Commentary Magazine


Contentions

Durable Solutions, Definitions, and Decency

The State Department has released an “Overview of U.S. Refugee Policy” that begins as follows:

At the end of 2009, the estimated refugee population stood at 15.2 million, with 10.5 million receiving protection or assistance from United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The United States actively supports efforts to provide protection, assistance, and durable solutions to refugees. …

The Overview has a lengthy discussion of “durable solutions” for the 10.5 million refugees but fails to discuss the 4.7 million others. There is a reason — one that helps explain the failure of the “peace process.”

According to the Overview, where opportunities for refugees to return to their homelands are “elusive,” the U.S. and its partners pursue “self-sufficiency and local integration in countries of asylum” — since “resettlement in third countries [is] a vital tool for … durable solutions.” With U.S. support, UNHCR last year referred refugees to 27 countries, and UNHCR says its 10.5 million number is “down 8 percent from a year earlier” — meaning UNHCR found a “durable solution” for nearly a million refugees last year alone. Each year, the number of UNHCR refugees decreases.

The other 4.7 million refugees are Palestinians — and every year, their number increases, since they have a separate UN organization (UNRWA) that uses a different definition of “refugee.” For Palestinians, a “refugee” includes not only people made homeless by war or political disturbance but also the descendants of such people. Once one is a Palestinian refugee, one’s children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren become refugees, simply by virtue of being born. The status is a hereditary right (“inalienable,” as the UN likes to say).

Since the opportunities to “return” to Israel are “elusive” (the vast majority of the 4.7 million refugees never lived in Israel in the first place, so the word “return” is itself inapposite) and since no one is working on the “durable solutions” used for the rest of the world’s refugees, the number of refugees simply increases every year. It was about 700,000 in 1948 — and is nearly seven times that number today, by definition.

Most of the 4.7 million refugees live in Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria — Arab countries that for more than 60 years have refused to resettle their Arab brothers and sisters, including the ones who have lived there all their lives. In Lebanon, they lack not only the right of citizenship but even such basic human rights as the ability to own property or attend school. Assistance is provided by UNRWA, which each year makes “emergency appeals” for its growing number of “refugees” housed in squalid camps.

The special Palestinian definition is applied in a one-sided manner: if the term “refugee” includes the descendants of Palestinians, then the descendants of the 856,000 Jews expelled from Arab countries as a result of the 1948 war are also “refugees” – but none of them has been compensated for the family homes and properties taken by the Arab states; nor has Israel been compensated for resettling those refugees; nor can they or the 1 percent of Israel’s population killed in the 1948 war (the demographic equivalent of 3 million Americans today) be given a “right of return.”

The Arabs bear the historical and moral responsibility for the refugees their war created: there would not have been a single Palestinian refugee if the Arabs had accepted the UN’s 1947 two-state solution; and there would be few if any Palestinian refugees today — under any definition — if the Arab states were required to provide the “durable solutions” that decency demands. The tragic irony is that the internationally funded culture of dependency run by UNRWA is now itself the biggest barrier to any realistic peace process, as Michael Bernstam argues in his compelling article in the December issue of COMMENTARY, “The Palestinian Proletariat.”