One of the most serious humanitarian problems facing the Middle East today is the Palestinian refugee crisis. In the years following the wars which coincided with Israel’s creation many Arab inhabitants, of what was previously known as Palestine, fled their homes – some willingly, others unwillingly.
These refugees were placed in camps throughout the Middle East. Arabs deciding to stay in Israel received full citizenship. Although there are certain internal societal issues in Israel which need to be addressed with respect to Arab society, the Arabs in Israel nonetheless have full political rights.
The Arabs who fled Israel were placed in refugee camps throughout the Middle East. The main camps were in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank (which was at that time Jordan) and the Gaza Strip (which was then under Egyptian control.)
There is a disagreement between Israeli and Palestinian sources as to the original number of refugees. Israelis claim it was around 520,000 while Palestinians claim it was around 850,000.
Those estimates might appear large but they are not even close to the numbers currently given by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) of “recognized” Palestinian refugees: 1,396,368 in camps and 3,370,302 not in camps.
What is to account for the sky rocketing numbers?
According to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees descendants are not included in the definition of refugees. Although the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) does sometimes provide support to the children of refugees they are not included in that group. Palestinian refugees are not under the responsibility of the UNHCR but rather an older body, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). UNRWA, unlike UNCHR, includes descendants of refugees as well as the refugees themselves in their estimates.
Many of the people classified as refugees live in their own homes. In Jordan, the country with the biggest Palestinian population, they were granted full citizenship and were fully assimilated into the country. Regardless, the UNRWA decides to count them as refugees. (JCPA)
While the political implications of the UNRWA definition are clear what is even more important is the humanitarian implications of this definition.
By counting descendants of refugees as refugees themselves the UNRWA inadvertently grants legitimacy to the many governments who still hold Palestinians in camps instead of assimilating them into their general population. If they can be kept as refugees then it is legitimate to keep them in these camps and use them as political pawns.
This fact was confirmed by the former head of UNRWA, Ralph Galloway, when he said: “The Arab states do not want to solve the refugee problem. They want to keep it as an open sore, as an affront to the UN, and as a weapon against Israel. Arab leaders do not give a damn whether Arab refugees live or die.” (1958)
This is what led to the horrific conditions in which Palestinian refugees are currently being held. Let’s look at the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp as an example. There are 31,023 refugees in that camp and only one health center which sees over 494 patients per day. Over 8,620 people are registered as special hardship cases. Most rely entirely on the UNRWA to provide assistance for education, health and relief and social services. Since they are not assimilated and considered foreigners Palestinian refugees are prohibited by law from working in more than 70 different trades and professions. They have no social and civil rights in Lebanon.
This situation is unique to the Palestinian refugee problem. Although ordinarily the initial generation of refugees suffers from poverty and hardship, within one generation the population assimilates into its host country. Examples of such second generation refugees include the former President of Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf, as well as all the descendants of the refugees from the Holocaust, by far the most devastating event inflicted on any group in the twentieth century.
For those of us concerned about the humanitarian conditions under which the Palestinian refugees live there is hope. You can start putting pressure on both the UNRWA (their contact information is listed below)and the Arab countries to work towards the proper assimilation of the Palestinian refugees within their countries. Even if politically inconvenient for some, this assimilation is absolutely necessary to ensure the basic human rights of the Palestinian population. Instead of pointing the finger of blame at others, Arab leaders must begin to work towards the successful integration of the Palestinian population within their own borders.
UNRWA Representative Office, New York Director, UNRWA Representative Office – Andrew Whitley One United Nations Plaza, Room DC1-1265, New York, NY 10017, USA Telephone: (+ 1 212) 963 2255, (00 1 212) 963 1234 Fax: (+ 1 212) 935 7899