The dichotomy between UNHCR and UNRWA is no myth

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I recently explained to European parliamentarians that most so-called “Palestinian refugees” are not refugees under the standard international law definition of refugee that is used around the world.  When the parliamentarians brought up the issue with the ambassador of their country to Israel, they were told that they had just been exposed to the usual Israeli propaganda on the refugee issue and that they should ignore it.  Yet there is no propaganda here, and this incident is an opportunity to state the facts and to set the record straight.

There are two separate UN agencies in charge of refugees: the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine (UNRWA).  UNRWA was established in December 1949 and UNHCR in December 1950.  With the creation of UNHCR, UNRWA became redundant and its existence unjustified.  Yet it was not dissolved, and the two agencies continue to exist side by side with a clear division of labor: UNHCR is responsible for all refugees around the world except Palestinians, and UNRWA is only responsible for Palestinian refugees.

UNHCR and UNRWA not only deal with different populations of refugees; they also have different ways of defining and of treating refugees.  There were about 700,000 Palestinian refugees in 1948.  According to UNRWA, they now amount to 5.4 million.  This exponential growth is do to the fact that UNRWA automatically applies the status of refugee to all the patrilineal descendants of the 1948 refugees, regardless of their status and country of residence.

UNHCR, by contrast, seeks “permanent or durable solutions” to the plight of refugees, including “local integration” and “resettlement.”  According to UNHCR’s Resettlement Handbook, “local integration is an important facet of comprehensive strategies to develop solutions to refugee situations, particularly those of a protracted nature … Overall, ethnic, cultural, or linguistic links with the local community can increase the chances of successful local integration.”  UNRWA, on the other hand, does not encourage the integration of Palestinian refugees in countries such as Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon.  And, as opposed to UNRWA, UNHCR has a “cessation clause” for situations where refugee status ceases (generally because the refugees have found a durable solution or because the events that led refugees to leave their countries of origin have ceased to exist).

UNRWA’s definition of a refugee is factually inaccurate.  Among the 5.4 million people defined by UNRWA as “Palestinian refugees” 2.2 million live in the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip.  Yet these people are not refugees but “internally displaced persons” since they did not leave their country in 1948 but were displaced within it (the West Bank and Gaza are within the borders of what was Mandatory Palestine in 1948).  As for the 2.2 “Palestinian refugees” in Jordan, they are not refugees either since they have Jordanian citizenship.  UNHCR would not recognize them as refugees because they are citizens of their country of residence.

So among the 5.4 Palestinian “refugees” registered by UNRWA, 4.4 are not refugees by UNHCR’s standards.  The remaining million are mostly scattered between Syria and Lebanon.  Yet Lebanon’s 2018 census listed 170,000 Palestinian refugees under UNRWA’s definition.  As for Syria, the civil war since 2011 has caused a massive exodus, including of Palestinians, and it is therefore hard to gauge the number of refugees there.  If one assumes, reasonably, that there are about 250,000 Palestinian refugees between Syria and Lebanon, then only 5% of the refugees listed by UNRWA are, indeed, refugees.  In other words, some 95% of “Palestinian refugees” are not considered refugees under the UNHCR definition.

UNRWA claims that UNHCR also gives refugee status to the descendants of refugees, but that is inaccurate.  First, UNHRC does not give refugee status based on descent; rather it gives certain services that it provides to refugees to their children as well. That is one reason the UNHRC numbers of refugees decline over time, while UNRWA’s roster balloons. Moreover, Unlike UNRWA, UNHCR does not define as refugees people who are citizens of another country or “internally displaced persons,” regardless of who their parents were.  Finally, unlike UNRWA, UNHCR does not automatically transfer the refugee status but only after verifying the actual status of the refugees’ descendants. That is why UNHCR does not have in its records refugees that have been defined as such for 70 years (UNHCR’s longest recorded refugees are Afghan refugees from the early 1980s).

So there are, indeed, major differences between the definition and treatment of refugees by UNRWA and by UNHCR.  It is not a myth but a fact.

About the Author
Dr. Emmanuel Navon is an international relations expert who teaches at Tel-Aviv University and at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center. He is a Fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies and at the Kohelet Policy Forum, and a Senior Analyst for I24News.
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