By Daniel Pipes, August 19, 2003.
Here’s a puzzle: How do Palestinian refugees differ from the other 135 million
Answer: In every other instance, the pain of dispossession, statelessness, and
poverty has diminished over time. Refugees eventually either resettled, returned
home or died. Their children – whether living in South Korea, Vietnam, Pakistan,
Israel, Turkey, Germany or the United States – then shed the refugee status and
joined the mainstream.
Not so the Palestinians. For them, the refugee status continues from one
generation to the next, creating an ever-larger pool of anguish and discontent.
Several factors explain this anomaly but one key component – of all things – is
the United Nations’ bureaucratic structure. It contains two organizations
focused on refugee affairs, each with its own definition of “refugee”:
* The U.N. High Commission for Refugees applies this term worldwide to
someone who, “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted . . . is outside
the country of his nationality.”
Being outside the country of his nationality implies that descendants of
refugees are not refugees. Cubans who flee the Castro regime are refugees, but
not so their Florida-born children who lack Cuban nationality. Afghans who flee
their homeland are refugees, but not their Iranian-born children. And so on.
* The U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), an organization set up
uniquely for Palestinian refugees in 1949, defines Palestinian refugees
differently from all other refugees. They are persons who lived in Palestine
“between June 1946 and May 1948, who lost both their homes and means of
livelihood as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict.”
Especially important is that UNRWA extends the refugee status to “the
descendants of persons who became refugees in 1948.” It even considers the
children of just one Palestinian refugee parent to be refugees.
The High Commission’s definition causes refugee populations to vanish over
time; UNRWA’s causes them to expand without limit. Let’s apply each
definition to the Palestinian refugees of 1948, who by the U.N.’s (inflated)
statistics numbered 726,000. (Scholarly estimates of the number range
between 420,000 to 539,000.)
* The High Commission definition would restrict the refugee status to those of
the 726,000 yet alive. According to a demographer, about 200,000 of those
1948 refugees remain living today.
* UNRWA includes the refugees’ children, grandchildren and
great-grandchildren, as well as Palestinians who left their homes in 1967, all of
whom add up to 4.25 million refugees.
The 200,000 refugees by the global definition make up less than 5 percent of
the 4.25 million by the UNRWA definition. By international standards, those
other 95 percent are not refugees at all.
By falsely attaching a refugee status to these Palestinians who never fled
anywhere, UNRWA condemns a creative and entrepreneurial people to lives of
exclusion, self-pity and nihilism.
The policies of Arab governments then make things worse by keeping
Palestinians locked in an amber-like refugee status. In Lebanon, for instance,
the 400,000 stateless Palestinians are not allowed to attend public school, own
property or even improve their housing stock.
It’s high time to help these generations of non-refugees escape the refugee
status so they can become citizens, assume self-responsibility and build for the
future. Best for them would be for UNRWA to close its doors and the U.N. High
Commission to absorb the dwindling number of true Palestinian refugees.
That will only happen if the U.S. government recognizes UNRWA’s role in
perpetuating Palestinian misery. In a misguided spirit of “deep commitment to
the welfare of Palestinian refugees,” Washington currently provides 40 percent
of UNRWA’s $306 million annual budget; it should be zeroed out.
Fortunately, the U.S. Congress is waking up. Chris Smith, a Republican on the
House International Relations Committee, recently called for expanding the
General Accounting Office’s investigation into U.S. funding for UNRWA.
Tom Lantos, the ranking Democratic member on that same committee,
goes further. Criticizing the “privileged and prolonged manner” of dealing with
Palestinian refugees, he calls for shuttering UNRWA and transferring its
responsibilities to the High Commission.
Other Western governments should join with Washington to solve the
Palestinian refugee problem by withholding authorization for UNRWA when it
next comes up for renewal in June 2005.
Now is the time to lay the groundwork to eliminate this malign institution, its
mischievous definition, and its monstrous works.