Here's a puzzle: How do Palestinian refugees differ from the other 135 million 20th-century refugees? Answer: In every other instance, the pain of dispossession, statelessness, and poverty has diminished over time. Refugees eventually either resettled,

Here's a puzzle: How do Palestinian refugees differ from the other 135 million 20th-century refugees?

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 (UNHCR) 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.


Reply from UNRWA

New York Post
Aug. 26, 2003

It is with great dismay that we read Daniel Pipes' column on UNRWA and the Palestine refugees ("The Refugee Curse," Opinion, Aug. 19). While Pipes is entitled to his opinion, his article was willfully misleading on a number of points.

Palestine refugees differ from other refugees because a majority of them continue to suffer the plight of dispossession and statelessness. Rather than their "status" as refugees creating "anguish and discontent," it is their dispossession and statelessness that lies at the heart of their predicament.

UNRWA's education, health, relief and social services have developed the human potential of the Palestine refugees enabling them to be self-reliant members of the societies in which they live. What condemns the Palestine refugees to "lives of exclusion, self-pity and nihilism" is not UNRWA, but rather the inability of the parties of the conflict to solve the refugee issue. Thus, dismantling UNRWA will not "solve the Palestinian refugee problem," as Pipes claims. The refugees and their plight would still exist. UNRWA itself is not mandated to solve the refugee problem, which is a political question for the parties to the conflict.

The international community, including Israel, has consistently recognized the important contribution of UNRWA to the stability of the region. In describing UNRWA as a "malign institution," and its humanitarian services as "monstrous works," Pipes betrays the extreme bias of his views.

Paul McCannChief
Public Information Office


Bibliography - My Writings on UNRWA nd the Palestinian Refugees:

Apr. 7, 2007 update: Anthony Shadid demonstrates the power of the refugee myth in his article today, "In Jordanian Camps, A Sense of Nihilism: Palestinians' Lives Colored by Disillusionment." Excerpts

Ahmed Abu Amira stared down a road of the Hussein Refugee Camp, strewn with moist garbage and bordered with concrete and cinder block in a generic scene of poverty. It headed west, as it has for six decades, toward the home of his parents. "Palestine is a long way away," he said, standing amid customers picking through his potpourri of cheap goods: combs, toothpaste, leather wallets and nail polish in yellow and green. "This conflict doesn't have any end. It will end when the world does." Bahdala, he called it, a mess. "I swear to God," he said, his face contorted in the anger of resignation, "death would be preferable." ...

in conversations along the streets of Jordan's 10 camps, the Palestinians tell a story, however anecdotal, of a landscape where secular politics has withered, Islamic activism is ascendant and, perhaps more important, a sense of dejection, even nihilism, is rising, with uncertain consequences. "Look at my face and tell me what it expresses," said Abu Amira, a 55-year-old with short-cropped hair and a trimmed gray beard. "There's not one person who laughs here." Traffic snarled the street outside his storefront. "Hope, these days, has died." ...

in the past five years, perhaps even more striking has been the growth of a pervasive, often angry disillusionment with any politics, secular or mainstream religious, with the onset of factional strife in the Palestinian territories and chaos in Iraq. "You run away from one danger and go to a greater danger," said Taher al-Masri, a Palestinian and former prime minister. ...

in the Jordanian camps, once-taboo subjects are broached as residents talk openly of a conflict that in their view can no longer be resolved and that in some ways they no longer recognize. Despairing, some say they would settle for compensation from the United Nations or elsewhere rather than insist on the right to return to their pre-1948 homes, a principle once deemed inviolable. Others angrily frame the conflict, long a struggle of competing national claims to land, in the most epochal of terms. "If peace doesn't happen, then war follows," said Fawzi Ahmed, a grocer tossing pink and white mints on a scale. ...

A little ways down was Ibrahim Moussa, a retired government employee, who insisted on sharing coffee before speaking. His heavy, gray mustache bore the yellow stains of nicotine. "Our problem here is what? It's how to eat, how to drink, and how to forget about our problems. We can't do anything else," he said, coffee in one hand, a cigarette in the other. "That cultivates hatred. It's the hatred of not being able to do anything."

Feb. 8, 2010 update: Nitza Nachmias of the Jewish-Arab Center in Haifa University echoes my argument above.

In essence, there's no such thing as Palestinian refugees. If people would stop calling the places in which they live "refugee camps," then they would see that these places are just like villages and towns anywhere else, and the inhabitants are totally rehabilitated… Refugee camps are like the maabarot [in which Israel housed its hundreds of thousands of new immigrants from North Africa and elsewhere] in the 1950's or the camps now in Haiti – not the villages with streets and stone houses in what is known as Palestinian refugee camps of today.

They are rehabilitated better than refugees who are not supported by UNRWA. Practically, factually and legally, there is no such thing as "Palestinian refugees." … Refugee camps are a fiction, and most of those who claim to be refugees have already been integrated into other countries.

Then to the main point:

According to international law, a refugee is an individual or family that was forced to run away – but this definition does not extend to children [of the original refugees], a community or a group. The only exception to this rule is the Palestinians, for whom the international laws are apparently different.

As for Israeli policy:

Israel must nullify the status of Palestinian refugee camps; there is no other place where the UN controls territory. We must send the UNRWA out and transfer the control of these places to the Palestinian Authority, and then when the status of each individual resident there is reviewed, we will see that none of them match the legal definition of a refugee, and they are established citizens. Only in Lebanon are there refugees who are not allowed to work in certain professions; they are a small fraction of the total.

June 20, 2013 update: Some interesting demographic facts courtesy of UNRWA and the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS), neither of which is famous for its accuracy:

42.1% of the Palestinian population of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip are registered refugees. They make up about 27% of the West Bank population and about 67% in Gaza.

The total number of refugees amounts to 5.3 million persons. Of them, 40% are in Jordan, 10% in Syria, 9% in Lebanon, 17% in the West Bank, and 24% in Gaza Strip.

41% of the refugees are under the age of 15 years and 4.2% of refugees are over 59. (That latter figure comes to 223,000, which I estimate is 4-5 times too high.)