Yes, they are refugees

Sara Roy

The recent decision by the Trump administration to drastically cut its contribution to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) has left the Palestinian refugees in a more precarious position than ever. A conference was recently held in Rome to raise money to allow UNRWA to continue its vital work providing education, health and other social services to more than five million Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank and Gaza. Given a projected budget deficit of nearly $500 million in 2018, UNRWA’s funding prospects look dim.

I have examined elsewhere the importance of UNRWA’s work and what might happen should its services be reduced or terminated. Here I would like briefly to address a criticism often levelled at UNRWA, that it somehow perpetuates the Palestinian refugee crisis by continuing to register as refugees descendants of the people who in 1948 were forced out of or fled what is now Israel. As Daniel Pipes, the president of the Middle East Forum, put it in January:

I suggest that withholding funds is not the right tactic. Better would be to focus on the ‘Palestine refugee’ status. Denying this to all but those who meet the US government's normal definition of a refugee (in this case, being at least 69 years old, stateless, and living outside the West Bank or Gaza), diminishes the irredentist dagger at Israel's throat by over 99 percent … I propose that the president adjust US policy to … send aid to Palestinians while making it contingent upon the overwhelmingly majority of recipients formally acknowledging that they are not now and have never been refugees.

The issue of the Palestinian refugees has plagued Israel since its establishment and was a key obstacle during the Oslo negotiations more than twenty years ago. The refugees do represent a threat to Israel, though not the ‘irredentist dagger’ that Pipes claims. Rather, the refugees stand as a living and constant reminder of the historic injustice done to Palestinians when the Jewish state was founded. Denying refugee status to future generations of Palestinians is simply a way to erase the refugee issue and, with it, the rights to which refugees are legally and morally entitled.

By what right do others – be they Israeli, American or European – determine the status of Palestinian refugees, or how an entire national group should identify itself, especially in a world in which Palestinians’ political and legal status remains largely unresolved? Would we cede our own right of self-identification to others on our behalf?

My mother and father survived Auschwitz and I grew up as a child of survivors, with the Holocaust a defining feature of my life. My children, too, are informed and shaped by their family history and the realities that inhabit that history – realities of racism, fascism, ethnocentricity and nationalism. My parents are no longer alive; yet my identity as a child of survivors remains a vital part of who I am. Would anyone claim that my children and I have no right to identify ourselves as the descendants of Holocaust survivors because those survivors have died? This would be unacceptable – in fact, unthinkable – morally, ethically and emotionally. Does anyone have a right to dictate to me my status in this regard? Without equating the losses of 1948 with the Holocaust, I would ask why Pipes and others consider it acceptable to deny Palestinians the right to self-identify as refugees because their parents, grandparents or great-grandparents have died. This is not only a matter of politics; it is a matter of principle and basic human decency, especially in the absence of a resolution to their actual plight as refugees.

The struggle over the refugee question also speaks deafeningly to the abject failure of the international community to resolve the problem in a manner that is fair to all people, and it will remain alive until a viable answer is found. Waving a wand and pronouncing ‘you are no longer refugees’ cannot eradicate the moral, legal and practical problems of Palestinian refugees. To believe that it can belies a fundamental misunderstanding of the lived realities of millions of disenfranchised people – and the depth of their commitment to seeing justice done. UNRWA does not perpetuate the Palestinian refugee problem. The failure of Israel and the international community to acknowledge and address the issue is what perpetuates it. The refugees and all that they stand for must also be understood as a refusal on the part of Palestinians to be silenced now and in the future.


  • 23 March 2018 at 4:50am
    Fred Skolnik says:
    They are refugees because the Arab world forced them to be refugees. Nowhere in the world are the descendants of refugees born outside a country of origin considered to be refugees themselves or even claim to be refugees - not in India and Pakistan after the exchange of populations in their wars, not among assimilated descendants of Palestinian refugees living in the United States, for example, and not among an equal number of Jews whose families fled Arab countries in the 1948 period and lost everything they owned.

    This "refugized" Palestinian population should certainly be helped by the international community but the ultimate solution to the problem lies in resettlement in a Palestinian state reconciled to existing peacefully alongside Israel.

  • 23 March 2018 at 11:24am
    Jeff Crisp says:
    This assertion is entirely false. It is routine practice in many parts of the world for the descendants of refugees born outside their parents' country of origin to be considered refugees themselves. Palestinians do not receive any kind of special treatment in this respect.

    Dr Jeff Crisp
    Former Head of Policy Development and Evaluation
    UNHCR (the UN's refugee agency)

    • 23 March 2018 at 12:25pm
      Fred Skolnik says: @ Jeff Crisp
      Of course they get special treatment. The have a special agency, UNWRA, all to themselves that expanded the accepted definition of refugee to include descendants, contrary to the UN Refugee Convention.

    • 23 March 2018 at 4:50pm
      Jeff Crisp says: @ Fred Skolnik
      So are you suggesting that a child born to Somali refugee parents in Kenya, for example, is not also considered to be a refugee?

    • 24 March 2018 at 12:30pm
      HabsFan says: @ Jeff Crisp
      The great great great grandchild of the 1948 citizen who fled British Mandated Palestine voluntarily or forcefully should not be a refugee. By that thinking me as a 3rd generation Canadian should be considered a refugee from Russia/Ukraine/Lithuania/Belarus as my Jewish great grandparents’ families were ethnically cleansed, forced to flee with their lives. Why no Jews who were displaced during WW2 no longer refugees? Why post WW2 when Jews from 99% of ALL Arab countries were forced to leave or die are no longer refugees, let alone their descendants. Why are the Palestinians and only the Palestinians perpetual refugees? Clue ... they are the pawns used to delegitimizate Israel.

    • 25 March 2018 at 9:06pm
      Mozibur Ullah says: @ HabsFan
      This notion of deligitimisation of Israel turns up frequently. The BDS campaign is not attempting to delegitimise Israel but to delegitimise its aparthied regime.

      Look at South Africa. It's still there, it's still called South Africa, it still has it's white minority, and they still have considerable political and economic clout. South Africa was not delegitimised - it was the aparthied regime that was delegitimised. This is a substantial and important difference and one should not confuse the two.

    • 25 March 2018 at 11:41pm
      Blake Hamilton says: @ Fred Skolnik
      Leaving a place doesn’t make someone a refugee. It’s forbidding him or her from returning that does it. The Important to remember Palestinians weren’t allowed to return, that they had their property & land seized by Israel during & after the "war"

    • 26 March 2018 at 11:58am
      Fred Skolnik says: @ Blake Hamilton
      That is not correct. A refugee is someone who flees his home and seeks refuge in another country for any of a number of reasons, such as war, persecution or natural disaster. He remains a refugee until he returns to his home or permanently settles elsewhere. The Jews who fled or were expelled from Arab countries lost everything they had like the Arabs who fled or were expelled from Israel - property and land - but found new homes in Israel and other countries. At the conclusion of the fighting, the two sides dug in behind armistice lines in an ongoing conflict that had created new demographic realities, as was the case in the Indian-Pakistani wars. In that reality the only solution to the Arab refugee problem is today their resettlement in a sovereign Palestinian state alongside the State of Israel. Anyone seeking a different outcome is dooming them to perpetual misery.

    • 27 March 2018 at 8:15pm
      Jeff Crisp says: @ Fred Skolnik
      As I suspected, Mr Skolnik has a very poor grasp of international refugee law. Under the 1951 Refugee Convention. a victim of natural dsiaster cannot be recognized as a refugee.

    • 28 March 2018 at 4:33am
      Fred Skolnik says: @ Jeff Crisp
      Neither could a fifth-generation descendant of refugees but UNRWA made him into one just as common usage calls people fleeing natural disasters refugees and the UN offers aid.

  • 24 March 2018 at 5:09pm
    Fred Skolnik says:
    Dear Dr. Crisp

    HabsFan is certainly correct. The issue is not refugee parents and their newborn children. Where on earth do you have descendants down to the fifth generation "considered" refugees other than in the corridors of UNRWA? There is no legal or historical precedent for such a definition. What is worse, people who attach a "right of return" to these descendants, and forcibly and cynically hold them hostage, namely, their own leaders and fellow Arabs, are ensuring another seventy years of Palestinian misery. It is time for them to wake up, though the drudgery of actually running a country and concerning themselves with the welfare of their people may be a little less exciting to their minds than the dream of a great massacre on the shores of the Mediterranean.

    • 25 March 2018 at 2:17am
      Mozibur Ullah says: @ Fred Skolnik
      Where else? How about the Jewish people themselves? They were dispersed from their homeland by the Roman Empire and retained their identity as a people apart and they were returned under the auspices of the British Empire. It seems to me that they held onto their refugee status unto not the fourth or fifth generation but unto the fiftieth generation.

      Further, was not the Balfour Declaration 'special treatment' offering a homeland in Palestine to the Jewish people given the persecution that the Jewish people were experiencing in Europe? Given this the support that the UN gives the Palestinians is small potatoes.

      The BDS campaign aims to apply political pressure on Israel and not delegitimise it. It does this because of the daily humiliations and persecutions undergone by the Palestinians under the aparthied regime concocted by the Israeli government. Aparthied is about segregation, fragmentation and isolation, it's about the Bantustanisation of their lands, it's about a compromised and shackled political authority, it's about poverty and lack of development, it's about a lack of a national consciousness, it's about the lack of a properly effective political and economic representation. It's about all of these.

    • 25 March 2018 at 9:26pm
      Fred Skolnik says: @ Mozibur Ullah
      You are getting carried away. Israel occupied the West Bank because Jordan initiated a war against it. Israel has remained there because the Arabs refused to make peace and end the conflict. The occupation is oppressive because the Arabs have engaged in acts of terrorism against Israel's civilian population. If Israel's occupation were a form of apartheid, then all occupations would be forms of apartheid, including the Allied occupation of Germany. A military occupation by definition entails separation between the occupying power and the occupied population and the existence of two different legal systems for occupying and occupied nationals, one civil and one military. Furthermore, all separation measures instituted by Israel are solely for purposes of security and it makes absolutely no difference in this sense if the Israeli presence in the West Bank is in the form of army bases (certainly legal under an occupation) or settlements (irrespective of their legality). With or without the settlements, Israel would maintain order and fight terrorism in precisely the same way (security roads, the security fence, checkpoints, roadblocks, curfews, arrests).

    • 26 March 2018 at 5:53pm
      Mozibur Ullah says: @ Fred Skolnik
      Under that logic then Aparthied in South Africa was justified. And I'm pretty sure had that situation be still out-standing that you would be there offering support to that regime. Really, really reprehensible.

    • 27 March 2018 at 5:12am
      Fred Skolnik says: @ Mozibur Ullah
      You aren't making any sense. What does South Africa have to do with Israel's occupation of the West Bank after Jordan attacked it?

    • 27 March 2018 at 5:48pm
      Mozibur Ullah says: @ Fred Skolnik
      What's that got to do with what you wrote? You wrote "If Israels occupation were a form of Aparthied ..."

    • 27 March 2018 at 5:49pm
      Mozibur Ullah says: @ Fred Skolnik
      Now can you see the connection ... maybe not because you have a way with very selective readings.

  • 25 March 2018 at 9:17am
    Jeff Crisp says:
    I have no wish to engage in a debate on the political dynamics of the Palestinian refugee issue. I do, however, want to insist that you have mischaracterized the way in which other refugees (i.e. those under the mandate of UNHCR) are treated and have thus established a false dichotomy. To take the case of Somalis again, there are now some 10,000 third generation refugees in Kenya's Dadaab refugee camp. As they do not have the option of becoming Kenyan citizens, and as many do not feel that it is safe enough for them to return to Somalia, their children will in turn be registered as refugees. It is therefore demonstrably inaccurate to suggest that "nowhere in the world are the descendants of refugees born outside a country of origin considered to be refugees themselves."

  • 25 March 2018 at 9:34am
    Jeff Crisp says:
    I asked UNHCR to confirm that this is an accurate statement:

    "In many countries of asylum, children who are born to refugee parents are routinely registered as refugees themselves, thereby benefiting from the protection and assistance provided by UNHCR and its operational partners."

    UNHCR has just told me that it is accurate.

    • 25 March 2018 at 10:09am
      Fred Skolnik says: @ Jeff Crisp
      That is precisely what I said: "The issue is not refugee parents and their newborn children. Where on earth do you have descendants down to the fifth generation “considered” refugees other than in the corridors of UNRWA? There is no legal or historical precedent for such a definition."

  • 25 March 2018 at 10:37am
    Jeff Crisp says:
    If you read my post about Kenya with a modicum of care, you will see that I am NOT only talking about newborn children. I am talking about a situation where we already have a third generation of refugees, with every likelihood that there will be a fourth.

    As you evidently have a limited understanding of UNHCR practice in relation to refugees and have simply quoted yourself in your last post, I will not be engaging in further discussion of this issue.

    I look forward to comments from other contributors.

    • 25 March 2018 at 11:10am
      Fred Skolnik says: @ Jeff Crisp
      The exception proves the rule: Where on earth do you have descendants down to the fifth generation “considered” refugees other than in the corridors of UNRWA? Somali may be the exception down to the third generation but I doubt if you will find anyone given a status that approaches the status of the Palestinians - not among the descendants of the 60 million WWII refugees and not among the descendants of the 15 million refugees of the Indian-Pakistani wars, to take two examples.

    • 25 March 2018 at 8:59pm
      Mozibur Ullah says: @ Fred Skolnik
      The exception does not prove a rule. An exception that is worthy of the name of an exception generally opens up a new field of study. I suggest that you spend some time studying logic rather mouthing tired cliches.

      As I've already pointed out, the Jewish People themselves have claimed the right to be considered as refugees and the right to return. This is after two millenia has passed since the dispersal of the Jewish people after the failed uprising against the Roman Empire. I am repeating this obvious point as you are refusing to acknowledge this key and substantative point and how this plays out in the Israel-Palestinian conflict on the ethical plane.

      If refugees were considered refugees unto the third generation you will ask where are there refugees considered as refugees unto the fourth generation.

      And if refugees were considered as refugees into the fifth generation you will ask where are there refugees considered as refugees unto the sixth generation.

      This is neither good logic nor good reasoning but merely prejudice masquerading as reasoning.

    • 25 March 2018 at 9:36pm
      Fred Skolnik says: @ Mozibur Ullah
      The Arabs were offered a sovereign state in Mandatory Palestine alongside the Jewish state and rejected it, choosing war instead. In this war Arabs living in the Jewish state fled or were expelled, as were an equal number of Jews living in Arab countries. The net result was a de facto exchange of populations as in India and Pakistan. It is the Arabs themselves who locked the Palestinians into refugee camps and have kept them there for seventy years instead of integrating them into their societies. With people like you to help them with your reasoning and logic, they'll be sure to remain in these camps for another seventy years.

    • 26 March 2018 at 5:42pm
      Mozibur Ullah says: @ Fred Skolnik
      Not surprising really. Consider the current refugee crisis in Europe - how do you think the Europeans would react if they weren't asked to resettle refugees there but to create a new state say in half of Belgium or Austria? There would be outrage, and understandably so.

      The Balfour declaration did not promise a Jewish State in Palestine but a National Home without prejudice to the Arab population then living in Palestine. The Palestinians justifiably felt that they were treated unfairly by the British.

      It was Europe on both counts that created the conflict. The Roman empire that dispersed the original community and turned them into refugees and then the British Empire that returned them. The Arabs had very little to do with either decision yet you insist that they have everything to do with it and sole responsibility.

    • 26 March 2018 at 5:58pm
      Mozibur Ullah says: @ Fred Skolnik
      Anyway, this is getting off the main point of discussion. Have not the Jewish people claimed themselves the right to be considered a Refugee People and the Right to Return?

      Yes or No?

    • 27 March 2018 at 5:04am
      Fred Skolnik says: @ Mozibur Ullah
      No. Jews never called themselves refugees before they became refugees in WWII and the Zionists didn't talk about rights. They presented a case and accepted a compromise. The Arabs also made a case ("We want everything") and didn't accept a compromise.

      The Arabs didn't own the Middle East by virtue of conquering it in the 7th century, any more than they owned Spain and Persia. If you believe that conquest gives you sovereign rights, then you should have no objection to Israel's occupation of the West Bank.

    • 27 March 2018 at 6:04am
      Fred Skolnik says: @ Mozibur Ullah
      And by the way, Mr. Ullah, for your information. of which you seem to have very little, it is notorious that Herzl proposed Uganda as the site for a Jewish Homeland - the so-called Uganda Scheme - but there's really no sense going into that, is there?

    • 27 March 2018 at 5:41pm
      Mozibur Ullah says: @ Fred Skolnik
      Yeah, and it was the philosopher Martin Buber that led a walkout of the conference when that option was raised. He later castigated Israel for the way they treated the Palestinians.

      The Jewish people may not have called themselves refugees, nevertheless that is the essence of how they portrayed themselves. They claimed the right to return to their ancestral homeland.

  • 25 March 2018 at 1:15pm
    Delaide says:
    Fred, you’d be great fun at dinner parties.

  • 25 March 2018 at 7:56pm
    Graucho says:
    The cute part of Fred's post is the bit that blames the plight of the Palestinians on Israel's neighbours.

    • 25 March 2018 at 8:37pm
      Harry Stopes says: @ Graucho
      Yes, pretty odious isn't it.

    • 25 March 2018 at 9:40pm
      Fred Skolnik says: @ Graucho
      An even cuter part is to pretend that that it wasn't the Arab invasion of Israel that created the refugee problem and that it wasn't the Arabs themselves who locked the Palestinians into refugee camps and have kept them there for 70 years.

    • 26 March 2018 at 10:32pm
      Graucho says: @ Fred Skolnik
      and of course the Irgun and the Stern gang had absolutely nothing to do with it.

    • 27 March 2018 at 4:53am
      Fred Skolnik says: @ Graucho
      Exactly. They had nothing to do with it:

      “The Arab world is not in a compromising mood. It’s likely, Mr. Horowitz that your plan is rational and logical, but the fate of nations is not decided by rational logic. Nations never concede; they fight. You won’t get anything by peaceful means or compromise. You can, perhaps, get something, but only by the force of your arms. We shall try to defeat you. I am not sure we’ll succeed, but we’ll try. We were able to drive out the Crusaders, but on the other hand we lost Spain and Persia. It may be that we shall lose Palestine. But it’s too late to talk of peaceful solutions.”

      --Azzam Pasha, Arab League Secretary-General, Sept. 1947

    • 27 March 2018 at 9:43am
      Graucho says: @ Fred Skolnik
      So they didn't accept eviction by you and you didn't accept eviction by the Romans. You have so many attitudes in common. I'm surprised that you don't get on better.

    • 27 March 2018 at 10:02am
      Fred Skolnik says: @ Graucho
      There were no evictions in Sept. 1947. You really don't have a clue. The Arabs undertook their conquests in the name of Allah and claimed everything they touched on behalf of Allah. The Arab invasion of the State of Israel is a direct result of their inability to reconcile themselves to the existence of a sovereign non-Muslim state in the Middle East. I realize that you require a more palatable rationalization to justify your hostility to Israel but you are clutching at straws.

    • 27 March 2018 at 12:14pm
      Graucho says: @ Fred Skolnik
      Maybe eviction was the wrong word

    • 27 March 2018 at 12:45pm
      Fred Skolnik says: @ Graucho
      That took place in April 1948. The Arabs had announced their intentions well before that, which had nothing to do with the Irgun. Are you really unaware of what the Arabs were saying and preparing to do?

      "We will smash the country with our guns and obliterate every place the Jews seek shelter. The Arabs should conduct their wives and children to safe areas until the fighting has died down."

      --Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Said

    • 27 March 2018 at 5:52pm
      Mozibur Ullah says: @ Fred Skolnik
      Given that the Balfour Declaration offered a National Home to the Jewish People in Israel and not a sovereign state this is not particularly surprising.

      What would the reaction in Europe be if Chancellor Merkel offered a sovereign state in half of Saxony for the refugees coming into Europe?

      Exactly, it would have provoked outrage.

    • 27 March 2018 at 5:55pm
      Mozibur Ullah says: @ Fred Skolnik
      Eviction is the wrong word - ethnic cleansing is much more appropriate.

    • 27 March 2018 at 6:19pm
      Fred Skolnik says: @ Mozibur Ullah
      The idea of a Jewish state in the Land of Israel didn't cause outrage. It caused a 33-13 vote in the UN and recognition of the State of Israel by just about every non-Muslim country in the world.

      As I said, the Arabs didn't own the Middle East. But go right on hating and whining. All you're doing is guaranteeing more misery for the Palestinians.

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