Counting (UNRWA) refugees

Posted: May 28, 2012 by Rex Brynen in being argumentative, conspiracies, refugee attitudes, UNRWA, US
Tags: ,

I’ve been travelling much of the last week and a half, and so haven’t had any chance yet to comment yet on recent developments in the US Congress regarding who is, and is not, a Palestinian refugee.

The hijinks started when Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) proposed an amendment to the FY2013 Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Bill. This would have called upon the US State Department to report on the numbers of Palestinian refugees who had actually been displaced in 1948, as opposed to their descendants, as well as their citizenship status:

Not later than one year after the enactment of this Act, the Secretary of State shall submit a report to the Committees on Appropriations detailing the number of people currently receiving United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) services 1) whose place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948 and who were personally displaced as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict (“such persons”); 2) who are children of such persons; 3) who are grandchildren of such persons; 4) who are descendants of such persons and not otherwise counted by criteria (2) and (3); 5) who are residents of the West Bank or Gaza; 6) who do not reside in the West Bank or Gaza and are citizens of other countries; and 7) whose place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948, who were personally displaced as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict, who currently do not reside in the West Bank or Gaza and who are not currently citizens of any other state.

The proposed amendment received enthusiastic media support from right-wing columnist Jennifer Rubin at the Washington Post (see here, here, and here) as well as by Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. It was opposed by the US State Department. In a letter to the Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Deputy Secretary of State Tom Nides warned that the proposed legislation would ” be viewed around the world as the United States acting to prejudge and determine the outcome of this sensitive issue.”

The status of Palestinian refugees is one of the most sensitive final status issues confronting Palestinians and Israelis. It strikes a deep, emotional chord among Palestinians and their supporters, including our regional allies. Indeed the refugee issue is not confined to the Palestinian territories; it also directly and significantly the politics and stability of allies, such as Jordan and Lebanon, which host large Palestinian refugee populations.

This proposed amendment would be viewed around the world as the United States acting to prejudge and determine the outcome of this sensitive issue.  United States policy has been consistent for decades, in both Republican and Democratic administrations – final status issues can and must only be resolved between Israelis and Palestinians in direct negotiations.  The Department of State cannot support legislation which would force the United States to make a public judgment on the number and status of Palestinian refugees…

This proposed amendment poses serious risk of damaging a range of key United States interests in the region.  It pushed the refugee issue to the fore at a particularly sensitive time.  Forcing the United States to take a position on a permanent status issue would hurt our efforts to promote Middle East peace, prevent the Palestinians from returning to their pursuit of statehood via the United Nations, damage our ability to mediate between the parties, and risk a very negative and potentially destabilizing impact on key allies, particularly Jordan, who host Palestinian refugee populations

In the end, modified language was proposed by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT):

The Committee directs the Secretary of State to submit a report to the Committee not later than one year after enactment of this act, indicating –
(a)    the approximate number of people who, in the past year, have received UNRWA services –
(1)   whose place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948 and who were displaced as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict; and
(2)   who are descendants of persons described in subparagraph (1);
(b)   the extent to which the provision of such services to such persons furthers the security interests of the United States and of other United States allies in the Middle East; and
(c)    the methodology and challenges in preparing each report.

Detailed analysis of the legislative maneuvering has been provided by American Friends for Peace Now, in their excellent weekly legislative round-up.

The original Kirk amendment was clearly motivated by the view that UNRWA artificially prolongs the refugee issue. While it did not call for any limitation on funds to UNRWA, it seemed designed as part of a strategy to weaken both US support for the continuation of UNRWA services and registration practices over the longer term, as well as limiting the refugee issue to the elderly generation of 1948 refugees.

The Leahy version is less of a challenge to the status quo, in that it only addresses the generational issue (on which UNRWA and UNHCR practices are similar) and not the citizenship issue (where they largely differ).

Subsequently, the US State Department clarified to Josh Rogin at Foreign Policy magazine that it regards the children of refugees to be refugees, and not just in the Palestinian context:

In a new statement given to The Cable Thursday, a State Department spokesman said that the U.S. government does, in fact, agree with UNRWA that descendants of refugees are also refugees.

“Both the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) generally recognize descendants of refugees as refugees,” State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell told The Cable. “For purposes of their operations, the U.S. government supports this guiding principle. This approach is not unique to the Palestinian context.”

Ventrell pointed out that the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees also recognizes descendants of refugees as refugees in several cases, including but not limited to the Burmese refugee population in Thailand, the Bhutanese refugee population in Nepal, the Afghan population in Pakistan, and the Somali population seeking refuge in neighboring countries.

UNHCR by default only considers the minor children of refugees to have refugee status but often makes exceptions to include latter generations.

Rogin then spun this into the sensationalistic headline “Did the State Department just create 5  million Palestinian refugees?,” raising the spectre of an ever-expanding Palestinian refugee population.

Interestingly, both legislative amendments talk about those using UNRWA services, not those registered with UNRWA. The former number is, in practice, a smaller one since many refugees may not use UNRWA services.

This episode raises three main questions:

First, what is the relationship between UNRWA and Palestinian refugee claims? While the Agency undoubtedly plays some role in refugee identity, it would require a pretty shallow understanding of the refugee issue to believe that refugee claims or Palestinian attitudes to the refugee are somehow a product of UNRWA registration status. Indeed, as noted before at this blog, the public opinion survey data shows that receiving UNRWA services has little impact on Palestinian attitudes to the refugee issue.

Second, who is really a refugee? It is true that UNRWA uses a somewhat different definition of “refugee” than does UNHCR. Then again, UNRWA’s definition relates solely to service eligibility, and is in no way a political-legal definition for negotiations purposes. On the other hand, as the State Department notes, Palestinians are far from the only multi-generational refugees. In 1951 Refugee Convention and UNHCR rules were applied to Palestinians, the results would probably be the following:

  1. Stateless (non-citizen) refugees of all generations in Lebanon, Syria, or elsewhere would continue to be considered refugees.
  2. Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, who are also stateless until such time as Israel allows creation of a Palestinian state, would either be considered refugees (if the Green Line is an international border) or displaced persons (otherwise). In other words, their status wouldn’t change either, until a peace agreement establishes a state of Palestine.
  3. Palestinian refugees in Jordan who hold Jordanian citizenship—that is to say, the vast majority—would lose refugee status, since they clearly enjoy the protection of a state.

In other words, applying UNHCR rules to the Palestinians would drop the number of refugees from the current 4.8 million to approximately 2.8 million. Almost all of this reduction in numbers would occur within Jordan, and would likely be politically destabilizing in view of post-Arab Spring tensions in that country (although legitimate questions could be raised about why the UN continues to provide substantial services to tax-paying Jordanian citizens). Certainly efforts to radically transform the way UNRWA deliver services would be viewed by both Palestinians and Arab host countries as a hostile move by the US government, as Nides warned.

Finally—and most important of all—none of this would actually change the claims made against Israel, nor would it significantly change the dynamics of future peace negotiations on the refugee issue. The forced displacement  of Palestinians in 1948 was a formative experience in modern Palestinian nationalism. It is as central to Palestinian identity as is Jewish attachment to Israel. Regardless of whether UNRWA counts five million refugees or five, Palestinians will likely continue to press for recognition of Israeli responsibility, some form of refugee return (however symbolic), and compensation for the properties seized by Israel.

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