Global Trends in (Palestinian) Forced Displacement – 2017

This past June, in the lead up to World Refugee Day, UNHCR released its annual Global Trends on Forced Displacement summarizing available data on refugees, people in refugee-like situations, asylum-seekers, internally displaced, stateless and other persons of concern. According to the report, a total of 68.5 million individuals were forcibly displaced at the end of 2017, nearly 3 million more than the previous year, comprising the sixth consecutive annual increase in the number of persons forcibly displaced as a result of persecution, conflict or generalized violence. With the number of internally displaced persons slightly smaller than 2016, the increase in forced displacement around the world was due largely to a growth in the number of refugees, in particular, those from Myanmar, South Sudan and Syria.

Refugees comprised over a third (25.4 million) of forcibly displaced persons, an increase of 2.7 million over the previous year. The refugee population in Global Trends includes 5.4 million Palestinians registered with UNRWA, the United Nations’ other refugee agency. In other words, just over a fifth of the world’s refugees in 2017 originated from that part of Mandate Palestine that became the state of Israel during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. Registered Palestinian refugees were the second largest refugee population, smaller in number than the 6.3 million refugees from Syria, but significantly larger than refugees from Afghanistan (2.6 million), South Sudan (2.3 million), Myanmar (1.2 million) and Somalia (986,400).

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Capping the Number of Palestinian Refugees?

According to recent press reports, the Trump administration’s plan for a solution to the long-standing Palestinian-Israeli conflict includes a “cap” on the total number of Palestinian refugees. At the end of 2017, there were approximately 5.4 million Palestine refugees, registered with the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), in need of durable solutions to their situation. It is important to note that these refugees comprise only a sub-set, albeit the largest, of the total Palestinian refugee population. Refugees are commonly afforded three basic solutions to their situation, repatriation, local integration and resettlement, all of which depend on the consent of refugees themselves. It seems that the administration’s approach is to try to dissolve the problem by declaring that only 500,000 Palestinians or roughly 10 percent of those registered with UNRWA are bone fide refugees. The administration has yet to reveal the fate of these “remaining refugees”.

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Why a Separate Agency for Palestinian Refugees?

One of the more frequent criticisms directed at the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) is that it is the only UN organization dedicated to a specific refugee group. All other refugees fall under the auspices of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Many of UNRWA’s critics, though not all, further argue that in order to rectify this apparent anomaly in the UN system, UNRWA should be dissolved with eligible Palestinians placed under UNHCR’s protection and care.

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Does UNRWA Really Perpetuate the Palestinian Refugee Problem?

Among the increasingly shrill criticisms directed against the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) is that the Agency perpetuates or prolongs the so-called Palestinian refugee problem. Critics argue that UNRWA does this in two ways: first, through its registration practices; and, second, as a result of its alleged failure to resettle the refugees. The first issue has been dealt with elsewhere; the focus here is on the second allegation which brings to fore issues concerning UNRWA’s mandate along with local integration and resettlement as durable solutions to forced displacement.

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Defining Palestinian Refugees – Making Sense of the Debate

Recent months have witnessed a steady stream of criticism directed towards the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees and how it defines persons falling under its mandate. Among the charges leveled against UNRWA is that it prolongs the Palestinian refugee situation through its registration practices. This includes the registration of the children of refugees along with refugees accorded citizenship in one of the Agency’s areas of operation, primarily Jordan, which hosts more than two million refugees from the 1948 Arab-Israeli war along with hundreds of thousands of refugees from the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

Such criticisms have spawned a rather curious initiative by a handful of US congressmen for the declassification of a State Department report which allegedly puts the number of Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war at around 20-30,000. The assumption or rather conclusion drawn is that these elderly Palestinians comprise the actual number of refugees rather than the 5.4 million registered with UNRWA. The initiative is curious in part because estimates of first generation refugees from the 1948 war are part of the public record while their number is far from headline news given that the state of Israel has opposed the return of refugees to their places of origin, apart from a small number through family reunification, for some seventy years.

It is further alleged in this context that UNRWA’s registration criteria are not in line with global policy and practice, in particular, the refugee definition found in Article 1A(2) of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. In recent years, some members of the US Congress have also introduced bills that aim to replace UNRWA’s definition of a Palestine refugee with “the definition used by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)” based on the apparent assumption that this will not only bring UNRWA in line with international standards, but will also help to resolve the Palestinian refugee situation, one of the core issues that stands in the way of a comprehensive solution to the long-standing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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