Between January and August 2018, the US administration, through a number of public and leaked statements, has manifested its intention to terminate its long tradition of support for Palestinian refugees and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), the body that has assisted Palestinian refugees since 1949. UNRWA has been accused to be “irredeemably flawed,” “perpetuat[ing] a status quo” and “not helping peace.” Allegations have gone as far as inferring that the agency should “unwind itself and become part of the UNHCR” by 2019. These various pronouncements bear no legal implications on UNRWA and Palestinian refugees, since the US administration is in no position to either unilaterally proceed to abolish UNRWA or amend its mandate, or relinquish fundamental rights Palestinians enjoy under international law. Legally, the General Assembly is the only entity who can determine the cessation of or any change in UNRWA’s mandate (and it is unfathomable that it will dismantle UNRWA in the absence of a solution to the conflict, including a just resolution to the refugee problem). Despite this, the political implications and consequences of such turn in US policy, are potentially very dangerous.
The recent debate around UNRWA and Palestinian refugees and the perception of the agency “perpetuating the refugee crisis” has been alimented by selective and at times erroneous use and interpretation of facts regarding Palestinian refugees and UNRWA, as well as ignorance of international norms and procedures regarding refugees, particularly with reference to UNRWA and UNHCR respective mandates. The fact that some of the unfounded allegations were made by legal experts within the US administration is disheartening, beyond disconcerting.
The problem appears to be primarily linked to the way the Agency defines, counts and registers what the US administration calls its “endlessly and exponentially expanding community of entitled beneficiaries,” namely the 5.5 million refugees it serves across Jordan, the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Syria, and Lebanon. UNRWA’s refugee definition and registration system are decried as inconsistent with the way in which all other refugees in the world are classified. This, as the allegations go, allows generations of descendants to be considered as refugees “in perpetuity.” UNRWA’s definition of refugees, US officials claim, should be limited to (those who remain of) those originally displaced in 1948.
UNRWA’s definition of Palestine refugees—i.e., those living in Palestine between 1946-1948 who lost homes and livelihood as a consequence of the 1948 war—is different from the universal definition of “refugee” under the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees (“Refugee Convention”)—a person seeking international protection out of “well-founded fear of persecution” in his/her own country. This has a historical reason. The events that displaced two-thirds of the Arab population of British Mandate Palestine in connection with the creation of the State of Israel, predate the entry into force of the Refugee Convention. At the time, the United Nations Conciliation Commission for Palestine (UNCCP), the peace-making body mandated by the General Assembly to solve the conflict over Palestine comprehensively, tried to elaborate a definition of refugees for the purpose of “return” under UNGA Resolution 194. Meanwhile, UNRWA, which was to provide relief and assistance to the refugees pending a solution of the conflict, developed an “operational” definition to determine who, among the displaced, was eligible for assistance. UNRWA, who had inherited inflated refugee rolls from other organizations previously attending to refugee needs, was under enormous pressure by the donor community, led by the United States, to put a limit to the refugee rolls. This demonstrates that the aim of UNRWA’s definition was to limit the number of refugees instead of inflating them.
Based on this definition, UNRWA has provided services to generations of Palestine refugees, the majority of whom had only UNRWA to turn to for assistance and protection. Contrary to the US assertions, UNRWA registration of descendants is in line with international law, protecting the family unity, as well as UNHCR procedures and practice. Descendants of millions of other refugees around the world—from Afghanistan, Burundi, Sudan, Somalia, Eritrea, DRC, Angola, and Bhutan—find themselves in protracted refugee situations and protected by UNHCR. In 2017, UNHCR estimated that 13.4 million refugees, i.e., two-thirds of the worldwide refugee population, are caught in a political limbo with no solution in sight. Like the Palestinians, some have lingered in such a situation for decades, like the 2.3 million Afghan refugees stranded for forty years in Iran and Pakistan. The various generations born and raised in exile are registered and counted by UNHCR as refugees.
Needless to say, the UN General Assembly, which created UNRWA and oversees its work, has progressively and overwhelmingly endorsed the work of the agency, including its refugee definition and the registration of new births.
The growth of UNRWA’s refugee population has more to do with demography and the fact that, pending a solution to the conflict, Palestinian refugees had babies, than the agency’s policies. Besides, the protracted nature of the Palestine refugee crisis has been determined first and foremost by Israel’s adamant refusal to allow the original displaced to return and the defiant dismissal of international law under the vigilant eye of the international community—not by the fact that Palestinian refugees exist. Had international law, as it stood in 1947, been applied and enforced soon after the Palestinian displacement, we would not be talking about a refugee “problem” seventy years on. It is to say that in its early days, UNRWA tried to encourage the integration of Palestinian refugees into local economies. It did not work due of opposition from Arab states—who had no legal obligation to resettle the refugees—and the refugees themselves; none wanted the refugee issue to be liquidated without prospects for the return of anyone. In short, rather than with UNRWA, which has no mandate either to resettle Palestinian refugees or promote peace in the region, the lack of a solution to the refugee crisis should be examined in connection with the dynamics of the Middle East peace process, or lack thereof.
So, as there is no irregularity in UNRWA’s refugee definition and registration procedures, what are the consequences of the US tsunami after years of unwavering American support for UNRWA, confirmed as recently as December 2017 by a new multiyear cooperation agreement signed between the United States and the agency? Interestingly, on that occasion, the US administration reiterated its appreciation for the robustness of UNRWA’s management and the multiple challenges the agency faces.
If legally there are not going to be any consequences, given the lack of legal justification behind the various allegations, the political meaning and consequences of what looks like the US policy on UNRWA and Palestinian refugees deserve close examination.
First, Palestinian refugees and UNRWA have been caught by the wave of retaliation the US administration unleashed against the Palestinian leadership for breaking of diplomatic relations with the US in response to the illegal US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and subsequently objecting to swallowing happily the peace plan proposed by the Trump’s acolytes, referred to as the “deal of the century.” Hence, UNRWA and Palestinian refugees are being punished for the Palestinian Authority’s actions, no matter how legitimate they are.
Second, an unprecedented constellation of openly pro-Israel characters have entered key strategic positions within the current US administration, aligning all odds along Israel’s interest. For years Israeli pundits have called for a dismissal of UNRWA and an extension of UNHCR’s mandate to Palestine refugees (incidentally, the same pundits vocally deny the existence of the right of return for Palestinian refugees). Behind this is the thought that UNHCR would instantly resettle Palestinian refugees or push for their local integration into host countries; quite a naïve thought, though (the number of resettlement places available globally does not exceed one percent of the world’s total refugee population). Not only is UNHCR’s most preferred remedy to mass refugee crises voluntary repatriation (right of return), as confirmed by the global numbers of refugees who return to their country compared to those who are resettled (5 million versus 102,800 in 2017), but also, should UNHCR register Palestinian refugees, their numbers would be much higher since—unlike UNRWA which only registers refugees through male line—UNHCR registers both male and female lines. Further, UNHCR counts as Palestinian refugees the “1967 displaced” (including descendants) which in UNRWA’s system receive services without counting in the overall Palestine refugee population (unless in 1967 they were refugees already—from the 1948 war). Furthermore, no durable solution can be implemented without political will—the ingredient that has always been missing in connection with the resolution of the Palestinian refugee question—and no UN agency can circumvent this.
The current US administration appears adamantly determined to help Israel realize its wildest dreams: after Jerusalem as the undivided capital of the State of Israel, comes the obliteration of any discussion on the right of return and the instantaneous resolution of the Palestinian refugee in question, somehow. Certainly, there is no plan to resolve such question other than by eliminating it nominally: stopping calling Palestinians “refugees” and closing down the one institution that has catered to their needs for the last seven decades.
While defunding UN agencies for political reasons is not uncommon for the US administration, the recent attacks against UNRWA demonstrates an unprecedented politicization of humanitarian aid. Not only the pressure on UNRWA to align its policies and procedures to US (and Israeli) diktats runs against UN rules, international norms and the interests of the refugees. Also, the influence that the United States appears to be exerting on other UN member states and host countries, such as Jordan, to change their policies vis-à-vis UNRWA and Palestine refugees sits uncomfortably with these states’ sovereignty, the independence that UN agencies enjoy under the 1946 Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the United Nation, and the overall purposes of independence of states in their dealing with the UN and state cooperation for maintenance of peace and stability enshrined by the UN Charter. The current US endeavours are unhinging the fundamental principles the UN and international relations are premised upon: justice, respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law, and respect for the United Nations.
By hitting hard on UNRWA, the United States is undermining an entity which has contributed to maintaining stability in the region through means such as quality education, job opportunities, development and relief to millions, in one of the most intractable and inflammable conflicts of modern history. To its credit, the United States has historically been part of this effort, until now.
The sense of betrayal that this recent US policy is spreading among Palestinian refugees is dangerous especially at a time of rising extremisms in the region. This is particularly true for the youth, the largest among Palestine refugee population groups: leaving them further unprotected, without hope and the support of essential services for them to develop into productive elements of society, and with a clear understanding of the way the world is turning its back on them, is a way to make them even more marginalized and vulnerable.
It is incumbent upon all countries, and all of us, to act to counter the effects of the current UNRWA crisis and avert a further spiral of instability. The international community should take this challenging turning point as an opportunity to improve the situation in the Middle East through new visions and strategy, within the framework of UN rules and procedures and, bearing in mind the importance of respecting international law, especially human rights norms, also as a stabilizing factor. In the short run, members of the General Assembly could strike back in opposing the attacks on multilateralism that the US decisions on UNRWA represent, filling the funding gap so the agency can continue with its operations sustainably, namely with multi-year agreements which make UNRWA’s dependency on the United States a memory of the past. This would create, in the long term, a conducive environment to discuss ways in which the Palestinian refugee question can be resolved, as well as UNRWA’s role and any needed reforms.