Commentary Magazine


Topic: UNHCR

Refugee Definition Promotes Conflict

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.

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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.

If the State Department accepts the UNRWA definition, there are about 5 million Palestinian refugees, but if one accepts the standard UNHCR definition, there are about 30,000.

To understand how dangerous it is to accept an expansive, political definition of refugees, consider India: The 1947 partition of India created about 14.5 million refugees, as those born in what became Pakistan fled to India and vice versa. At a 2002 speech at Hebrew University, Bernard Lewis suggested that applying the same definition to refugees created by the partition of India that UNRWA and the State Department apply to refugees created by the partition of Palestine meant that there existed 140 million refugees in South Asia. Today, that might equate to 170 million refugees or so. Had the international community adopted the same strategy in South Asia that it does in the Levant, this would guarantee the impossibility of any peace and reconciliation. Secretary of State Clinton knows this. By pandering to UNRWA, therefore, she is in effect choosing war over any hope of peace.

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