Factcheck: The Jerusalem Post on refugee status

Posted: August 14, 2014 by Rex Brynen in factcheck, international law, UNHCR, UNRWA


The Jerusalem Post published an editorial yesterday critical of UNRWA for artificially keeping the Palestinian refugee issue alive by inflating the number of “real” refugees:

This becomes evident when we consider the different definitions for “refugee” to which UNHCR and UNRWA subscribe. UNHCR’s refugee is one who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted… is outside the country of his nationality.” By this definition, the refugee’s descendants are not refugees. Florida-born children of Cuban refugees are no longer considered homeless.

The only exceptions are the Palestinians. UNRWA classifies as refugees any Arabs, native or not, who sojourned “in Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948, and lost both their homes and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict.”

Not only could any itinerant foreign Arab laborer claim Palestinian refugee status, but UNRWA stipulates that the condition extends to “descendants of persons who became refugees in 1948.” One refugee parent suffices to inherit the distinction – even when the inheritor is not “outside the country of one’s nationality.”

By UNHCR’s yardstick, more than 97 percent of those whom UNRWA regards as refugees are nothing of the sort. In 1948, there were some 600,000 self-styled Palestine refugees. UNRWA now boasts that it cares for 5,000,000 people.

One again, the editorial repeats the canard that UNHCR would not consider the descendants of (stateless) Palestinian refugees as refugees. This is simply not true: for UNHCR, refugee status ends when refugees are able to avail themselves of the protection of another state, usually through acquiring citizenship. Refugees who are unable to do so maintain their status, and their children are considered to have “derivative status.”

All of this is made amply clear in UNHCR’s  Procedural Standards for Refugee Status Determination under UNHCR’s Mandate, Section 5.1.1 of which notes:

  • Family members/dependants of a recognized refugee may apply for derivative refugee status in accordance with their right to family unity.
  • Family members/dependants who are determined to fall within the criteria for refugee status in their own right should be granted refugee status rather than derivative refugee status.
  • Individuals who obtain derivative refugee status enjoy the same rights and entitlements as other recognized refugees, and should retain this status notwithstanding the subsequent dissolution of the family through separation, divorce, death, or the fact that a child reaches the age of majority.

UNHCRmandatePalestinians who have acquired citizenship elsewhere (as is the case with most in Jordan) would not be considered UNHCR refugees, but those in the West Bank, Gaza, Syria, Lebanon, as well as stateless refugees in Jordan and elsewhere, certainly would.

Having got its fundamental facts wrong, the Jerusalem Post goes one further with its bizarre comment that “Florida-born children of Cuban refugees are no longer considered homeless.” One assumes they mean refugees, not homeless, but the point is that Florida-born children of Cuban refugees are American citizens. The 2 million Palestinian refugees in the West Bank and Gaza are refugees because there is no Palestinian state—in other words, because of Israeli policy. Syria and Lebanon choose not to naturalize the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians resident there—which has nothing to do with UNRWA or its rules. Many of the former, of course, face new displacements as a consequence of civil war.

On a minor technical note, UNRWA’s refugee rules relate to service eligibility, which is somewhat different than UNHCR status determination. Also, UNHCR rules DO apply to Palestinians outside UNRWA’s fields of operation, but that error by the Jerusalem Post is rather secondary to its overall lack of comprehension of the refugee issue. Indeed, it is striking the extent to which this sort of misunderstanding continues, even though UNHCR procedures are easily accessible online. It is an perverse echo chamber effect of sorts, where loud and misinformed ideological positions drive out thoughtful and informed analysis if repeated often enough. Neither Israel nor Palestinian refugees nor the search for peace are well-served by any of this.

Finally, it is important to recognize that salience of the refugee issue in Palestinian political discourse has little relationship to UN rules, but is fundamentally rooted in the shared collective experience of dispossession and forced displacement. Jews maintained a yearning to “return” to their homeland for millennia in the diaspora, without an UNRWA or UNHCR. Why is it surprising that Palestinians do too, a mere 66 years after they too were driven into exile?

  1. No, you don´t get it. The point is:

    Florida-born children of Cuban refugees are no longer considered refugees.

    But Florida-born children of Palestinian refugees are still considered refugees.

    Both are American citizens.

    Millions of Palestinians who live in Jordan, Europe, U.S.A. or elsewhere and who have citizenship of those states are still considered as refugees.

    And guess why? It´s all about destroying Israel.

    • Rex Brynen says:

      That is not technically correct. UNRWA rules only apply to the Palestinian territories, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon (UNRWA’s “area of operations”). Palestinians elsewhere in the world fall under UNHCR rules, and are no longer considered refugees if they gain citizenship and associated protections.

      The only anomaly in this is Jordan. Most of those Palestinian refugees would not be refugees under UNHCR eligibility rules. Those in Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank, and Gaza certainly would (as de jure and/or de facto stateless persons) count as “derived status” refugees.

      • It is technically correct at least for most of the mentioned Palestinians. Around 2 Millions palestinians live in Jordan and have the Jordan citizenship, but are still considered as refugees. These are 40% of all Palestinian refugees. (I am not sure if Palestinians with european citizenship are considered as refugees by UNRWA.)

        And by the way it is not at all sure that a Palestinian state will solve this problem:

        “Palestinian refugees will not become citizens of a new Palestinian state, according to Palestine’s ambassador to Lebanon.”

        So again, guess why …

      • Rex Brynen says:

        The Palestinian Ambassador to Lebanon was commenting in the context of questions as to whether UNGA recognition of Palestine would result in a loss of refugee status, a point that some critics of the PA had raised. (Admittedly, the Daily Star piece doesn’t make this very clear.) He was not addressing the issue in the context of “real,” post-peace agreement, statehood. PA/PLO plans were and are for all Palestinians to be eligible for Palestinian citizenship, and the PA has undertaken extensive planning (with the support of the World Bank) for their repatriation to the West Bank and Gaza.

  2. So it´s fine we agree on the 2 Million Palestinians in Jordan.

    And the Palestinian Ambassador said:

    »He says statehood “will never affect the right of return for Palestinian refugees.”«


    He cannot be clearer on that.

    • Rex Brynen says:

      Well, of course he said that–that’s the declared starting position. In practice, virtually no one involved in Palestinian refugee negotiations in the PA/PLO seriously believes they’ll get a real, full right of return.

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