ONLINE Only: Refugees ad infinitum

The unique reality for many Palestinians living in Lebanon is that their refugee status has become hereditary

Recent news of a slight improvement in the rights of the huge Palestinian minority in Lebanon brings to the fore a pivotal, but often ignored, aspect of the Palestinian predicament: the role of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). 

On Tuesday, the BBC reported that the 400,000 strong community will now be permitted to work in the private sector, ‘mark[ing] a step forward from a situation where the Palestinians were barred from all but the most menial of jobs.’ Jim Muir acknowledged the ‘dire’ conditions for Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and suggested that ‘in broad terms, the law would have little effect in changing the overall social and economic situation of the refugees.’

The level of discrimination against Palestinians in Lebanon is particularly acute – they are largely confined to 12 camps, are banned from buying property and from entering key professions such as law and medicine. Lebanon has also practiced religious discrimination against Palestinian refugees: since the majority of them are Sunni Muslims, the state believes that conferring citizenship would upset their already delicate sectarian political balance. Not so, however, for the 70,000 Christian Palestinians Lebanon did naturalise.  

Nevertheless, the new employment law, which was welcomed by the United Nations,  raises the broader question of why 4.7 million Palestinians living across the Middle East are conferred with the label ‘refugee’, and nearly 1.4 million reside in communities designated ‘camps’.

The United Nations has two agencies for dealing with refugee issues: The U.N. High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the former devoted to refugees the world over, and the latter focusing purely on Palestinian refugees in the West Bank, Gaza, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria. Crucially, their operating definitions of refugee differ radically. UNHCR uses the 1951 Refugee Convention definition which establishes as a refugee someone who: ‘owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.’

In contrast to this relatively narrow designation, the Palestinian-devoted UNRWA’s definition is far broader. As well as ‘people whose normal place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948, who lost both their homes and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict’ ‘[t]he descendants of the original Palestine refugees are also eligible for registration.’

This has created the unique reality that Palestinian refugee status is hereditary. Thus, the children, grandchildren and great grandchildren of those Palestinians who fled or were expelled from their homes in 1948 and 1967 are defined by UNRWA as in a state of perpetual flight from persecution. Furthermore, the majority of their registered refugees have already been re-settled in host countries, or – to use UNRWA’s argot – ‘reintegrated’.

An authoritative report published last year, written by the former general-counsel at UNRWA, James G. Lindsay, argues for the need to address this situation. Lindsay describes the scenario in Jordan: ‘Specifically, most of the nearly 2 million registered Palestinian refugees in Jordan are citizens of that country, and the rest have residency and travel documents.’

Furthermore, according to the report, ‘only about 18 percent of [Palestinians in Jordan] live in refugee camps (which in many cases are urban neighborhoods rather than the traditional refugee accommodations of tentfilled fields).’

Another lexical irony of the situation is that even those Palestinians who fled or were expelled in 1948-1949 from one part of Palestine and culminated in another fit the current classification as refugees. Camps such as Balata in the West Bank maintain a sort of shadow population of Palestinians with full citizenship rights, including suffrage, but are yet deemed among the homeless diaspora.

Lindsay’s report identifies this incongruous situation as most in need of change, saying that such persons should be removed from UNRWA’s jurisdiction altogether. Instead, there needs to be a shift towards a needs-based and not a status-based model whereby only those who are unsettled and unable to support themselves remain registered with UNRWA as refugees.

It is deeply revealing that something as intuitive as removing the label ‘refugee’ from someone who has been objectively resettled – or indeed from the great grandchild of that same someone – is still lacking in the bubble-like operation that is UNRWA. 

The fact that 4.7 million people are officially labelled by one UN body as refugees when under the main UN refugee body, most would not qualify for the title points to the fundamental orientation of UNRWA as a political not humanitarian organisation, a problem that dates back to its founding in May 1950.  
Originally intended to prioritise Palestinian resettlement and works programmes in the aftermath of the 1948 War, UNRWA’s remit was redefined in accordance with the demands of Arab host nations and the refugees themselves, who insisted that “reintegration” was no alternative to returning to the land that now constituted the State of Israel. The dream of deferred repatriation was thus kept alive by a vast bureaucracy of dependence that has, over time, metamorphosed into a sort of mini-state unto itself and superimposed across four separate countries, including Palestine itself. 

UNRWA employs 30,000 people and receives an annual operating budget of $500 million, 17 percent of which comes directly from the United States. It maintains its own schools, health clinics and welfare/social services departments and microfinance and microenterprise assistance. Although more than half of UNRWA’s funding goes toward the maintenance of its Education Programme, there is every reason to believe that a self-perpetuating economy has sprung up in other sectors of the refugee society. Lindsay identifies as a key trend, “The conflict between UNRWA and its donors over the politicization of relief, namely, the insistence (by host governments and refugees) on the provision of relief rations to all refugees, including those sufficiently well-off to buy their own food supplies. Such demands conveyed a sense of entitlement to relief based on status rather than need.”

Fewer than 200 of UNRWA’s staff are ‘internationals’, the overwhelming majority being Palestinian refugees who in effect maintain their own bureaucracy. And despite strict guidelines that govern the conduct of an aid organisation, the agency has often involved itself tendentiously in the Arab-Israeli conflict, for instance, allowing its staff to attend the Palestine National Congress in Jerusalem in 1964, where the PLO was founded.  The agency’s Siblin Vocational Training Centre outside Sidon, Lebanon, was for years during the Lebanese civil war operated by the PLO. And following Hamas’s violent coup in Gaza in 2007, UNRWA openly protested standing US and EU policy, which considered Hamas as a terrorist organisation, and insisted that the Islamist party be “encourage[d]” and “engage[d] with.”  As late as May 2009, the agency’s current Commissioner-General Karen AbuZayd went on the Iranian state-controlled Press TV to declare that Hamas was “free from corruption” and “more popular than ever.”

Given these conditions, UNRWA’s self-justifying mandate seems inevitable. Its singular definition of refugee as a status-based rather than needs-based individual has exacerbated the broader Palestinian refugee crisis in two ways; first, by failing to rescind status upon resettlement; and second, by allowing refugee status to pass from one generation to the next, ad infinitum.

Given the primacy in aid provision and development in Palestinian population centres enjoyed by UNRWA for nearly 60 years, it has to some extent played a role in the refusal of host countries – particularly Lebanon – to admit their Palestinian contingents into wider society and grant them full rights. 

So long as the relevant United Nations agency remains ideologically driven to maintain Palestinian refugee status in order to keep the ‘right of return’ to what is now Israel on the table, progress for third and fourth generation Palestinians living in Lebanon will continue at a snail’s pace for the foreseeable future. 

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