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.

One of the primary errors that Agency critics often make is to assume that UNRWA has a mandate to resettle Palestinian refugees. This assumption is only partially correct. In short, UNRWA’s mandate as initially envisaged is limited to facilitating resettlement once a political agreement is reached with a particular state or group of states willing to naturalize Palestinian refugees. The latter responsibility, namely, facilitating the negotiation of a political agreement was assigned to UNRWA’s sister organization, the UN Conciliation Commission for Palestine (UNCCP) set up under General Assembly Resolution 194.

Analyzing Assembly resolutions relevant to the mandates of the two UN organs or agencies, that is to say, the UNCCP and UNRWA, the Commission’s Secretariat concluded that:

As far as the refugee problem is concerned, United Nations bodies in the Near East have been given three specific tasks:

(a) to provide interim relief and work-relief for the refugees;
(b) to implement the Assembly resolution that compensation should be paid for loss of or damage to property;
(c) to facilitate the repatriation, resettlement and economic and social rehabilitation of the refugees, bearing in mind the General Assembly’s recommendation that the refugees wishing to return to their homes etc. should be allowed to do so at the earliest practicable date.

Point (a) falls clearly and entirely under the jurisdiction of UNRWA.
Point (b) falls clearly and entirely under the jurisdiction of the Conciliation Commission. It will, however, be necessary to establish a procedure to be applied to reintegration projects which involve double financing out of UNRWA funds and compensation payments.
As for point (c), it seems that its political implementation falls under the jurisdiction of the Conciliation Commission, its technical implementation under the authority of UNRWA.

For all practical purposes that would mean that the Conciliation Commission would limit its functions to negotiating with governments the general conditions under which they would submit reintegration projects to UNRWA. The approving of such projects and their technical implementation would be entirely within the province of UNRWA.

Some 70 years later, UNRWA describes its role in relation to durable solutions as follows:

A just and durable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the ultimate key to achieving full protection for Palestine refugees and the realisation of their rights. While UNRWA’s focus is the provision of humanitarian and development assistance, it is also uniquely placed to advise and support where possible, necessary efforts by other actors toward achieving and implementing a solution.

UNRWA further observes that in carrying out its mandate, the Agency

Highlights to the international community the urgent need for a just and durable solution to the plight of the Palestinian people as a whole, and helps ensure that in its elaboration the rights and interests of refugees are respected.

This brings us to another error made by UNRWA critics which is to assume that the Agency has the power to unilaterally integrate or resettle Palestinian refugees with comparisons often made to the local integration or resettlement of refugees under UNHCR auspices over the decades. This assumption overlooks the fundamental principle of sovereignty which constrains both UNRWA and UNHCR alike when it comes to refugee resettlement.

Describing the relationship between the various durable solutions accorded to refugees, UNHCR’s Executive Committee first reaffirms in its Conclusion No. 104 (2005) on local integration that,

voluntary repatriation, local integration and resettlement are the traditional durable solutions, and that all remain viable and important responses to refugee situations;

The Committee then reiterates that

voluntary repatriation, in safety and dignity, where and when feasible, remains the most preferred solution in the majority of refugee situations; noting that a combination of solutions, taking into account the specific circumstances of each refugee situation, can help achieve lasting solutions.

Finally, of immediate relevance to the above discussion around local integration or resettlement, the Committee emphasizes that

local integration is a sovereign decision and an option to be exercised by States guided by their treaty obligations and human rights principles.

The more recent Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework annexed to the New York Declaration on Refugees and Migrants (General Assembly Resolution 71/1 of 3 October 2016) similarly states that

Host States, bearing in mind their capacities and international legal obligations, in cooperation with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, where appropriate, and other United Nations entities, financial institutions and other relevant partners, would:

(a) Provide legal stay to those seeking and in need of international protection as refugees, recognizing that any decision regarding permanent settlement in any form, including possible naturalization, rests with the host country.

In sum, contrary to what UNRWA’s critics assert, the UN General Assembly tasked the UNCCP with facilitating a political agreement to the refugee issue with UNRWA called upon to facilitate technical aspects relating to its implementation. Various additional ideas about the Agency’s role in facilitating durable solutions for Palestinian refugees have been forward over the last two decades. The question of which international agency is responsible for the search for durable solutions today, given that the UNCCP has been largely defunct since the collapse of political negotiations in the early 1950s, has also been the subject of debate. Finally, even if UNRWA’s mandate extended to the search for durable solutions, the Agency would be no more empowered than UNHCR to integrate or resettle Palestinian refugees against the wishes of states and refugees themselves.

Copyright © 2018