The UNRWA Refugee Controversy Explained

Summary ... 'Palestinian refugees' are the only refugee population that has its own dedicated UN agency, UN Relief and Works Agency. UNRWA does not have a mandate to resettle refugees. So, by not promoting resettlement like the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, UNRWA perpetuates the refugee crisis.

In the decades since its founding, no body has done more than the UNRWA to perpetuate the Palestinian refugee crisis. Enabled by UNRWA (the UN Relief and Works Agency), the Arab states have managed to keep Palestinians in a dismal and perpetual state of displacement. All for the sake of being used as a political cudgel to attack Israel. Rather than solve the refugee crisis, UNRWA perpetuates it, actively encouraging a so-called "right of return."

Meanwhile, cutbacks in US financial support for UNRWA have drawn increased scrutiny to the agency.

Palestinian refugees are the only refugee population that has its own dedicated UN agency. UNRWA and the 30,000 people in its employ are responsible for administering humanitarian aid and social welfare to Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank [i.e., Judea & Samaria].

UNRWA does not have a mandate to resettle refugees.

The rest of the world’s refugees fall under the mandate of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. The UNHCR operates in 130 countries with a staff of 11,000. In addition to providing aid, the UNHCR has resettled 1,015,644 refugees between 2003-2018.

Refugees fleeing violence, human-rights violations or disasters need a helping hand. Sadly, refugees don’t have the same access to basic employment, health care, education, banking services, property, marriage or freedom of movement that most of the world takes for granted.

Thus the imperative for resettlement. According to UNHCR figures, as of June, 2018, there are overall 25.4 million refugees in the world. Of that number, 19.9 million are under the mandate of the UNHCR, while the remaining 5.4 million are Palestinian, in the purview of UNRWA.

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Serious questions, which will be elaborated on below, have been raised about UNRWA and the Palestinians.

  • Why shouldn’t Palestinian refugees fall under the mandate of the UNHCR?
  • Why is UNRWA’s definition of a refugee out of line with the UNHCR?
  • Is the UNRWA and its staff politicized against Israel?
  • Why do Palestinian refugees living in the West Bank and Gaza have refugee status?
  • Is UNRWA perpetuating the Palestinian refugee problem?

Defining terms

An informed discussion of refugee issues requires an understanding of certain key terms regarding the people, countries and possible outcomes. Unless otherwise indicated, the following stats are based on UNHCR figures as of June, 2018.

  • Internally displaced person: Someone fleeing violence or disaster but did not cross a border to find safety.  Of the overall 68.5 million forcibly displaced people in the world, 40 million were internally displaced.
  • Refugee: "A person who flees to a foreign country or power to escape danger or persecution." Not all refugees are stateless.
  • Stateless person: Someone who has no state and lacks the status and protection that come with being a national. The exact number of stateless people is not known, but UNHCR estimates that there are many millions globally.
  • Asylum seeker: An individual whose request for sanctuary has not yet been processed. Some 3.1 million people fall into this category.
  • Economic migrant: "A person who leaves their country of origin purely for economic reasons that are not in any way related to the refugee definition."
  • Asylum country: "The country that permits refugees to enter its territory for purposes of providing asylum temporarily, pending eventual repatriation or resettlement."
  • Voluntary repatriation: The voluntary return of a refugee to his or her country of origin.
  • Integration: The refugee permanently settles into the asylum country and integrates into the local community.
  • Resettlement: "The transfer of refugees from an asylum country to another [third] State that has agreed to admit them and ultimately grant them permanent settlement."

Refugees: Divergent definitions

The biggest criticism of UNRWA is that its definition of a refugee differs from the UNHCR’s. Unlike the UNHCR, the UNRWA allows refugee status to be passed down to future generations Ad infinitum. Jay Sekulow explains how that came about:

The agency defines Palestinian refugees as "persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine during the period 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948, and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict."

Under Article I(c)(3) of the 1951 U.N. Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, a person is no longer a refugee if, for example, he or she has "acquired a new nationality, and enjoys the protection of the country of his new nationality." UNRWA’s definition of a Palestinian refugee, which is not anchored in treaty, includes no such provision.

In 1965, UNRWA changed the eligibility requirements to be a Palestinian refugee to include third-generation descendants, and in 1982, it extended it again, to include all descendants of Palestine refugee males, including legally adopted children, regardless of whether they had been granted citizenship elsewhere. This classification process is inconsistent with how all other refugees in the world are classified, including the definition used by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the laws concerning refugees in the United States.

Elliott Abrams summed up the problem:

In other words, if you were born in Amman, Jordan to a mother and father born in Amman, Jordan, and you are all Jordanian citizens, you are still a "refugee" according to UNRWA. In fact the vast majority of "Palestinian refugees" whom UNRWA helps in Jordan are Jordanian citizens. Under normal international definitions, and UNHCR definitions, they are not "refugees" at all. To make the point even more strongly, under UNRWA definitions one can be a U.S. citizen and a "Palestinian refugee." This is absurd.

Of the estimated 800,000 original Arab refugees from the 1948 War of Independence, how many are still alive today? In 2018, a State Department report disclosed by the Washington Free Beacon put the number "around 20,000, far fewer than the 5.3 million figure routinely pushed by UNRWA and pro-Palestinian advocates."

UNRWA Politicizes Refugees

Another major criticism of UNRWA is that it is not a neutral aid organization, but rather has become a partisan organization. UN Watch documented numerous issues of problematic UNRWA-Hamas ties. Here’s the laundry list:

  • In June and October 2017, Hamas terror tunnels were discovered under UNRWA schools in Gaza.
  • In April 2017, UNRWA teacher and Chairman of the UNRWA Employee’s Union in Gaza Suhail al-Hindi resigned amid allegations he had been elected to the Hamas leadership. Al-Hindi is not the only UNRWA employee accused of close Hamas affiliations.
  • During the summer 2014 Gaza war, terrorist rockets were stored on, and likely fired from, the premises of UNRWA schools, according to a U.N. report.
  • Each UNRWA school has a Hamas-appointed representative to recruit students to the Islamic Bloc, Hamas’s student group, according to a 2015 report.
  • The 2013 documentary "Camp Jihad" shows Palestinian children being indoctrinated to hate Jews and Israel and support martyrdom at an UNRWA summer camp.
  • UNRWA employees have exploited their UNRWA privileges to assist terrorist groups like Hamas for years, including by using UNRWA vehicles to transport weapons and terrorists for attacks against Israel. For an ostensibly neutral U.N. agency to have such close ties to a terrorist organization should be shocking, but these facts are in line with the U.N.’s own internal audit of UNRWA which found UNRWA to have deficient oversight for its facilities.

Refugees in their own homeland?

Another major criticism of UNRWA is its support for Palestinian refugees living in Gaza, their own homeland. According to UNRWA figures as of January, 2018, there are "1.4 million registered refugees out of 1.9 million total population." In other words, 73 percent of the Palestinians living in Gaza have refugee status.

Considering that Gaza’s median age is 18, the majority of the Strip’s population have only lived under Palestinian Authority or Hamas rule. Israel disengaged from Gaza in 2005. So how can Palestinians be refugees in their own home?

And more importantly, why does UNRWA even operate in Gaza? Here’s how the agency answers that question:

The Palestinian Authority falls under the same category as the host governments of Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. Until the refugee issue is solved and as long as there is a need for relief, UNRWA will continue providing services to the refugees in these areas in accordance with its mandate from the General Assembly. The Palestinian Authority strongly supports the continuation of UNRWA’s operations in support of the refugees.

But if Gaza is no different than the neighboring Arab host countries, what message does that send the Strip’s population? Adi Schwartz and Einat Wilf explain:

UNRWA’s essence involves making it clear to the more than 70 percent of Gaza inhabitants registered as refugees, that Gaza is not their true home. It does so by providing the political infrastructure that grants Palestinians the status of "refugees," which they would not otherwise merit if international standards were applied to them; by passing this status on to their descendants automatically and in perpetuity, while opposing any effort to find solutions for those registered as "refugees," other than in the context of the collective demand for "return."

It is this that UNRWA often refers to by the code words "just solution" and "legitimate rights," of which it calls itself the protector. UNRWA makes it clear to the "refugees" in Gaza (and in all of its other areas of operations) that their "true home," wrested from them by force, lies across the border. People who grow up with that belief will assuredly use cement, when given it, not to build permanent homes, but to dig tunnels to the place which, as far as they are concerned, is their real home.

Similar criticisms were leveled in the West Bank when the Palestinian Authority completed its first planned city, Rawabi, a commercial venture and now home to an estimated 40,000 people. There are 828,000 registered refugees living in the West Bank.

Neighboring Arab states deliberately allowed the Palestinian refugee problem to fester. Resettling Palestinians is a toxic issue in Lebanon, a source of fear and loathing in Jordan and an afterthought in Syria.

By not promoting resettlement like the UNHCR, allowing the Palestinian refugee population to grow exponentially, and by raising false hopes of a "right of return," UNRWA perpetuates the refugee crisis.

[ Pesach Benson | Published: August 6, 2019 ]