Wednesday, November 09, 2005


Report to UNCA - transform operation of UNRWA to UNHCR

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Report to UNCA - transform operation of UNRWA to UNHCR

Presented at the UNCA, the United Nations Correspondents Association, on November 1st, 2005.
UNRWA: Should it not operate according to the principles of UNHCR and resettle Palestinian refugees rather than perpetuate their suffering?

Byline: David Bedein, MSW, BUREAU CHIEF, Israel
Resource News Agency, Beit
Agron Int’l Press Center, Jerusalem, Israel

The international community and most specifically
the supporters of
The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for
Palestinian Refugees in the
Near East, UNRWA, have for half a century
countenanced a situation in which
the agency operates as an anomaly:
UNRWA was founded by the General Assembly of the
United Nations in
December 1949 specifically to provide
humanitarian relief to the Arabs who
fled from Israel in the course of the war of
1948-49. Envisioned as a
temporary agency, it was afforded an
extraordinary amount of latitude in
terms of formulating its policies and even in its
definition of refugee.
Exactly one year later the UN High Commission for
Refugees was founded
by the same body. Within a matter of months
after its founding, the UN
Convention relating to the Status of Refugees was
adopted in Geneva at
The UN Conference on the Status of Refugees and
Stateless Persons. The
Convention rules and its definition of refugee
became binding on UNHCR
and remain the norm within international law.
UNHCR’s original mandate was to attend to
millions of refugees from
World War II who were still stateless; this was
later expanded to include
all refugees in the world, with the exception of
those attended to by
another UN agency. In real terms, this meant
that UNRWA was permitted to
continue to operate under its own terms with its
own definitions and
policies, and not bound by the Convention. It
was, and remains, the only
international agency devoted to one specific
group of refugees.
One might well imagine that with the founding of
UNHCR, the need for
UNRWA would have disappeared. And a solid case
can be made for the fact
that it indeed should have disappeared. The Arab
bloc, however, was
adamant that it not. A document found on the
UNHCR website, “The State of
the World’s Refugees, Part 1, The Early Years
puts the matter
baldly: “[Arab States...] feared that the
non-political character of the
work envisioned for the nascent UNHCR was not
compatible with the highly
politicized nature of the Palestinian question.”
Over the years, UNRWA has developed into a
massive bureaucratic agency
that provides for Palestinian Arab refugees at a
level that exceeds what is
given to any other refugees in the world. The
Palestinian Arab
refugees are the only ones to have guaranteed
health care, welfare
assistance and primary education. In fact, 50%
more per refugee is spent
on the Palestinian Arabs than on any other
One of the reasons this is so is because UNRWA
has come to function in
a quasi-governmental fashion for a growing
population that has remained,
according to UNRWA’s rules and definitions,
stateless now for 57
years. Whereas UNHCR seeks to help the refugees
under their
jurisdiction finds solutions so that they might
get on with their lives
with permanency,
UNWRA operates under the premise that the
Palestinian Arab refugees are
still refugees even if they acquire a new
citizenship, as many have
in Jordan until such time as they will return to
their homes and
villages in Israel, from which they or their
grandparents fled.
The question remains: Why do western nations who
finance UNRWA (That
includes the 31% contribution from the US) not
demand that UNRWA operate
according to the principles of UNHCR - to
resettle refugees instead of
implementing a policy that perpetuates their
suffering, while fostering
their delusions about the “right of return” ?
When UNRWA was founded by the UN General Assembly
Resolution 302, it
included a “particular” reference to paragraph 11
of General Assembly
Resolution 194. This resolution, passed during
the 1948-49 war in an
effort to bring it to closure, had not been
supported by a single
nation within the Arab bloc because it recognized
Israel’s right to exist.
After the war, that same Arab bloc, influential
in the drafting of
UNRWA’s mandate, saw fit to call upon a specific
clause from that
resolution lifted from its broader context.
That clause read:
“…Refugees wishing to return to their homes and
live at peace with
their neighbors should be permitted to do so at
the earliest
practicable date…”
This phrase has been used since as the basis for
the claim that the
Palestinian Arab refugees have a “right of
return,” often referred to
as “unalienable.”
What is more, when the entire resolution 194 is
examined, references to
resettlement are found, and it becomes clear that
return was not the
only option being recommended by the General
Nonetheless, UNRWA has functioned on the basis of
this presumed right.
Thus UNRWA accuses Israel of blocking the
“legitimate rights” of
the Palestinian Arab refugees and operate under
the premise that they must
be maintained in a limbo status under its care
until such time as “return”
can be realized. Any attempts to provide the
refugees with permanent
residence elsewhere are blocked by UNRWA as
when, in 1985, when Israel
attempted to move refugees into 1,300 permanent
houses built for them near
Nablus and a UN resolution was passed demanding
that Israel not move refugees.
While claiming to protect the “rights” of the
refugees, the question
remains as to whether this UNRWA policy violates
fundamental human rights.
Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the Florida Congresswoman
who chairs the
Middle East subcommittee of the US House
international relations committee,
proposed on September 30th, 2005 that at a time
“when the issue of U.N.
reform is at the forefront, it is time for the
Refugee Convention's
inapplicability to Palestinians to be
reconsidered. It
is time for UNRWA's separate status to be
rescinded, and for UNRWA to be
integrated into UNHCR”.

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