Israeli ambassador to the UN criticizes UNRWA on World Refugee Day

Posted: June 20, 2013 by Rex Brynen in Israel, UNRWA
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Ambassador_Ron_Prosor_United_Nations_Israel_New_York copy_4to3Today is World Refugee Day, and Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Ron Prosor, has used the occasion to directly criticize UNRWA in an op ed published in the Jerusalem Post .

The commentary (reproduced below) is interesting for two reasons. First, it represents an apparent return to the direct attacks on UNRWA that were commonplace when Danny Ayalon served as Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister in 2009-2013. Back in the Ayalon days it was never clear how much of this had represented a clear Israeli policy, however, and how much of it was simply Ayalon being Ayalon—especially given that other Israeli officials were privately downplaying his comments, cooperative with the Agency, or were urging donor countries to contribute to UNRWA programmes.  Whether Prosor’s comments are meant to be the Israeli position on UNRWA, or are simply Prosor being Prosor, is equally unclear. Like Ayalon, Prosor enjoys being an active—and often rather colourful—commentator in public fora.

The commentary is also interesting in that it seems to be designed more to pander to readers of the Jerusalem Post who don’t know any better than aimed at the broader international community. In particular, diplomats and refugee experts would recognize the irony of Prosor characterizing the primary purpose of UNHCR as being to “seek asylum for all refugees.” In fact, UNHCR’s preferred and most common “durable solution” for refugees is repatriation to their country of origin—something that Israel has strongly opposed in the Palestinian case since 1948. As UNHCR’s 2013 Global Appeal update notes, “UNHCR will continue to work to ensure that refugees and IDPs can choose to return home voluntarily in safety  and dignity, and, on return, enjoy full rights as citizens.”

The world’s preferred refugees

By RON PROSOR

06/19/2013 22:53

Unlike other refugees, the Palestinians have their own set of rules, their own funding and even their own international agency, the UNRWA.

For millions of refugees, World Refugee Day is a day like any other. From Mali to South Sudan and from Myanmar to Haiti, countless men, women and children will once again awaken today to an uncertain future.

They are aided in their perilous journey by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which works with governments to advocate and seek asylum for all refugees. That is, all refugee groups but one.

Set apart by the shortsighted interests of the Arab states, Palestinian refugees are the world’s only card-carrying, professional group of refugees.

Unlike other refugees, the Palestinians have their own set of rules, their own funding and even their own international agency, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency or UNRWA. To paraphrase George Orwell, all refugees are equal, but some refugees are more equal than others.

In 2012, the United Nations spent six times more on every Palestinian refugee as compared to all other refugees. Like a favored child, the Palestinians have been on the UN’s permanent payroll for over 60 years and are entitled to every service from healthcare to housing and from food rations to education. When it comes to refugees from Syria or Somalia, responsibility falls to the host country to provide basic assistance.

While UNHCR’s approach teaches independence, UNRWA’s approach prepares the Palestinians to be lifelong dependents. Under UNRWA’s framework, Palestinians can continue to be called refugees long after they acquire citizenship and find permanent housing.

UNRWA’s humanitarian mission is undoubtedly important. However, it is being marred by its unspoken political motto of “once a refugee, always a refugee.” By allowing refugee status to pass to Palestinian children and grandchildren, the number of Palestinian refugees has ballooned from a few hundred thousand in 1948 to over five million today. Left unchecked, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians will continue to be added to the UN’s permanent payroll every year.

Instead of extending their hand in friendship, the Arab states employed the NIMBY strategy – Not In My Back Yard. Believing that the creation of UNRWA absolved them of any responsibility to their Palestinian brothers, the Arab states passed discriminatory laws. In Lebanon for example, Palestinian refugees are barred from working as doctors, dentists, lawyers, engineers or accountants.

By making the Palestinians the poster children for international victimhood, the Arab states believe they hold a permanent trump card to defame and pressure Israel. While the Arab states are saturated in petrol dollars, the funds mysteriously dry up when it comes to assisting Palestinians and subsidizing UNRWA.

Scan the list of UNRWA’s top contributors and you’ll find it’s exclusively North American and West European countries.

The Arabs’ self-serving gesture comes at the expense of refugees in Africa, the Americas, Asia and the Middle East. Every news story and donation directed to UNRWA and its “pref-ugees” is awareness and funding diverted from refugees in urgent need of protection and assistance.

On World Refugee Day, we are asked to ensure that all people displaced by conflict have the chance to build a better life. It’s time to review the status quo and disrupt the senseless UNRWA cycle in which the money flows, the number grows, and absolutely anything goes.

The author is Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations.

Comments
  1. DMS says:

    One common understanding among American Jews is that the Palestinian refugees have been treated poorly, shabbily, brutally by neighboring Arab and Moslem countries.

    Prosor states:

    “Instead of extending their hand in friendship, the Arab states employed the NIMBY strategy – Not In My Back Yard. Believing that the creation of UNRWA absolved them of any responsibility to their Palestinian brothers, the Arab states passed discriminatory laws. In Lebanon for example, Palestinian refugees are barred from working as doctors, dentists, lawyers, engineers or accountants.”

    Is that accurate? At all? Partly?

    It may not be “legally” relevant (to the extent that there is any universally-accepted law law) but it does impact the perspective of friends of Israel such as myself.

    It makes it all the more heart-breaking that Arabs won’t help fellow Arabs.

    But since those states are avowed enemies of Israel or with a cold peace at best, as a practical matter of negotiation it is relevant.

    Culpability of neighboring states in compounding the problem of refugees over the past 60 years means that they should help in resolving (fat chance) the refugee problem today.

    Obviously the nightmare of Syria have made matters even more tragic.

    • Rex Brynen says:

      Depends on the country. In Jordan, refugees were treated very well, and given citizenship. In Syria they were not given citizenship, but treated equally with Syrians. In these countries, refugees have a standard of living comparable to original/host population. Only a minority live in refugee camps. In the Palestinian territories too refugees are not substantially worse off than non-refugees.

      Lebanon is a different case, due to the effects of the civil war and political-demographic factors. There has been substantial discrimination against refugees, who are forbidden from owning real estate, etc.

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