June 20 is the date decreed by the UN in 2000 as World Refugee Day. It was established to draw international attention to the increasingly desperate world-wide problem of displaced people, and to honour the courage, strength and determination of those forced to flee their homes under threat of persecution, conflict and violence.
Last week the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR, or United Nations High Commission for Refugees) issued its report for 2012. It shows that last year the number of displaced people hit a 14-year high, to reach 45 million. These new figures include 28.8 million people forced to flee their homes within their own countries, nearly a million asylum seekers, and 15.4 million internationally displaced refugees – a figure boosted during 2012 by some 7.6 million people becoming newly displaced.
As many as 55% of these refugees come from only 5 countries: Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq, Sudan and now Syria. The report does not, of course, include those forced from their homes in Syria during the current year which, it is estimated, will reach 3 million by the end of 2013, topping the 2.5 million Afghans who have fled conflict over 22 years.
“These truly are alarming numbers,” said António Guterres, UN High Commissioner for Refugees and head of UNHCR. “They reflect individual suffering on a huge scale.”
A notable omission in the UNHCR report is any mention of Palestine or Palestinian refugees. There is a simple explanation. For historic, and now largely obsolete, reasons UNHCR has no responsibility for Palestinian refugees. A special UN body deals wholly and exclusively with them on a basis, and according to rules, quite different from those applying to all other displaced persons. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East – UNRWA – began its work in May 1950, seven months ahead of the establishment of UNHCR. As a result, Palestine refugees have been designated and treated quite differently from − and much worse than − all other refugees, the world over, ever since.
Whereas a main function of UNHCR is to resettle those millions of unfortunate people who have left their homes, willingly or unwillingly, over the years (voluntary repatriation, local integration and resettlement are UNHCR’s three key solutions). a major effect of UNRWA’s humanitarian activities has been not only to maintain millions of people in their refugee status decade after decade, but to expand the numbers as generation has succeeded generation. Since UNRWA bestowed refugee status upon "descendants of Palestine refugees," regardless of how much time had elapsed, the number of Palestinians registered by UNRWA has mushroomed from the original 750,000 to 5 million today. The numbers continue to multiply existentially, year by year. Whereas UNHCR’s approach is to foster independence and a better life for refugees, UNRWA’s efforts have simply subjected Palestinians to lives of permanent dependence for themselves and their children unto the third and fourth generation.
The result is expenditure by UNRWA on an ever-increasing scale to maintain more and more Palestinians in refugee status. If these spiralling costs were being met by Arab countries – fabulously wealthy as some of them are – there might be some logic and justification in the situation. But virtually none of the Arab countries contributes significantly to UNRWA’s soaring budget. The list of UNWRA’s top contributors is exclusively North American and West European countries. Funds which could have gone to relieving the world’s vast refugee problem are being diverted to maintaining millions of Palestinians in dependency.
Nor have the Arab countries in which Palestinian refugees largely reside allowed them to gain full citizenship. The reason? From the moment that the State of Israel came into being, Arab leaders determined to use the Palestine refugees as a pawn in the deadly game of trying to eradicate the Jewish state from the map of the Middle East. To resettle and absorb these people into their new places of residence would remove a formidable bargaining chip from the table, and have the effect of legitimising Israel. For its part, and to its shame, UNRWA has consistently gone along with this policy, washing its hands of any involvement in “final status” considerations.
The result? In Jordan today some three million Palestinians and their descendants are living as “registered refugees” (registered, that is, by UNRWA), about half of them still occupying some 58 refugee camps. Lebanon’s 400,000 Palestine refugees have been barred from 73 job categories including the professions, are not allowed to own property, are denied access to the healthcare system and even need a special permit to leave their refugee camps. Although some partial relaxation of these harsh conditions was granted in 2005, the Lebanese government has said repeatedly that it would not allow Palestine refugees to settle,.
As regards Syria, there are nearly half a million Palestinian refugees in that benighted country, and they have become totally embroiled in the civil war. Many have been on the run for nearly two years. If Syrian refugees are going through a truly horrific experience, the fate of Palestinian refugees is markedly worse. Palestinians are without the basic rights of passport-holding Syrian citizens – they are stateless and in legal and political limbo. "Stuck", "stranded" and "imprisoned" are some of the terms used to describe their condition.
All in all, the Palestine refugee story is one of heartless exploitation of Arabs by Arabs – the callous manipulation of powerless victims for political ends, without any regard to their welfare or human rights. This inhumanity must be brought out into the open, the UNRWA farce of “refugee status” accorded without any sort of limit must be ended, and steps must be taken to allow people and their families who may have lived in a country for up to fifty years, to settle and become full citizens.
The practical effect of UNWRA’s modus operandi is for vast and increasing amounts of money to be siphoned off to support young Palestinian families who should have been absorbed into their countries of residence long since. This diversion of funds on a massive scale to support the anti-Israel political aims of Arab nations is becoming increasingly untenable. Steps to stop it are long overdue. UNWRA should be disbanded, Palestinian refugees should be taken under the wing of UNHCR and treated on an equal basis with the rest of the world’s refugees, and the vast funds released should be used to help alleviate the vast and growing global refugee problem.
Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 25 June 2013:
Published in the Eurasia Review, 24 July 2013: