The Washington Free Beacon’s Adam Kredo has been doing yeoman’s work covering Senator Mark Kirk’s efforts to force the State Department to define Palestinian refugees in the same manner that the international community defines non-Palestinian refugees.
The problem about definitions exists because the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) applies one definition of refugees around the world, and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) applies a different definition only to Palestinian refugees. The State Department sides with UNRWA. In a 2006 article, University of Illinois economist Fred Gottheil explained the difference between the UNHCR and UNRWA approach:
The refugee population that UNHCR serves, at any time, is the number who fled their homelands minus those refugees repatriated or resettled. Because there was virtually no repatriation or resettlement among UNRWA’s refugee population, its size includes not only those who fled their homes but also during the course of over a half-century and in considerably larger numbers their children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren, regardless of where and under what social, political, and economic conditions they live. Another distinction between UNRWA and UNHCR on population counts is this: Palestinians who had fled their homes from one location within Palestine to another location within Palestine – say, from a village in what became Israel to a location in the West Bank – are nonetheless defined by UNRWA as refugees, even though they had not fled their homeland. By UNHCR reckoning, they are not refugees. And counted as well among the Palestinian refugees are descendants of refugees born, raised, and living elsewhere in the Middle East and abroad, who, never having seen the Palestinian homeland, are free nonetheless to return to it and to live there permanently but choose not to do so. Their decision to reject repatriation to the Palestinian homeland had nothing to do with the principles of non-refoulement since persecution of returnees was at no time a perceived threat. They do not satisfy UNHCR’s definition of refugee.