UNRWA, Arabs, and the Non-Refugee Refugees
UNRWA -- the United Nations Relief and Works Agency -- was set up in 1948 to provide financial and material aid to the 700,000 Arabs who fled or were driven from their homes during the 1948-49 war between the newly created state of Israel and its Arab neighbors. The aid was designed to facilitate either their return or their resettlement elsewhere. The expectation was that either way, the matter of aid and refugees would be settled quickly. That's why UNRWA's charge was originally scheduled to expire after three years.
At the same time as these 700,000 Arabs became refugees and continuing into the 1970s, 600,000 Jews living in the Middle East and North Africa, too, fled or were driven from their homes, and most of these refugees ended up being resettled in Israel. There was no UNRWA equivalent for the Jewish refugees. They became the responsibility of the Jewish state and were immediately accepted as citizens and absorbed eventually into Israeli society.
But for reasons having more to do with Middle East politics than with the welfare of the Arab refugees, UNRWA's tenure did not expire after those initial three years. In fact, it and its clients morphed into permanent "temporary" fixtures, frozen for over 65 years. And buoyed by relatively high fertility rates, the 700,000 became by 2010 a population of approximately 5 million. About 1.5 million of these 5 million still live in refugee camps built in 1949 in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan. The remaining 3.5 million non-camp refugees still maintain their refugee status with UNRWA.
There are over one million in the Gaza Strip. Slightly fewer are in the West Bank. Jordan houses the largest number: roughly 2 million. The refugees in Jordan are unique among the Arab refugee population in this one respect: unlike the others, those in Jordan were offered citizenship by the Jordanian government, and over 90 percent of them accepted.
These demographic and geographic facts define the Arab refugee under UNRWA's umbrella as a very special breed among world refugees. After all, of the three million Arab refugees who are not citizens of any country, two million currently live in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, both of which have always been part of Palestine. That is to say, over 60 percent of UNRWA's registered refugees currently without a recognized citizenship actually live in the same identifiable political space from which the original 700,000 refugees had fled in 1948.
The 65-year tenure of UNRWA presents yet another peculiarity to the Arab refugee status. Fewer than 50,000 of the original 700,000 are alive today. That is to say, more than 90 percent of UNRWA's current refugee clients are children, or more likely grandchildren, and perhaps even great grand-children, of the Arabs who in 1948 fled their homes but not their country. And like their parents, or grandparents, or even great-grandparents -- perhaps even great-great-grandparents -- these 90 percent of UNRWA-registered Arab refugees in 2010 never really left the Palestine they aspire to return to.
And it certainly has to be some kind of an ironic twist that some of the UNRWA-registered refugees in Jordan, after plotting to overthrow the regime that gave them refuge and citizenship, were expelled from Jordan by that nation's army in 1970 to Lebanon. There, these people teamed up with Lebanese UNRWA-registered refugees and other Sunni Muslim militants to divest Lebanon of its Christian character.
The resulting civil war in Lebanon -- essentially Muslims against Christians -- began in 1975 and continued into 1991. The war produced an entirely new cohort of 600,000 to 900,000 refugees, this time Christian Arabs who had to flee or were driven from their Lebanese homes, with about 250,000 fleeing the country entirely. In other words, these UNRWA-registered Palestinian refugees were instrumental in creating as great a refugee population as the original 1948 Arab refugees themselves.
But unlike the descendants of the Palestinian refugees, the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of these Christian refugees are not regarded as refugees. Nor have they access to UNRWA or to an UNRWA equivalent.
Nor are the Israeli descendants of the 600,000 Jews who fled their homes in Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Morocco, Syria, and Yemen considered refugees. Nor are the descendants of the 25 million Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs who fled their homes in the 1947 separation of India and Pakistan considered refugees. Nor are the descendants of the 9 million Koreans who fled their homes during the 1950s Korean War considered refugees. The Hungarian Revolution and the uprising in Tibet in the 1950s were major refugee-creating events. Descendants of these refugees are not considered refugees.
Who, then, are today's refugees? The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), set up in 1950, is tasked with overseeing all of the world's refugees except the Palestinian Arab. What is particularly instructive is how UNRWA and UNHCR -- both U.N.-created -- define refugee status. For UNHCR, the refugee is someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence. UNRWA's definition is incomprehensibly broader to include the refugees themselves and their descendants in perpetuity.
UNHCR identifies 33 million as people of concern, among them over 10 million refugees. Most of them are Asian and African victims of civil war, persecution, and violence. They have crossed international borders to survive. They are not second- or third- or fourth-generation refugees. If they relocate and settle elsewhere, they are, by UNHCR standards, no longer refugees. Yet these millions are virtually voiceless compared to the highly politicized UNRWA-registered Arab non-refugee refugees.