Scribblings: Don’t buy UNRWA’s refugee definition spin

The UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the UN body which works solely with Palestinian refugees, has found itself under unprecedented pressure and scrutiny in recent months, leading up to the Trump White House withdrawing all US funding from UNRWA on Aug. 31.

UNRWA spokespeople and supporters have been attempting to push back against critics. In particular, they have been challenging the most important criticism being levelled against the agency – that UNRWA’s definition of a Palestinian “refugee” is completely different from that used by the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), which looks after all refugees who are not Palestinian.

UNRWA defines a Palestinian refugee as not only someone who fled their home in the 1948 or 1967 wars, but as anyone descended from someone who did – children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, etc. Nor can anyone ever lose their refugee status – even if they attain citizenship and settle in another country.

Critics point out that UNRWA’s unique refugee definition both guarantees that the number of Palestinian refugees will expand in perpetuity, and represents a significant barrier to any hope of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

UNRWA spokespeople have lately been trying to deny that this is different from what UNHCR does. They make an ostensibly semi-plausible case by pointing out that UNHCR does look after minor dependents of refugees and in some cases this can continue after the dependents reach 18. They argue that both UNRWA and UNHCR look after refugees until their status is resolved – the only difference being the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has gone on so long that UNRWA has had to look after Palestinians for generations. 

Thus, Karen Koning AbuZayd, the former UNRWA Commissioner General, wrote to the Wall Street Journal on July 18 in response to a critical article, claiming:

UNRWA grants descendants of refugees status according to the principle of family unity. This principle was again enshrined in the 1951 Refugee Convention which laid out standards for dealing with refugees globally. U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees’ official standards for determining eligibility indicate that refugee status is transferred through generations…

UNRWA had a section on its website making similar claims. 

UNRWA’s spin even convinced the Washington Post to repeat these claims in an article by Ruth Eglash and Karen DeYoung on Aug. 30, which said: 

The two organisations [UNRWA and UNHCR] have the same definition – giving assistance to those driven from their countries because of a well-founded fear of persecution, war or violence and to their descendants for as long as that status continues.”

Yet these claims do not stand up to any serious scrutiny.

Firstly, UNHCR may occasionally help descendants of refugees, but does not consider them “refugees” as such, calling them instead “derivative refugees.” That makes sense because the UNHCR uses the definition of a refugee under the 1951 Refugee Convention: “A refugee is someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war or violence. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.” There is nothing in that definition about descendants.

Furthermore, the claim by AbuZayd that UNHCR “official standards for determining eligibility indicate that refugee status is transferred through generations” is just not true. In 2014, a radio journalist who had interviewed an UNRWA spokesperson and heard such claims called up the UNHCR to ask. She was told that, in her words, “Refugee status was only granted when either governments or the UNHCR itself assessed a specific individual as a refugee. Refugee status might cover the applicant’s dependents, but not any descendants.” The UNHCR spokesperson specifically said “It’s not an inherited status as such.” Yet UNRWA unequivocally treats Palestinian refugee status that way. 

Furthermore, there can be absolutely no dispute that under UNHCR practice, a large majority of the 5.3 million plus Palestinian refugees on UNRWA’s books are not real refugees – even if one ignores the automatic inheritance of refugee status by descendants. Firstly, close to two million of them live in the Palestinian-controlled West Bank and Gaza – that is, they live within their homeland. Such people are, according to the UNHCR, “Internally displaced persons” (IDPs), not refugees, and “IDPs are not protected by international law or eligible to receive many types of aid.” 

In addition, another two million of UNRWA’s “refugees” live in Jordan and a large majority have Jordanian citizenship. People who gain citizenship of another country are automatically removed from UNHCR rolls. 

So why are all these people still on the UNRWA rolls if they clearly are not refugees under the accepted definition and have their own governments – Palestinian and Jordanian – to look after them?

UNRWA spokesperson Chris Gunness tried to explain the Jordanian case in the Washington Post article mentioned above:

“They have to decide,” said UNRWA spokesman Christopher Gunness. “We couldn’t say to you, ‘You’re a citizen now’ ” – as Jordan has declared some 2 million Palestinians in that country – “ ‘you have to give up the right of return.’ ”

And that is the real bottom line – UNRWA exists to try to enforce the legally baseless “right of return.” UNRWA continues to treat Jordanian citizens and residents of the PA and Gaza as refugees because it supports their “right of return.” It keeps Palestinians forever in refugee limbo, generation after generation, because of its political support for their “right of return”. 

UNRWA is now trying to raise funds by presenting itself as an aid organisation simply supplying services to needy refugees – but as shown above, the organisation is completely politicised, and completely married to the right of return, which would destroy Israel and is thus a major barrier to any peace deal. Anyone who cares about both the future of Palestinian refugees and the prospects of a two-state Israeli-Palestinian peace should not be providing funds for those services through UNRWA under its current politicised practices.