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":
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.
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
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.)
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.
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