UNRWA Helping or Hurting the Palestinian Cause?

Published July 15th, 2012 - 02:08 GMT

This story was first published in Nuqudy.com and deals with the role of UNRWA regarding the Palestinian issue.

A dangerous development for the Palestinian cause has sprung up recently regarding the definition of Palestinian refugees. A report that over 5 million people are served by the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) throughout the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria was released recently and many believe this number is too high.

The recent dispute stems from the political definition of the term "refugee". UNRWA officially defines a Palestinian refugee as someone whose "normal place of residence was Palestine during the period 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948 and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict." However, that definition has been expanded to include "the children or grandchildren of such refugees are eligible for agency assistance if they are (a) registered with the UNRWA, (b) living in the area of UNRWA's operations, and (c) in need." UNRWA is the largest employer of Palestinians and provides ongoing, and much needed, education and aid.

Other UN bodies for refugees are run differently. The 1951 UN Convention applies the "refugee" status only to those who fled their resident country and not to subsequent generations, as those generally have citizenship rights in the countries they are born in. The UN High Commission for Refugees focuses more on resettlement and helping refugees to build new lives in new countries, rather than provide aid and maintaining services indefinitely until those refugees and their descendants are permitted to return.

This definition is vital as it dictates who gives aid to and gets aid from UNRWA. Should countries be compelled to differentiate between the official definition of refugees and their descendants, aid to UNRWA would drop dramatically, and through this aid to Palestinians would plummet.

The US has already taken its first steps to eliminate aid to UNRWA with its Kirk Amendment, which the US Senate Appropriations Committee passed unanimously on May 24th of this year. The amendment, proposed by the Republican representative from Illinois Mark Kirk, requires that the State Department specify to Congress how many of the 5 million Palestinians counted by the UNRWA are refugees who were actually displaced between 1946 and 1948, and how many are their descendants. While the amendment itself does not reduce aid, its consequences inevitably will.
This change in accounting is rumored to reduce the number of Palestinian refugees from over 5 million to just 30,000. This will drastically alter the amount of aid received, particularly as the US is the largest contributor to UNRWA with $250 million going to the organization every year.

For the Palestinians, it is important that descendants retain their refugee status to maintain their "right of return". Without it, the children and grandchildren of those who fled Palestine in 1947 and 1948 will not be able to return to the homes their ancestors were forced out of. UNRWA provides much needed support, including aid, healthcare, jobs, and education, to those who need it the most.

It should be noted that the acts against UNRWA began after PA president Mahmoud Abbas's unilateral move to win recognition from the United Nations last year. This is just one of the many negative repercussions that followed, the majority of which have hurt the Palestinian people. The other major event was when US lawmakers cut off $200 million in annual aid to the Palestinians preceding and following Abbas' appeal to the UN. President Barack Obama only released the aid on April 27 of this year.

The most recent developments regarding the Palestinian refugee situation inevitably prompt questions over the effectiveness of UNRWA. Generally, UN refugee organizations encourage refugees to settle in new countries and facilitate building lives outside of the old homeland.

So why is it that UNRWA has not helped Palestinians overcome their status as refugees, but rather has pushed the displaced group into the position of being eternal refugees? Due to the organization's unique definition of "refugee", Palestinians who move to new countries are categorized as refugees, regardless of the success they or their progeny reach. This results in over 5 million people being placed in the position of being a perpetual refugee. How does this help the Palestinian cause as a whole?

Refugee agencies do not exist to make a political point; rather, they comfort people who have been put in an unimaginable situation. If the UNRWA is not helping Palestinians escape the refugee status and flourish, we must ask ourselves who the UNRWA is answering to - the Palestinians focused on creating a successful situation for themselves in a new world, or those focused on the elimination of an enemy?

And other questions could be asked. What would happen if UNRWA funding was instead given to the PA or the PLO? Does the UNRWA provision of jobs, welfare services, and education prevent the Palestinians from developing the infrastructure for these essential services themselves? Perhaps, eliminating the involvement of an international group would speed Palestinian recovery and development. The UNRWA appears to be delaying, not promoting solutions.

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