UN refugee report: Most protracted and largest of all refugee problems in the world remains unresolved

Palestinian refugees represent the world’s oldest and largest protracted refugee situation. (Arjan El Fassed)


As people return to former war zones, global numbers of refugees are falling. The most protracted and largest of all refugee problems in the world, however, remains unresolved, says UNHCR in a major report on refugees published on Wednesday. UNHCR’s report, “The State of the World’s Refugees: Human Displacement in the New Millennium,” examines the changing dynamics of displacement over the past half decade.

UNHCR states that the global number of refugees is 9.2 million — the lowest in 25 years. In a technical footnote on the statistical information provided in the report, the UNHCR notes that its mandate “covers all refugees, except Palestinian refugees residing in areas of operation of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). These Palestinian refugees are not included in UNHCR’s statistics. However, Palestinian refugees living outside the UNRWA areas of operation fall under the responsibility of UNHCR.” Palestinian refugees that fall under UNHCR mandate — outside UNRWA areas of operation, include 240,000 in Saudi Arabia, 70,000 in Egypt, 23,000 in Iraq, 8,900 in Libya and 4,000 refugees in Algeria.

Identifying the major protracted refugee crises in the world in 2004, UNHCR methodology was based on the “crude measure of refugee populations of 25,000 persons or more who have been in exile for five or more years in developing countries.” The report also includes a chart describing Palestinian refugees and UNRWA’s operation.

According to UNRWA, there are 4,232,510 registered Palestinian refugees. However, UNRWA records include only those refugees displaced in 1948 (and their descendents) in need of assistance and who reside in UNRWA’s areas of operation: the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. Under UNRWA’s operational definition, Palestine refugees are persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948, and who lost both their homes and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict.

This is a working definition for the purpose of determining eligibility for UNRWA services. UNRWA’s services are available to all those living in its area of operations who meet this definition, who are registered with the Agency, and who require social and medical assistance. The number of registered Palestine refugees has subsequently grown over nearly six decades from 914,000 in 1950 to more than four million, and continues to rise due to natural population growth.

Based on various sources, BADIL, a research and advocacy center focusing on refugee rights, estimates that there are more than 7 million Palestinian refugees and displaced persons. This estimate includes those Palestinian refugees displaced in 1948 and registered for assistance with UNRWA (4.2 million); Palestinian refugees displaced in 1948 but not registered for assistance (1.54 million); Palestinian refugees displaced for the first time in 1967 (753,000); internally displaced Palestinians within the state of Israel who have been denied the status of legal residents of recognized localities since 1948 (274,000); and the 1967 internally displaced Palestinians (150,000).

UNHCR’s mandate does not extend to the majority of Palestinian refugees by virtue of Paragraph 7 (c) of the agency’s Statute which excludes persons who continue to receive protection or assistance from other organs or agencies of the United Nations. A similar provision excludes these refugees from the scope of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. According to article 1D it “shall not apply to persons who are at present receiving from organs or agencies of the United Nations other than the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees protection or assistance.” Under the terms of the Convention, stateless Palestinian refugees living beyong the area of UNRWA operations are entitled to assistance and protection from UNHCR. “This leaves a ‘protection gap’ affecting Palestinian refugees who are not registered with UNRWA but live in its area of operations. In most cases they do not receive protection or assistance from UNHCR or UNRWA.”

Unlike other persons considered as refugees under the 1951 Refugee Convention, the only exclusion and cessation clause applicable to Palestinian refugees is Article 1D. The only criterion for the cessation of refugee status for Palestinian refugees is the definitive settlement of the Palestinian refugee issue in accordance with relevant resolutions adopted by the UN General Assembly – i.e., implementation of UN Resolution 194(III).

Currently, UNHCR does not have an explicit mandate to provide international protection and seek durable solutions for all Palestinian refugees.

UNHCR, UNRWA and other UN agencies should establish a coordination mechanism or secretariat for the exchange of documents, information, data and reports regarding their respective policies and operations. Such a mechanism would assist in the identification of specific gaps (short-term and durable solutions) in the international protection regime for Palestinian refugees.

Palestinians should engage UNHCR and other UN officials in a meaningful discussion regarding Resolution 194(III) in order to clarify the specific framework for durable solutions applicable to the Palestinian case and the status of Palestinian refugees under the 1951 Refugee Convention.

In 2001, former UNHCR Commissioner Ruud Lubbers stated that it is neither morallly acceptable nor politically sustainable to ignore the plight of refugees who have been confined to small areas and a legacy of poverty for nearly four generations. “The humanitarian aid and assistance that UNRWA provides to Palestinian refugees can never be enough.” The report says that this aid will be required “as long as the issues of statelessness, prolonged military occupation, economic marginalization and vulnerability characteristic of the Palestinian refugee crisis are not addressed.”

Arjan El Fassed and Laurie King are co-founders of The Electronic Intifada

Related Links

  • BY TOPIC: Refugees
  • The State of the World’s Refugees 2006: Human displacement in the new millennium, UNHCR (2006)