Uprooted by Israel, abandoned by the world: the plight of Palestine’s refugees

“Palestinian refugees are left entirely outside the international protection regime,” says law professor Susan Akram.

Ashraf Amra APA images

Hisham has spent his 23 years in Aida refugee camp in the occupied West Bank. He lives there with his parents, and has watched all but one of his seven siblings grow up, marry and make their own lives and homes.

Living in a camp run by UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestine refugees, Hisham and his family receive basic assistance: a monthly food subsidy, education and medical services. They do not receive the protections to which refugees are entitled under international law.

That much became clear when Hisham tried to move to Canada five years ago.

After his brother, Muhammad, married a Canadian woman, Hisham sought to join them in Vancouver.

Hisham applied for asylum in Canada on the basis that he is a Palestinian refugee. When making his application, he produced a certificate issued by UNRWA. Yet the Canadian government turned down his application, arguing that the certificate was not proof that he was recognized as a refugee.

The episode illustrates how Palestinians are afforded less protection than refugees from other countries, a longstanding problem analyzed in a new publication by the Palestinian refugee advocacy group Badil.

For decades there have been two separate UN agencies for the world’s refugees: one for Palestinians, the other for everybody else. UNRWA is tasked with providing basic services to refugees from Palestine. Issues relating to other refugees are handled by the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

The establishment of two separate agencies occurred at the middle of the twentieth century amid fiery debate. Europe was reeling from mass displacement created by the Second World War. Arab states insisted that a separate agency dedicated solely to Palestinians be formed to ensure Palestinians wouldn’t be lost in the chaos of Europe’s post-war upheaval.

The right of Palestinians to return to their homes was supposed to be guaranteed.

Loss of safeguard

In September 1948, Folke Bernadotte, a Swedish diplomat, recommended the establishment of the United Nations Conciliation Commission for Palestine (UNCCP). One day after making that recommendation, Bernadotte, the UN Security Council’s first mediator in Palestine, was assassinated by the Zionist militia group Lehi.

The UNCCP was tasked with facilitating a permanent solution for refugees via repatriation, resettlement or compensation. UNRWA was to provide essential humanitarian assistance in the meantime.

In the early years, the UNCCP attempted to facilitate the return of some Palestinian refugees and intervened when Israel passed property and citizenship laws aimed at preempting any such return.

But Israel persisted in its refusal to offer any kind of repatriation, and soon the United Nations capitulated. The scope of the UNCCP’s mandate was made narrower as early as 1951.

The UNCCP’s funding was soon reduced, and by 1952 it was left tabulating refugees’ lost property in case Israel agreed to pay compensation in the future.

It finished this massive task by 1964 and all that is known of its work since then is that every year it publishes a one-page report stating “it has nothing new to report.”

The collapse of the UNCCP has meant Palestinian refugees have lost an essential safeguard.

“No mandate”

“UNRWA has no mandate to implement durable solutions,” Susan Akram, a professor of law at Boston University, told The Electronic Intifada by email. “So Palestinian refugees are left entirely outside the international protection regime for refugees.”

Akram is the co-author of a book on Palestinian refugees’ rights, scheduled for publication later this year.

“We can see this playing out acutely in the most recent exodus of Palestinians from Syria,” Akram said.

In addition to Gaza and the West Bank, UNRWA provides the infrastructure for camps, schools and clinics in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan.

Palestinian refugees uprooted by the conflict in Syria have found themselves barred from entering Jordan and Lebanon. While those countries have signed an agreement with the UNHCR on offering refugee protection to Syrians, the deal does not apply to Palestinian refugees.

“Absolute obligation”

Akram explained that fleeing Palestinians may be able to benefit from UNRWA’s humanitarian assistance in those countries, but have no access to protection from the UNHCR, such as benefits of resettlement and political protection.

While each state varies slightly as to how it handles Palestinian refugees, all but a few exclude Palestinians from the scope of the 1951 Refugee Convention, a cornerstone of international law on protecting victims of war and persecution.

UNRWA has gradually expanded its protection mandate since the demise of the UNCCP, particularly following the second intifada in the early years of this century. But UNRWA is careful to remain a predominantly humanitarian agency.

Akram believes the UNHCR should take a stronger role in protecting Palestinian refugees. Governments around the world can provide robust protection to Palestinian refugees, she said. Yet such protection should be temporary and not damage the hopes of refugees to return home.

There is an “absolute obligation” to respect the right of refugees to return home, Akram added.

The denial of that right to Palestinians means that governments around the world are failing to honor their obligations.

Charlotte Silver is a journalist based in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter: @CharESilver.