Gunness on UNRWA, UNHCR, and Palestinian refugees

Posted: June 27, 2011 by Rex Brynen in UNRWA

The claim is often made that Palestinian refugees are an artificial creation of UNRWA, and that much of it wouldn’t exist under the somewhat different procedures and definitions employed by UNHCR. In a lengthy interview with the Ma’an News Agency, UNRWA Spokesperson Chris Gunness sets for the Agency’s views on the issue:

As Palestinian leaders prepare to seek UN recognition of statehood in September, there is increasing talk in the US, Israel and elsewhere of disbanding the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, the UN Relief and Works Agency, and handing responsibility for Palestinian refugees to the UN High Commission for Refugees.

Some argue UNHCR would resettle the refugees, robbing them of their right to return to their homes.

But are these ideas based on a sound understanding of international law and refugee practice? Are they based on a real grasp of the mandates of UNRWA and UNHCR?

To set the record straight, Ma’an turned to UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness.

It is argued that if UNRWA was disbanded and responsibility for Palestinian refugees handed over to UNHCR they would be resettled out of Israel and give up the right of return. Is this the case and if not, what would UNHCR’s role be?

Gunness: This is not the case. Palestine refugees are entitled to a just and lasting solution to their plight. This solution would optimally be achieved by the parties and political actors in the context of a negotiated conclusion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and must be in accordance with UN resolutions and international law.

It should also be voluntary which means consulting the refugees. There is no merit to claims that the Palestine refugee issue can be addressed by transferring responsibility for Palestine refugees from UNRWA to another agency….

The interview continues at length, and represents the fullest formal statement I’ve seen on these issues by UNRWA. Unfortunately, some of the questions could be a little more detailed and penetrating (it is undoubtedly true, for example, that the almost 2 million refugees in Jordan with Jordanian citizenship would no longer be considered refugees under the 1951 Refugee Convention).

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