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).

While comparisons in Global Trends between Palestinians and other refugees are few, they are significant to the extent that Palestinian refugees have long been regarded as “a case apart”, to borrow a phrase from a 2005 study by Fabos, al-Ali and el-Obeid on forced displacement in the Middle East and North Africa. Enhanced cooperation between UNRWA and UNHCR accompanied by what Michael Kagan has described as a relative decline in Palestinian exceptionalism in refugee studies are considered recent phenomena. The comparisons nevertheless tend to mask the scale and nature of forced displacement, not only because they are limited, but also because registered Palestinian refugees comprise only a subset, albeit the largest, of the total Palestinian refugee population.

As stakeholders move towards the adoption of a Global Compact on Refugees later this year, understanding the scale and nature of forced displacement is critical in meeting identified objectives. These include easing pressure on host states through improved burden/responsibility sharing and reducing the number of protracted refugee situations by supporting conditions in countries of origin for the return of refugees in safety and dignity. In this context it is worth revisiting some of the global trends drawing upon what we know about other groups of Palestinian refugees additional to those registered with UNRWA. To simplify matters, a limited number of examples at the global, regional and national levels have been chosen to illustrate some of the potential implications for burden or responsibility sharing and the search for durable solutions.


Before revisiting some of the trends in forced displacement over the past year, however, it may be useful to review a few inter-related issues beginning with the question of who is a Palestinian refugee. This question deserves a separate commentary, however, there are a few basic points that are of particular relevance to the following discussion. First, there is no legal definition of a Palestinian refugee similar to the refugee definitions codified in international and regional treaties governing the status of refugees. Second, while the United Nations organs or agencies set up in response to the refugee crisis arising from 1948 Arab-Israeli war, namely, the UNCCP and UNRWA, together drafted several definitions of a Palestinian refugee, UNRWA’s definition of a Palestine refugee, which is used to determine eligibility for assistance, is the only one that came into force. Third, limited to persons displaced as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war who meet the Agency’s registration criteria, UNRWA’s definition of a Palestine refugee excludes as least five major groups of displaced Palestinians. While excluded individuals and groups may not all be in need of international protection and assistance, most likely have claims relating to durable solutions which bring to fore a complimentary albeit separate body of rights under international law.

A first group comprise Palestinians forcibly displaced during the two-and-a-half decades of British administration preceding the 1948 war. Among these are Palestinians who were temporarily residing abroad and were denationalized under the 1925 Palestinian Citizenship Order, the same law which enabled Jewish immigrants to acquire citizenship in Mandate Palestine. Motaz Qafisheh in his study of pre- and post-WWII Palestinian refugees describes this group of displaced persons as the “first Palestinian refugees”. They are part of a larger group of persons—Arabs and Jews—forcibly displaced for various reasons during the British administration of the country about which little has been written. While most likely have claims relating to durable solutions, a 2005 study of refugees in Lebanon identified stateless individuals from this period who are still in need of international protection.

Palestinians displaced during the 1948 war who for various reasons were either ineligible—e.g., they were not in need or were outside the Agency’s areas of operation—or for other reasons chose not to register with the Agency comprise a second group of refugees. Similar to the larger group of 1948 refugees registered with UNRWA, the state of Israel refused to allow them to return to their homes, properties and lands even while it facilitated the immigration and absorption of Jews from the around the world. It is not clear how many have availed themselves of the opportunity to register with UNRWA after revision to the Agency’s registration criteria in the 1990s removing need and initial flight to one of UNRWA’s areas of operation. Once again, while little has been written about this particular group of Palestinian refugees, some may be in need of international protection, in particular, those residing in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, while the vast majority likely have durable solution related claims.

A third group is comprised of Palestinians whom Israel expelled after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. This included Palestinians who remained in their homes during the war, those who were displaced internally and refugees who attempted to return to their places of origin inside the Jewish state. While those already registered with UNRWA and displaced as of July 1952 (when Israel assumed responsibility for internally displaced persons) were able to retain their registration, little is known about the fate of those expelled at later dates. In his 1955 report to the General Assembly, UNRWA’s Director observed that “[i]t is a most serious issue of policy whether or not the Agency should be responsible for assisting persons who left Israel since 1948, whatever the circumstances of their departure”. While incidents of forced displacement are mentioned frequently in the literature on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, little is known about the situation of such persons after their flight or expulsion. Little can thus be said about potential needs relating to international protection, however, it can be assumed that like the other groups of refugees described above, this group will also likely have claims relating to durable solutions.

Already mentioned are Palestinians displaced for the first time during the 1967 war, the fourth major group of refugees excluded from the above refugee definitions. This is one of the largest groups of Palestinian refugees who are unable to meet UNRWA’s definition of a Palestine refugee, but who are nevertheless eligible to receive Agency services. Together with registered Palestine refugees, these two groups of “war refugees” are frequently associated with what has come to be known as the Palestinian refugee problem. This association, between forced displacement in Palestine/Israel and the 1948 and 1967 Arab-Israeli wars, as already evident from the preceding discussion, overlooks the ongoing nature of forced displacement which preceded either of the two wars. While separate procedures were set up in the 1990s under the Middle East peace process to address durable solutions for these two groups of Palestinian refugees, both policy-oriented and academic literature focuses predominantly on refugees displaced during the 1948 war who are registered with UNRWA.

A fifth and final group of refugees comprise those Palestinians displaced for the first time since Israel’s 1967 military occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza Strip. Those within UNRWA’s areas of operation are eligible to receive Agency services, but are not considered to be Palestine refugees. In its Guidelines on International Protection (No. 13) relating to the status of Palestinians under the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, UNHCR clarifies that such Palestinians who are outside UNRWA areas of operations may be considered refugees under the individualized definition found in Article 1A(2) of the 1951 Refugee Convention. Similar to the situation of Palestinians forcibly displaced from Israel after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, the situation of those forcibly displaced after the 1967 Arab-Israeli is mentioned in the literature on the conflict, however, it is only in recent decades that one finds a more specific focus on this group of refugees, with discussion of both protection and durable solutions, albeit often disconnected from forced displacement during the early decades of Israel’s military occupation.


This leads us to the next question, which is what are the sources of data on Palestinian refugees. To begin, UNRWA and UNHCR are the only international organizations which register Palestinian refugees. Both organizations generally register children or descendants of refugees based on the principle of family unity subject to certain limitations set out in respective registration criteria. UNRWA also registers Palestine refugees who have been granted citizenship in one of the Agency’s areas of operations, primarily in Jordan, whereas acquisition of citizenship is among the grounds for cessation of refugee status under the 1951 Refugee Convention. This apparent discrepancy is explained by differences in definition and mandate as described elsewhere. While a number of other United Nations funds, programmes and specialized agencies—e.g., UNICEF, UN-Habitat, ILO—also collect data on Palestinian refugees, they neither register nor maintain population statistics for this group of refugees.

Housing and population censuses also comprise a significant source of data on Palestinian refugees. In the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza Strip, the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics collects data on registered and non-registered refugees. It has also cooperated with statistical agencies in other major host areas in collecting data on Palestinian refugees. Data collected by the Jordanian Department of Statistics includes registered refugees and displaced persons, that is to say, refugees from the 1967 war who are eligible to receive UNRWA services. In Lebanon, the Lebanese-Palestinian Dialogue Committee has recently conducted a census of registered refugees in the country. Outside the Arab states where the majority of Palestinian refugees reside data is increasingly scarce due in part to lack of a consistent registration policy. A useful summary of policy and practice in Europe, the Americas, Africa and Oceania covering some thirty countries can be found in BADIL’s Handbook on the Protection of Palestinian Refugees. Palestinian refugees who seek asylum outside the Arab world often “disappear” due to non-recognition of Palestinian nationality or categorization of Palestinians as Middle Eastern, Other or Nationality Unknown.

Surveys by academic and other research institutes comprise another source of data. Most notable are the living conditions surveys of Palestinian refugees in UNRWA’s areas of operation conducted by FAFO – Institute for Applied Social Science over the past two-and-a-half decades. Limited to UNRWA registered refugees (along with the inclusion of 1967 displaced persons in Jordan), the surveys are not designed to establish population counts. Finally, a number of non-governmental organizations—national and international—compile various types of data on displaced Palestinians. Together these sources provide a more complete statistical picture of Palestinian refugees, however, as Hassan Abu Libdeh notes in a useful overview of Statistical Data on Palestinian Refugees they all “suffer from various deficiencies in data such as coverage, timeliness, representation of samples to targets, and reliability”. This brief discussion helps to explain why data on Palestinian refugees registered with UNRWA and UNHCR, despite the above limitations, are frequently used when statistics are required on the Palestinian refugee population.


A last issue that needs some attention before revisiting the global trends for 2017 concerns the representation of Palestinian refugees in statistics on forced displacement. The first and obvious point to note from the above discussion is that in the absence of any reference to the contrary, UNRWA and UNHCR registration statistics may give the impression that when combined these sources comprise a full count of the global Palestinian refugee population. It is only through a review of supplementary material—e.g., UNRWA’s registration instructions and UNHCR’s Guidelines on the status of Palestinian refugees under the 1951 Refugee Convention—that one discovers this is not the case. This type of supplementary information, however, is not a substitute for more accessible and transparent information. Nor does it obviate the importance of counting other groups of Palestinian refugees.

A second point that requires more consideration is the refugees’ country or place of origin. This may be at least partially clear with respect to registered refugees defined by UNRWA as “Palestine” refugees. However, with the “State of Palestine” used since 2012 throughout the UN system in reference to the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza Strip, the term Palestine refugee as used by UNRWA may lead to confusion since it refers rather to that part of Mandate Palestine that became the state of Israel in 1948. Similar confusion may arise from UNHCR statistics which refer to Palestinians by their nationality (in relation to their origin), but without reference to a country of origin. In the past, statistical publications have also listed the OPT (occupied Palestinian territories) and Gaza as the country of origin for Palestinian refugees. While reference to nationality at best masks the refugees’ country of origin, the latter terms further confuse by suggesting that all Palestinians of concern to UNHCR originate either from Gaza and/or the West Bank. This is difficult to verify given the absence of disaggregated data by place (Israel/OPT) or period (1948/67) of displacement.

Similar confusion arises from how Palestinian refugees are represented in reports of other international organizations. A 2010 World Bank study on the Impact of Refugees in Neighbouring Countries, for example, presents statistical information on states hosting 100,000 or more refugees which share a land border with refugees’ country of origin. Interestingly, the study does not appear to consider the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and Gaza Strip as a country or territory of asylum. One might argue that refugees in the OPT/State of Palestine remain within the borders of their historic homeland, namely, Mandate Palestine, however, their homes and places of origin lie within the state of Israel. More to the point, while the issue of borders remains one of the unresolved issues of the conflict, the 1949 armistice lines are widely recognized as comprising the de facto border between Israel and the OPT. Another interesting feature of the report is that it does not consider Palestinians in Lebanon or Syria to be living in a state that shares a border with their country of origin. This is also curious given that the majority of UNRWA registered refugees in Lebanon and Syria originate from the northern parts of Israel which shares a border with these states.

UNDP’s annual human development reports further illustrate the confusion that often arises in the statistical representation of Palestinian refugees. Among the indicators for personal security used in its 2014 report, UNDP includes statistics on refugees by country of origin. Israel is listed as having generated 1,300 refugees while the State of Palestine is listed as having generated 5,366,700 refugees, that is to say, the number of UNRWA registered Palestine refugees. As already noted above, UNRWA registration is limited to persons displaced during the 1948 war from that part of Mandate Palestine that became the state of Israel, so it is not clear how such persons could be identified as originating from the territories occupied by Israel during the 1967 war. In a table on human security in its 2016 report, UNDP lists the State of Palestine has having generated 98,000 refugees, relying this time on statistics for Palestinian refugees who are outside UNRWA’s areas of operation and fall under UNHCR’s mandate. This is only a partial improvement. It not only mask’s Israel’s military occupation as the primary driver of forced displacement since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, given the lack of disaggregated data, as noted above, the origins of this group of refugees, that is to say, which side of the 1949 armistice line dividing 1948 Israel from the territories it occupied in 1967, is uncertain. Moreover, Israel is listed as having generated 8,000 refugees while the 5,589,488 Palestine refugees registered with UNRWA who originate from areas inside Israel appear in a footnote to the 98,000 refugees associated with the State of Palestine.


With this background in mind, let’s turn to a brief review of some of the global trends in forced displacement beginning with the global refugee population. Given the more problematic nature of data on Palestinians displaced from Israel after 1948 and the Palestinian territories occupied by Israel since 1967, that is to say, the State of Palestine, the revisions below are limited to estimates of the number of non-registered 1948 Palestinian refugees and Palestinian refugees displaced for the first time during the 1967 war. The estimates used are based on methodologies found in the 2013-2015 issue of BADIL’s Survey on Palestinian Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons. As noted earlier, not all of these additional groups of refugees may be in need of day-to-day protection, but most if not all may have various types of claims relating to durable solutions, regardless of whether they wish to exercise them. In the absence of a comprehensive registration system, however, it is difficult to draw more definitive conclusions about their protection needs and related claims for durable solutions.

According to Global Trends, the number of refugees around the world reached a high of 25.4 million in 2017 of whom 5.4 million or just over one-fifth were Palestine refugees registered with UNRWA. If one includes the estimated number of unregistered 1948 Palestinian refugees, the global refugee population increases to 26.1 million with Palestinians comprising a quarter of the total number of refugees worldwide. When the estimated number of 1967 Palestinian refugees are included, the global refugee population rises to 27.4 million of whom nearly 7.8 million (around 28 percent) originate from areas inside Israel and the territories it has occupied since the 1967 war, namely, the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza Strip otherwise referred to above as the State of Palestine. In other words, the estimated number of Palestinian refugees exceeded the number of refugees from Syria and was slightly larger than the combined refugee population from four of the five (excluding Syria) major refugee source countries in 2017, namely, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Myanmar and Somalia.

The inclusion of registered Palestine refugees alone has significant implications for the regional distribution of refugees. According to Global Trends, Africa and Europe each hosted around 31 percent of the world’s 20 million refugees in 2017, that is to say, excluding the 5.4 million registered Palestine refugees. Asia and the Pacific hosted 21 percent with 14 percent in the Middle East and North Africa and the remaining refugee population found in the Americas. When refugees registered with UNRWA are included, the Middle East and North Africa hosted just under one third of the world’s refugee population, the largest share when compared to other regions. The percentage of refugees in the MENA region climbs to 35 and 38 percent, respectively, when the additional two categories of Palestinian refugees are included. The assumption here is that the majority of each of the three categories of Palestinian refugees reside in the MENA region, however, given the lack of reliable data regarding onward movement, the above figures may represent an overestimate.

Disaggregating the refugee population by host country further illustrates the impact of forced displacement on the region. According to Global Trends, Lebanon hosted the largest number of refugees in 2017 relative to its national population where 1 in 6 people was a refugee under the responsibility of UNHCR. Jordan (1 in 14) and Turkey (1 in 23) ranked second and third, respectively, in terms of burden or responsibility sharing when measured by the number of refugees hosted relative to the national population. Global Trends further points out that when Palestine refugees under UNRWA’s mandate are included, the above figures rise to 1 in 4 for Lebanon and 1 in 3 for Jordan. While the figure for Lebanon may be somewhat high given recent census information from the Lebanese Palestinian Dialogue Committee (refugees under UNRWA’s mandate may not reside in the country in which they were registered), this may be offset somewhat with the inclusion of registered refugees outside of camps and gatherings along with unregistered refugees. The figure for Jordan, meanwhile, is likely low since it excludes both unregistered refugees and displaced persons who are eligible to receive UNRWA services. Once again, non-registration of other groups of Palestinian refugees makes it difficult to draw more definitive conclusions.

Finally, it is useful to look at Global Trends in relation to countries of origin. In 2017 just over two-thirds (68 percent) of all refugees, excluding the 5.4 million registered refugees, originated from the above-mentioned five countries: Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Myanmar and Somalia. If refugees registered with UNRWA are included, refugees from Israel and the above-mentioned countries generated close to three-quarters of the global refugee population. That figure rises to nearly 80 percent when estimates for non-registered 1948 refugees and 1967 refugees are included. As noted earlier, the number of refugees from Syria exceeded the number of registered Palestine refugees in 2017 by just under one million persons, however, when the two additional groups of Palestinian refugees are included, Israel becomes the primary country of origin. The inclusion of 1967 displaced persons here is based on Israel’s effective control of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza Strip, that is to say, the State of Palestine, with its five-decade long military occupation being the primary driver of forced displacement.

In a further comparison, Global Trends has compiled a list of the top source countries since 1980, that is to say countries that have generated the largest numbers of refugees over the past 37 years. Palestinian refugees under UNHCR’s mandate are excluded from the results due to the lack of complete information, however, if one includes all three of the above-mentioned groups of Palestinian refugees, namely, 1948 UNRWA registered refugees and 1948 unregistered refugees along with 1967 displaced persons, Israel becomes the top-refugee generating country around the world not only in 2017, but for much of the period since its existence with the major exception of the 1980s and early 1990s when the number of Afghan refugees exceeded the number of Palestinian refugees.


The comparison is even more intriguing when one begins to explore indicators on a range of issues, from democratic governance to economic development, which set Israel apart from all other major source countries and territories in the list. This includes Afghanistan, Angola, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, Vietnam and Western Sahara, all of which appear in the top-20 thirty or more times.

All of the above-mentioned countries, with the exception of Angola, were also the source of protracted refugee situations in 2017, defined by UNHCR as 25,000 or more refugees from the same nationality who have been in exile for five consecutive years or more in a given asylum country. According to Global Trends, two thirds of the world’s refugees or 13.4 million of nearly 20 million were caught up in protracted situations including Palestinian refugees in Egypt who fall under UNHCR’s mandate. This includes 3 million caught up in protracted situations lasting 38 years or more, 3.5 million in situations lasting between 10 and 37 years and 6.9 million refugees in protracted situations of between 5 and 9 years. When Palestinian refugees registered with UNRWA who originate from areas inside the state of Israel are included, however, refugees in protracted situations (18.8 million) comprised three-quarters of the world’s refugee population (25.4 million). Their inclusion also makes the Palestinian refugee situation the longest and largest protracted refugee situation in the world today.


While the estimates of additional groups of Palestinian refugees and related adjustments in various trends in forced displacement around the world in 2017 are indicative rather than determinative given the absence of registration data, the selected examples have significant implications for burden or responsibility sharing and addressing the conditions for durable solutions, whether that be through voluntary repatriation to homes and places of origin inside Israel and the territories it has occupied since 1967, or through local integration and third country resettlement based on the sovereign decision of states and the consent of refugees themselves. They reveal a region that is hosting more refugees per capita than any other region in the world and hosting refugees for longer periods of time. The comparison between major countries of origin, moreover, raise significant questions about the root and proximate causes of Palestinian displacement given major political, economic and social differences between the state of Israel and other major countries of origin.

Revisiting global trends in forced displacement over the past year also draws attention to the concomitant gaps in data on Palestinian refugees and displaced persons. Commenting on the importance of data, a recent expert report on refugee statistics observes,

[d]ata are necessary to better understand the phenomenon of forced displacement, to analyse its impacts, and to measure changes over time. Quality statistics on forcibly displaced populations also provide the requisite evidence to support: (a) better policy formulation and sound decision making, (b) more effective monitoring, evaluation and accountability of policies and programs; and (c) enhanced public debate and advocacy.

Reviewing the state of statistical information on Palestinian refugees over a decade ago, then head of the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, Hassan Abu Libdeh, recommended, among others, “[a]n in-depth review of various databases in terms of coverage, timeliness, conceptual basis, methodology of updates, and comparability with the international standards and recommendations. This review should aim at matching and harmonizing existing sources in order to facilitate further research using these sources”. In October of last year the World Bank and UNHCR announced plans to set up a joint data centre to improve global statistics on forced displacement. This might also provide an opportunity, in partnership with UNRWA and other international and national agencies that collect data on Palestinian refugees, to likewise improve statistics on forced displacement arising from the unresolved struggle over Palestine/Israel.

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