under the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and in Gaza. An unspecified number are citizens of other countries. Of the original 650,000 refugees in 1948, there are estimated to be less than 50,000 still alive after 67 years. UNWRA employs a total of 30,000 people.

UNHCR had 14.4 million registered refugees from the rest of the world at the end of 2014. They are all genuine refugees. UNHCR employs 5,000 people.

Since its foundation, the UNHCR has helped to resettle approximately 50 million people. Since its foundation, UNRWA has not settled any refugees.

UNHCR’s budget in 2012 was US$4.3 billion. UNRWA’s budget for the 2012-2013 financial year was US$1.9 billion. UNRWA refugees have more UN funding per capita than other refugees. For example, in 2012, the UN spent six times more on every Palestinian refugee compared to any other refugee.

UNRWA describes the difference between UNRWA and UNHCR: “UNRWA deals specifically with Palestine refugees… Its role encompasses assistance, protection and global advocacy for Palestine refugees” while “UNHCR’s mandate is to provide international protection to refugees worldwide whenever political conditions allow.”

It is unclear why one national group of refugees has been treated differently to, and in many respects privileged over, every other national group of refugees, by the UN. Nor is it clear why Palestinians are the only refugees who count their descendants as refugees too, ad infinitum. What is clear is that the UNHCR, despite its disadvantages, is much more effective in resolving the plight of refugees than is UNRWA.

With increasing wars and civil unrest in much of the Middle East and in parts of Africa, the number of refugees will continue to rise. The statistics cited here do not include many other refugees who are not registered with the UNHCR, or who are internally displaced.

Modern Australia has been greatly enriched by the European refugees who arrived after WW11, and by later refugee groups like the Vietnamese after the fall of Saigon in 1975.

Despite the ongoing controversy about Australian government policy on refugees and others seeking asylum in Australia, around 20,000 refugees were settled in Australia under the Humanitarian Program in the 2012-2013 financial year. This was a sharp increase over previous years.

Unfortunately, while ever there are dictatorships, conflict and war, there will be those fleeing their homelands, seeking a place of refuge and a new home. Those fleeing their countries of normal residence deserve our compassion.

About the Author
Julie Nathan is the Research Director at the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, the peak representative body of the Australian Jewish community, and is the author of the annual ECAJ Report on Antisemitism in Australia.