The Strange Case of the Proliferating Refugees

If, like me, you have long wondered why many thousands of Palestinians continue to live in “refugee camps” more than sixty years after the events that ostensibly made them refugees, Daniel Pipes explains:

The origins of this unique case, notes Nitza Nachmias of Tel Aviv University, go back to Count Folke Bernadotte, the United Nations Security Council’s mediator. Referring to those Arabs who fled the British mandate of Palestine, he argued in 1948 that the UN had a “responsibility for their relief” because it was a UN decision, the establishment of Israel, that had made them refugees. However inaccurate his view, it still remains alive and potent and helps explain why the UN devotes unique attention to Palestine refugees pending their own state. …

True to Bernadotte’s legacy, the UN set up a range of special institutions exclusively for Palestine refugees. Of these, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, founded in 1949, stands out as the most important. It is both the only refugee organization to deal with a specific people (the United Nations High Commission for Refugees takes care of all non-Palestinian refugees) and the largest UN organization (in terms of staff).

That last is a remarkable fact, especially when you consider that, as Pipes notes, there can’t be more than 150,000 1948 refugees still alive. How can the UN’s bureaucracy continue to grow while the number of refugees declines? Simple: the number of “refugees” isn’t declining, it has exploded:

UNRWA’s staff has taken three major steps over the years to expand the definition of Palestine refugees. First, and contrary to universal practice, it continued the refugee status of those who became citizens of an Arab state (Jordan in particular). Second, it made a little-noticed decision in 1965 that extended the definition of “Palestine refugee” to the descendants of those refugees who are male, a shift that permits Palestine refugees uniquely to pass their refugee status on to subsequent generations. The U.S. government, the agency’s largest donor, only mildly protested this momentous change. The UN General Assembly endorsed it in 1982, so that now the definition of a Palestine refugee officially includes “descendants of Palestine refugee males, including legally adopted children.” Third, UNRWA in 1967 added refugees from the Six-Day War to its rolls; today they constitute about a fifth of the Palestine refugee total.

These changes had dramatic results. In contrast to all other refugee populations, which diminish in number as people settle down or die, the Palestine refugee population has grown over time. UNRWA acknowledges this bizarre phenomenon: “When the Agency started working in 1950, it was responding to the needs of about 750,000 Palestine refugees. Today, 5 million Palestine refugees are eligible for UNRWA services.”

So, in the UN’s lexicon, once a refugee always a refugee, to the last generation. Even as the last survivors of the 1948 war die off, the number of pseudo-refugees proliferates, and will continue to do so, endlessly. It is instructive to compare the UN’s program of permanent dependency in the Middle East with what happened after the infinitely greater conflagration of World War II. That war produced millions of displaced persons or refugees; according to Wikipedia, estimates range up to 20 million. Many found their way to refugee or DP camps. By 1952, however, all but one of those camps had closed, and the last one discharged the last refugees in 1957.

What is different about the Palestinian case? In the 1940s, no one had any interest in supporting Europe’s refugees indefinitely, or in mobilizing them for a political purpose. The refugees themselves had no desire, for obvious reasons, to retain that status any longer than necessary. In the Middle East, however, incentives are perverse in all directions. Large amounts of money have been spent–much of it ours–to keep the Palestinians in a decades-long state of dependence and resentment so that they can serve as a political battering ram on behalf of other Middle Eastern countries. Pipes concludes:

Were the Palestine refugee status a healthy one, this infinite expansion would hardly matter. But the status has destructive implications for two parties: Israel, which suffers from the depredations of a category of persons whose lives are truncated and distorted by an impossible dream of return to their great-grandparents’ houses; and the “refugees” themselves, whose status implies a culture of dependency, grievance, rage, and futility.

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