Overview

This paper aims to clarify some fundamental legal and historical issues regarding Palestine refugees and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA)—in the wake of the current U.S. administration’s decision to halt its longstanding partnership with UNRWA and completely defund the Agency. According to the U.S. discourse, this abrupt decision is linked to UNRWA’s mismanagement and procedural irregularities, particularly in the way the Agency defines and registers refugees. U.S. critics argue that this system is contrary to international refugee law and the practice of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Such claims, however, are contradicted by international law, UN legislation and decades of State practice. Nevertheless, according to the US argument, the problem can only be resolved by the following: (1) redefining Palestine refugees by removing from UNRWA's registration records the descendants of the original Palestine refugees and Palestine refugees who have obtained host country nationality (i.e. Jordanian); (2) “dismantling” UNRWA, via “defunding” of the Agency or obstructing its operations, and attempting to shift responsibility for Palestine refugees to UNHCR.

The “new policy” of the US towards UNRWA and Palestine refugees has cast uncertainty over the future of both the Agency and Palestinian refugees. Because of its possible impact on the stability of the host countries and of the Middle East at large, it has generated confusion, as well as passionate reactions, among regional and international stakeholders alike.

In a region ravaged by conflict and instability, UNRWA’s core and emergency programs are vital, especially in the war-torn areas where the Agency operates, where refugee dependency on assistance is particularly high. The Agency, which employs over 30,000 staff in the region, is currently struggling to keep in operation its 711 schools, serving over half a million children, and its 143 health facilities, which receive over 8.5 million visits each year. Pressured by the lack of funds, the Agency had no alternative to suspending its emergency relief programs, including essential food and cash distribution to the poorest of the poor. The possible collapse of UNRWA’s system may be felt much further than UNRWA’s facilities.

This paper consists of an executive summary; an overview of the main U.S. decisions and pronouncements regarding Palestine refugees and UNRWA; an analysis of the main U.S. arguments against UNRWA and Palestine refugees; and conclusions. Building on a variety of legal sources and UN records, the paper finds that the U.S. policy shift concerning UNRWA and Palestine refugees is ill-informed, based on widely circulated but largely erroneous views regarding Palestine refugees, including the UN system that was set up to serve them and preserve their rights under international law. It explains why Palestine refugees have historically enjoyed a special status and institutional regime; why UNRWA’s refugee definition and registration are in line with international law and UNHCR practice; and why the US decisions and pronouncements toward UNRWA have no foundation in international law. The U.S. administration’s allegations against UNRWA and the related call to either reform or dismantle the Agency appear to rest on political, rather than legal, grounds. Helping sustain UNRWA in the short term will preserve the welfare of the millions it serves, while concrete ways to solve the Palestine refugee question in a just and durable way continue to be sought through international and regional efforts. Reform of UNRWA merits discussion, but in an open environment free from attacks or threats.

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