Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Foreign Affairs

Wherefore the Refugees?

Michael Mernstam's The Palestinian Proletariat is a deeply insighful exploration of the rise and progress of the Palestinian refugee problem.   The whole essay is worth reading. Here are a few key paragraphs:

The core issue is a phenomenon we can call "refugeeism." For 60 years, UNRWA has been paying four generations of Palestinians to remain refugees, reproduce refugees, and live in refugee camps. It is UNRWA that put them in refugee cages and watched the number of inhabitants grow. The Palestinian refugee population in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank, and Gaza has exploded from 726,000 in 1950 to 4.8 million in 2010. About 95 percent live under UNRWA care. The unprecedented nature of this guardianship is rooted in the unusual nature of this institution. UNRWA is a supranational welfare state that pays its residents not to build their own nation-state, for, were they to do so, they would forfeit their refugee status and its entitlements of cash, housing, health care, education, credit, and other largesse.

It is these perverse incentives above all that have undermined efforts to improve the lot of the Palestinian people, such as those measures aimed at fostering economic development in the West Bank undertaken by Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and the Israeli government. If the international community truly wishes to serve the needs of the Palestinians and improve their lot, its first task would be the abolition of UNRWA. . . .

UNRWA is unique by design. Whereas all other refugees and deportees fall under the jurisdiction and care of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the Palestinians belong to UNRWA. Only ­actual refugees qualify for aid under the UNHCR, and that on a short-term basis. This draws a clear line between refugees as such and various ethnic diasporas. The UNHCR's mandate is to resettle and integrate all refugees in their historical homelands or in new host countries­--to un-refugee them, so to speak. Out of the millions of refugees and deportees who emerged after World War II and since--Germans, Poles, Czechs, Hungarians, Finns, Russians, Ukrainians, Japanese, Indians, Pakistanis, Jews, Turks, Chinese, Koreans, Algerians, Cubans, Vietnamese, Cambodians, and many others--the UN provided Palestinians a different sort of relief.

The UNRWA charter specified that the Palestinians who lived in British Mandate Palestine during the years 1946-48 and who subsequently fled in 1948-49 qualified for refugee status together with all their descendants. This open-ended definition of refugees applies for generations to come. It bestows housing, utilities, health care, education, cash allowances, emergency cash, credit, public works, and social services from cradle to grave, with many cradles and grand-cradles along the way, to its beneficiaries. In practice, this means multigenerational refugee camps and ghettoes in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank, and Gaza. Close to one-third of today's refugees, about 1.4 million, live in 59 refugee camps. There is no room in UNRWA's mandate and agenda for resettlement and integration.

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