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Refugees Forever

UNWRA & the plight of Palestinian refugees

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Posted on: 
9 May 2012
Refugees Forever

The plight of the Palestinian refugees is a frequent media headliner.  Some people have called on the international community to boycott Israel, blaming the nation for the creation of the refugee issue and for the poor living conditions of nearly 5 million Palestinian refugees spanning four generations. To answer the question of who is responsible for today's refugees a little historical perspective is necessary.

In 1947 the UN passed Resolution 181, The Partition Plan, creating a Jewish and Arab state side by side that looks very much like today's two-state proposal. Israel accepted the resolution and the Arab nations rejected it launching an attack on the newly created state of Israel. Israel defended herself and the war ended with a cease-fire line known today as the green-line which separates the West Bank and Gaza from Israel. 

 About 600,000 to 700,000 Arab Palestinians fled their homes in the war of 1948 and ended up outside the cease-fire line becoming refugees. About the same numbers of Jewish refugees fled or were expelled from Arab lands around the time of the war.  Israel absorbed the Jewish refugees despite the economic hardship it created on the new state. The Arabs refused to absorb the Palestinian refugees.

How did roughly 700,000 Arab refugees turn into 5 million? The United Nations defined Palestinian refugees differently from all other refugees worldwide.  This exclusive treatment has led to a situation where the Palestinian refugees are the only refugee group that is expanding rather than contracting.


  • In December of 1949 a refugee agency was created by the United Nations called the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). They are responsible for all refugees worldwide (with the exclusion of Palestinian refugees). They are held to the legal standards of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. Under the UNHCR definition of a refugee, the status of refugee pertains only to those who have lost their home and occupation in their country of nationality. They cannot pass down their refugee status to the next generation once they have been relocated and integrated in another nation providing safety and citizenship.
  • The UNHCR seeks to solve refugee issues in three ways they term as "durable solutions": (1) Repatriation – returning to one’s country (2) Integration – becoming citizens of the nation to where they have fled and (3) Relocation – moving to another nation that welcomes refugees and grants citizenship. If any refugee is granted one of these solutions his status as refugee is terminated.
  • The UNHCR is held to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and has helped an estimated 50 million people to restart their lives. They have a staff of just 6,300 people in more than 110 countries helping 36.4 million refugees and displaced people.


  • Palestinian refugees are under the administration of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). UNRWA was established in December 1949 to “alleviate the conditions of starvation and distress among the Palestinian refugees” with “a view to the termination of international assistance for relief” at an early date – set for no later than December 1950. However, rather than ending its emergency assistance, UNRWA began development programs for the Palestinian refugees. UNRWA is now the largest UN operation in the Middle East with a staff of over 30,000 – most of whom are Palestinians themselves.
  • UNRWA's programmes include: education, healthcare, micro-financing, infrastructure development and emergency needs. The original "relief" programme accounts for only 10% of the budget with 90% dedicated to development goals. Many refugees throughout the world today are not getting adequate food and shelter while Palestinian refugees receive among other benefits, business loans, after school tutoring and university scholarships.
  • Under UNRWA's mandate, Palestinians continue their status as refugees even if they integrate or relocate to a safe country and are granted citizenship. As of current international law, the only way for Palestinians refugees to lose their status is for them to return to their lands or until a “just solution” is agreed upon. The UNHCR (for world-wide refugees) requires “durable" solutions to the situation of the refugees, whereas UNRWA (for the Palestinians) requires a "just" solution which is deeply political rather than humanitarian.
  • UNRWA is not held to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and is constrained by very few international or local governmental laws. They staff over 30,000 to care for just 5 million refugees and have yet to remove one Palestinian refugee from their roles except upon death.

The Palestinians as a group therefore are under a different set of rules to every other refugee in the world today.

So who is responsible for the situation of the Palestinian refugees?

Firstly, had the Arab nations accepted the 1947 UN Partition Plan providing for both a Jewish and Arab state side by side, there would have been neither war nor Palestinian refugees.

Secondly, had the UN dealt with the Palestinian refugee situation as it has with all other refugee s throughout the world, there would be fewer than 700,000 in contrast to today's 5 million. And had the Arab nations absorbed the refugees in accordance with the 1951 Convention on Refugees, as Israel did the Jewish refugees, there would not be one Palestinian refugee today.

Kasey Bar is a freelance writer, living in Israel. She is a former co-ordinator of the ICEJ's Young Adults Ministry: Grafted. This article was first published in the January 2012 edition of Grafted's quarterly newsletter.

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