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.

This recommendation has broad implications, not all of which seem to have been thought through by UNRWA’s critics. This includes Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who reportedly discovered as much when he put the idea to Antonio Guterres, the UN Secretary-General and former High Commissioner for Refugees, during a side meeting at the Munich Security Conference this past March. Referring to UNHCR’s mandate, which includes assisting governmental and private efforts to promote voluntary repatriation, Guterres reportedly asked the Israeli Prime Minister: “Are you sure you want the UN refugee organization to start working for the return of Palestinian refugees?”

But what about the above-mentioned allegation that UNRWA is an anomaly in the UN system because its mandate is dedicated exclusively to one group of refugees? On the face of it, there seems little to argue about with UNHCR generally responsible for refugees around the world except those who fall under UNRWA’s mandate in its five areas of operation, namely, the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. Other notable exceptions include the UN Korean Reconstruction Agency and the UN Border Relief Operation which provided humanitarian assistance, respectively, to persons displaced by the Korean war and armed conflict in Cambodia.

The related criticism directed towards UNRWA nevertheless suffers from a kind of ahistoricism that has been criticized in the wider study of refugees. In the decades leading up to the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, the League of Nations commonly established ad hoc institutions in response to specific refugee situations beginning with the creation of a High Commissioner for Russian Refugees. In the immediate years after the Second World War the United Nations established the Relief and Rehabilitation Administration and the International Refugee Organization both of which assumed responsibility for refugees and displaced persons uprooted as a result of the war.

This practice of creating ad hoc institutions in response to specific refugee situations continued in Palestine/Israel during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war with the establishment of the UN Disaster Relief Project and the UN Relief for Palestine Refugees based on recommendations of the UN Mediator on Palestine. The Mediator’s recommendations also led to the establishment of a UN Conciliation Commission for Palestine. It was the recommendation of one of the Commission’s sub-organs, the Economic Survey Mission, moreover, that led to the establishment of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees.

Another reason why the UN set up separate organs or agencies for displaced Palestinians is that the “refugee problem” in Palestine/Israel was essentially “born in between regimes”. The refugee regime set up under the League of Nations had collapsed at the beginning of the Second World War, while the International Refugee Organization, which contributed to the assistance effort in Palestine during the 1948 war, held that persons displaced as a result of the hostilities fell outside its mandate. The international refugee regime as we know it today, moreover, was still a work in progress with UNHCR scheduled to commence operations in January 1951, roughly a year-and-a-half after UNRWA began its relief and works programs for Palestine refugees.

It is also important to note that while the vast majority of those displaced as result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war were of Arab Palestinian origin, UNRWA also assisted displaced Jews along with other displaced persons comprising more than two dozen nationalities. For a variety of reasons relating to its own political interests, the state of Israel assumed responsibility in 1952 for displaced persons within its de facto borders notwithstanding the different policies and practices applied to Arab Palestinians and Jews uprooted during the war. The differential treatment of displaced Arabs and Jews under the state’s jurisdiction stems from Israel’s self-definition as a Jewish state.

The UN also established separate organs and agencies for Palestinian refugees, what is sometimes described as the Palestinian refugee regime, because their needs at the time differed substantially from other major refugee situations around the world. The United Nations and its member states held that the primary concern for Palestinian refugees was “to prevent conditions of starvation and distress”. It was also felt that such assistance would “further conditions of peace and stability” in the region. This differed substantially from the majority of European refugees in need of diplomatic and consular protection. In contrast to the great majority of Palestinian refugees who wanted to return to their homes, properties and lands, moreover, European refugees generally favoured resettlement with the hope of starting new lives abroad. Hence, the very different mandates given to UNRWA and UNHCR.

Palestinian refugees were also different from major refugee situations outside Europe, in particular, the millions uprooted by the partition of the Indian subcontinent. Those who took refuge on either side of the partition line were able, at least in theory, to access national protection in Pakistan and India. The Palestinian situation differed in at least two important respects. First, and most obvious, was the failure to establish a Palestinian state under the UN partition plan (General Assembly Resolution 181) which might have led to a substantially different trajectory in the development of the “Palestinian refugee problem”. The second, and equally significant difference, was that Mandate Palestine was also the object of a settler colonial movement which sought to reconstitute the country as a Jewish state. While both factors help explain the mass displacement of Palestinians during the 1948 war, it is the latter that explains Israel’s subsequent efforts to prevent Palestinian refugees from returning to their homes.

The third reason that is sometimes given for the establishment of a separate regime for Palestinian refugees, is the role of the United Nations and many of its member states in contributing to the conditions that led to the refugee crisis through the General Assembly’s recommendation to divide Mandate Palestine into separate states against the will of the majority of the country’s indigenous population. As Johannes Morsink notes in his discussion of the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights during the 1948 war,

[t]he general feeling was that because of its decision to partition Palestine, the United Nations itself was to some extent responsible for the refugee problem, but there was “a gentleman’s agreement to avoid discussion of the political aspect”.

This argument about why the UN created a special regime for Palestinian refugees has been made, however, primarily, in relation to discussions about the status of Palestinian refugees under the emerging international refugee regime, comprised of UNHCR and the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. In other words, the argument was made after the establishment of the UNCCP and UNRWA.

In sum, viewed in historical context, the establishment of a separate set of organs or agencies for Palestinian refugees, most notably UNRWA, is far from an anomaly. It was consistent with practice elsewhere in the decades leading up to the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, it filled a gap during a period of transition between the interwar and post-war periods, and it met the specific needs of Palestinian refugees which differed substantially from the needs of refugees elsewhere. The establishment of a separate regime, moreover, was also viewed by many as recognition of the UN’s special responsibility for Palestinian refugees given the recommendation to divide the country into separate states which led to the 1948 war.

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