Jerusalem Post criticizes UNRWA for addressing humanitarian needs of refugees

Posted: July 14, 2013 by Rex Brynen in factcheck, Syria, UNHCR, UNRWA

As of July 8, UNRWA estimated that 235,000 Palestinians in Syria had been internally displaced. Others have fled to Lebanon (63,100), Jordan (7937) or further afield. The Agency currently provides direct assistance to 420,000 refugees, in addition trying to maintain its regular health and education services.

An op ed in today’s Jerusalem Post by Leviah Landau criticizes UNRWA for focusing on the emergency humanitarian needs of Palestinian refugees who are in, or who have fled from, Syria.

Any kind of planning for long-term solutions for refugees outside of the territories has not been and is not within the purview of UNRWA. The organization’s six-month budget is dedicated to cash assistance, food and non-food items, emergency health, education, rehabilitation and capacity and management support. Concrete aid items such as bedding, kitchenware, garbage services and emergency medicine constitute a large chunk of where the money goes.

While all of this is necessary, comparatively, UNRWA’s budget requirement for Syria in the past six months was $75,087,733, a whopping 90.44 percent of the required budget requested by the UNHCR’s Syria budget – charged with all other Syrian refugees (approximately 1,250,000).

UNRWA issues a few reports each week that address the current situation on the ground in Syria. However, the organization fails to address the actual concerns of the population it serves.

Meanwhile, UNRWA receives hundreds of millions of dollars for emergency relief and short-term aid, which only continues the cycle of Palestinian suffering. The UNHCR, by contrast, addresses permanent resettlement of refugees in distress. Why an opportunity for relocation has not been emphasized for Palestinian refugees is a serious question. [emphasis added]

The article goes on to cite the third-party resettlement of Palestinians fleeing Iraq as a model for what UNRWA should be doing.


A few observations are in order.

First, it isn’t accurate to say there has been no effort to find a destination for Palestinian refugees from Syria. According to press reports, the Palestinian Authority requested that Israel permit the refugees to relocate to the West Bank and Gaza. After all, they are Palestinian refugees, so repatriating them to Palestine would be the logical thing to do, right?

Israel, however, refused—unless, that is,  refugees agreed to waive their future rights and claims. Israel outright refused to accept Palestinian refugees from Iraq after 2003, despite a similar request. It has also reneged previous commitments to allow the “admission of persons displaced from the West Bank and Gaza in 1967 to return to these areas,” a commitment it made both in the 1978 Camp David Accords and in the 1993 Oslo Accords.

It should be underscored that in none of these cases was it proposed that the refugees return to Israel proper. Rather, it was proposed that they repatriate to areas that are supposed to become part of a future Palestinian state.

Since Israel has foreclosed the most logical and legally sound option—namely the return of refugees to their own country, as called for in Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—what about the sort of mass third country resettlement called for by Landau?

It isn’t something that even UNHCR  does much of these days. As UNHCR’s website notes, “of the 10.5 million refugees of concern to UNHCR around the world, only about 1 per cent are submitted by the agency for resettlement.” Even fewer are actually resettled.

It is costly, further breaks up the social fabric of displaced societies, and—most critical of all—relies on the diminishing will of the international community to resettle refugees. As UNHCR explains, the current number of requests is limited by the ability of receiving countries to process these requests, as well as their willingness to accept refugees. There’s simply no room in the system for large numbers of additional claimants. Resettlement can also be seen as facilitating ethnic cleansing, by implicitly accepting the decision of a party responsible for forced displacement to exclude people based on their ethnic origins or religious beliefs. After all, while Israel won’t allow Palestinians to repatriate to the Palestinian territories, it will allow Jews (from anywhere in the world) to live there, in settlements in the occupied territories that themselves are clearly illegal under international law.

Thus, even if there were support for it by the refugees (there isn’t), large-scale third country resettlement is impractical for almost half a million Palestinians who were registered with UNRWA in Syria. No country will take them. Indeed, the extended delay and cost involved in finding asylum for a relatively small number of Palestinians fleeing Iraq after 2003 provides overwhelming evidence why this isn’t a feasible option for a very much larger number of Palestinians fleeing Syria now.

Certainly, I believe that persons fleeing Syria, whether Syrian or Palestinian, ought to be able to apply for third country resettlement. I favour countries expanding their acceptance of refugees, in this case and others. However, to blame UNRWA for not pursuing a completely unfeasible policy—and at the same time, completely ignore Israel’s continuing refusal to allow Palestinians to repatriate to the Palestinian territories—isn’t just poor analysis. It is deliberate obfuscation.

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