- Through the various U.S. decisions and statements, Palestine refugees have been portrayed as somewhat not “legitimate” refugees, different from other internationally recognized refugees. This is inaccurate and misleading.
Palestine Refugees at a Glance
- Palestine refugees at large, including descendants, are persons of predominantly Arab origin (holding British Mandate citizenship since 1925 and Ottoman nationality before that) who were displaced from the territory of that part of British Mandate Palestine subsequently designated as Israel, to other parts of Mandate Palestine, namely the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, as well as neighbouring countries, namely Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria, in connection with the creation of the State of Israel (i.e. the 1947-49 Arab-Israeli war). Despite being willing to return to their “homeland” in line with applicable international law, approximately 750,000 Palestine refugees were prevented from doing so by virtue of laws enacted by Israel between 1948-52, which resulted in their denationalization as well as the confiscation and disposition of their properties. After enacting a Law of Return in 1950, which encouraged the immigration of Jews from all over the world to the State of Israel, in 1952 Israel also approved the Nationality Law, which stipulated conditions that Arabs of former Palestine could not fulfil, which de facto barred them from returning to the land as nationals.
- Further refugee flows from the remainder of British Mandate Palestine territory were generated by subsequent conflicts, such as the 1967 Arab Israeli war, which initiated the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. These refugees are commonly referred to as “persons displaced as a result of the June 1967 and subsequent hostilities,” instead of refugees. This has a historical reason: Jordan—to where the majority of these refugees were displaced—considered them internally displaced since it had annexed the West Bank in the aftermath of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war and considered it as part of its territory.
- Distinction is often drawn between “Palestine” and “Palestinian” refugee, where the former refers to refugees under UNRWA’s mandate (see below, UNRWA definition) and the latter refers to refugees of Palestinian origin—hence the term is both wider and narrower than “Palestine refugees”. In UNHCR’s interpretation of article 1D of the 1951RC, the term “Palestinian refugee” is used indistinctively to refer to Palestine refugees and 1967 displaced persons.
- For seventy years, Palestine refugees have not been afforded with concrete options to achieve durable solutions or be compensated for their losses in line with relevant UN resolutions on the matter. At present, they account for the largest group of stateless refugees (even if not all of them are stateless) as well as the most protracted refugee situation of modern history. The total number of other refugees stuck in protracted refugee situations, and protected by UNHCR, is 4 million.
- Most of the Palestine refugees (5.5 million) still reside in the territories or countries in which they took refuge in 1947-49 and 1967, namely Jordan (2.2 million), the Gaza Strip (1.4 million), the West Bank (836,000), Syria (550,000), and Lebanon (472,000). However, sizable numbers have progressively fled or migrated to other countries in the Arab region (from North Africa to Gulf countries), and then, facing growing instability, poverty, discrimination, or persecution, to Europe, North America, and more recently, the Asia-Pacific and Africa.
A Distinctive Institutional and Normative Regime
- Palestine refugees are internationally recognized refugees with a sui generis status under the 1951RC. They are the only refugee group who does not automatically fall under the definition of refugee deserving international protection at article 1A,which hinges on “the well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion” in her/his own country, or, if stateless, country of former habitual residence. The reasons for this distinctiveness are rooted in history.
- In 1949, while the drafting of the 1951RC and UNHCR Statute was still being finalized, the UN had already deliberated how to resolve the Palestine refugee crisis, recommending, first and foremost, the establishment of the United Nations Conciliation Commission for Palestine (UNCCP) with the aim of negotiating a solution to the Israeli-Palestine conflict. The UNCCP’s tasks included overseeing the resolution of the refugee problem through the return of those willing to live at peace with their (Jewish) neighbours and the provision of compensation for returnees and those not returning alike. When peace proved unattainable in the short term, mechanisms to provide immediate assistance and relief to the refugees of Palestine were devised: the current and most lasting one is UNRWA. The nature of UNRWA’s mandate was constructed specifically to complement that of UNCCP and therefore does not include the pursuit of durable solutions apart from the implementation of technical aspects in support of the UNCCP’s work.
- UN records confirm that, since 1948, Palestine refugees were considered internationally recognized refugees (similar to Statutory Refugees referred to in article 1[A]1 of the 1951RC); because of the UN responsibility in creating (or not preventing) their exodus, they were recognized as deserving both special UN attention and status. The regime devised in the UNHCR Statute, the 1951RC, and the 1954 Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons (hereinafter 1954 Convention), made them a “sui generis class of refugees.” This regime, while excluding from the benefits of the two conventions those refugees who are assisted and protected by other UN agencies (ergo, Palestine refugees as they were already served by UNCCP and UNRWA), includes them under the conventions’ (and UNHCR’s) protection should the alternative UN assistance or protection cease. Under this regime, the 1951 and 1954 Conventions and UNHCR Mandate automatically apply to Palestine refugees when they find themselves outside of the area of operations of UNRWA and are unable or unwilling to re-avail themselves of UNRWA’s protection for objective reasons.
- So, unlike other refugees in the world, who derive their status of protected persons from Article 1A(2) of the 1951RC, the legal status of Palestine refugees under international law is rooted in a combination of provisions including: the 1951RC (article 1D), the UNHCR Statute (paragraph 7), and the refugee definition utilized by UNRWA as per its Consolidated Eligibility and Registration Instructions (CERI). This lays the foundation for Palestine refugees’ entitlement to international protection including durable solutions and enjoyment of fundamental rights enshrined in various bodies of international law, including human rights and refugee law.
The UNRWA Definition of a Palestine Refugee
- Portraying UNRWA’s refugee definition as “endlessly and exponentially expand[ing] [the] community of entitled beneficiaries” is plainly wrong, as it is unsubstantiated and also ignores important facts.
- The majority of Palestine refugees (5.5 million) are registered (as Palestine refugees) with UNRWA, which defines them as “persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine during the period 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948, and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict.”
- In the absence of any other definition, in the early 1950s, UNRWA was requested to develop an operational definition to determine those entitled to receive humanitarian assistance based on the refugee’s material conditions determined by the original loss of home and livelihood. The definition was developed to enable UNRWA to carry out censuses to delete “ineligibles” from the initial ration rolls that UNRWA had received from the early relief organizations assisting the refugees. The main pressure for UNRWA to craft such definitions emanated from major donors, primarily the United States. In fact, the definition was driven, from the outset, by the goal of reducing the initial number of refugees eligible for assistance, namely from 946,000 to 725,000, rather than inflating it. Host countries opposed the Agency carrying out censuses or headcounts.
- The UNRWA definition was not created for the purpose of defining entitlement to the right of return or compensation referred to in UNGA Resolution 194, since UNRWA has never had the authority or the intention to do so. Attempts in this direction were carried out by the UNCCP instead. Between June 1949 and May 1951, UNCCP interpreted the term refugee in paragraph 11 of UNGA Resolution 194 as applying to all persons, irrespective of race or nationality (Arabs, Jews, and others), who were “displaced” from their homes in Arab Palestine, including Arabs in Israel and Jews in “Arab Palestine.” A study prepared by the UNCCP Principal Legal Adviser stressed the need to define the contours of paragraph 11 of Resolution 194(III) so as to differentiate between those entitled to the status of refugees under the resolution (namely to be repatriated and compensated) and those only entitled to humanitarian assistance (e.g. some host country nationals were also receiving relief). In the note under Resolution 194, refugees are persons of Arab origin who were Mandate Palestine citizens under the Palestine Citizenship Order of 24 July 1925 and had left Palestine territory, subsequently controlled by Israeli authorities, after 29 November 1947. This definition, though never further developed and formally adopted, speaks to the debate within and intentions of the UNCCP in the early days of its operations. UNHCR expressly refers to it.
- Over time, UNRWA’s operational definition has been slightly adjusted. For example, between 1951 and 1952, UNRWA revised its definition first to try to exclude the seasonal workers who had deep ties in Palestine, then to condition the provision of assistance upon the need for it, followed by the subsequent removal of the “in-need” registration requirement in 1993, finally to establish temporal and physical causality between the condition of refugee and the events which had determined it. The definition was in any event narrowly drawn and excluded some categories of persons who had become refugees as a result of the 1948 conflict.
- The General Assembly has regularly been informed of this definition and since the 1950s has mandated the Agency to deliver services on the basis of its understanding of who the Agency would serve. This is demonstrated by successive endorsement of UNRWA Annual Reports. Hence the definition is intrinsically connected with the scope of persons to be receiving UNRWA services and hence the mandate given by the General Assembly.
- Meanwhile it is important to note that UNHCR also cater to “persons of concern,” a category which is broader than the category of refugee as defined by the 1951RC. It includes asylum-seekers, internally displaced persons, and returnees, in addition to stateless persons. Today UNHCR extends its services to persons fleeing generalized violence such as armed conflict, foreign domination, occupation, or colonialism.
- Like its refugee definition, UNRWA’s refugee registration system is decried by critics as inconsistent with the way in which all other refugees in the world are classified, which in turn, allegedly perpetuates the refugee crisis. This is plainly wrong and misconstrues international norms and procedures concerning refugee protection. Recent attempts to force host countries to “change” the status of Palestine refugees in their country or expecting UNRWA to modify its definition or registration system runs against the interests of the refugees UNRWA is mandated to serve, as well as UN rules and international norms and procedures.
- UNRWA registration procedures are enshrined in the Consolidated Eligibility and Registration Instructions (CERI; last revision 2009). The CERI is part of the Agency’s normative framework.
- According to the CERI, children born to Palestine (male) refugees are also entitled to be registered with UNRWA as Palestine refugees. While refugee women who marry non-refugees (MNRs in UNRWA parlance) can receive the Agency’s services for themselves and their children, they cannot register their children as refugees. This patrilineal model of UNRWA registration discriminates against women. Besides this anachronistic gender bias (which is not part of the current criticism by the United States towards UNRWA), UNRWA registration of descendants is in line with international norms and follows international refugee practice in similar situations.
- By registering descendants, UNRWA responds to the need to protect family unity, which is a general principle of both international and regional In accordance with the refugee’s right to family unity, dependent children, including all unmarried children under eighteen years of age, can be granted derivative status if they cannot be recognized on their own basis. Under its mandate, UNHCR registers refugee descendants (calling them “dependants”) until they gain national protection or some other durable solutions and counts them as part of the world refugee population; UNHCR procedures state that, “individuals who obtain derivative refugee status enjoy the same rights and entitlements as other recognised refugees and should retain this status notwithstanding the subsequent dissolution of the family through separation, divorce, death, or the fact that the child reaches the age of majority.”  In practice, this largely happens in protracted refugee situations, namely those in which “refugees find themselves in a long-lasting and intractable state of limbo. Their lives may not be at risk, but their basic rights and essential economic, social, and psychological needs remain unfulfilled after years in exile.”
- In 2017, UNHCR estimated that 13.4 million refugees, i.e. two-thirds of the worldwide refugee population, are caught in protracted refugee situations with no solution in sight. This includes primarily refugees from Afghanistan, Burundi, Sudan, Somalia, Eritrea, DRC, Angola, and Bhutan. For example, like the Palestinians, some have lingered in such a situation for decades, like the 2.3 million Afghan refugees stranded for forty years in Iran and Pakistan. The various generations born and raised in exile are registered, counted, and protected as refugees by UNHCR.
- UNHCR recognizes the registration of Palestine refugee descendants and expressly mentions “descendants” of Palestinian refugees as falling within the scope of Article 1D of the 1951 Convention. Also, as of 1997, UNHCR has cited Palestine refugee population figures in its reports.
- Concomitantly, the General Assembly, which created UNRWA and oversees its work, approves the practice of registering new births and refers to Palestine refugees in a way that explicitly comprises descendants. It has encouraged the Agency’s work in addressing the needs of the children and, since 1982, has recommended the issuance of identity cards to all Palestine refugees (from 1948 and 1967) and their descendants. This support would be void of its meaning if UNRWA deprived refugee children of their entitlement to be registered as refugees.
- It is claimed that UNRWA registration of Palestine refugees in Jordan, who have been given Jordanian citizenship, runs against Article 1C of the 1951RC, according to which acquisition of nationality and protection of other countries triggers cessation of the 1951RC’s protection. In fact, such registration not only has historical reasons, but also has its own legal explanation. First of all, during the Cold War, the United States, along with other Western powers, strongly supported that Palestine refugees in Jordan maintain refugee status; they feared that having the Kingdom of Jordan assume full responsibility for the exiled Palestinians altogether might destabilise it to a point it would fall in the hands of the former USSR. Hence, at the request of the General Assembly, UNRWA has continued to provide assistance to Palestine refugees in Jordan. Second, the cessation of refugee status under article 1C of the 1951RC implies ending the need for international protection and does not equate to relinquishing fundamental rights of the refugee as enshrined by international norms, particularly international human rights law, and UN resolutions (e.g. UNGA Resolution 194 of 1948, Resolution 302 of 1949, Resolution 2252 of 1967, and UNSC Resolution 237 of 1967). As supported by UNHCR, Palestine refugees who have acquired citizenship maintain the entitlements connected to their distinctive status to the extent their position and their historical claims are yet to be definitively settled within the meaning of relevant UNGA and UNSC resolutions.
 See figures provided by the United Nations Economic Survey Mission for the Middle East, Final Report, A/AC.25/6, 28 December 1949.
 In particular, according to the statement of the Lebanese representative at the UN, “obstacle to their repatriation [was] not dissatisfaction with their homeland”, but the fact that they were prevented return by a “Member of the United Nations”. GAOR, 5th sess., 3rd comm., 328th mtg., para. 47.
 Israel: The Law of Return, Law No. 5710-1950, 5 July 1950.
 Israel: Nationality Law, 5712-1952, 14 July 1953.
 UNGA Resolution 2252 (ES-V), 4 July 1967, UN GA Resolution 2452 (XXIII)A, 19 December 1968.
 For the most recent UN resolution in this respect, UNGA Resolution 72/81, adopted on 7 December 2017.
 Guidelines on International Protection No. 13: Applicability of Article 1D of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees to Palestinian Refugees, December 2017, HCR/GIP/16/12, para. 9.
 E.g. UNGA Resolutions 194 of 1948, 302 of 1949, 2252 of 1967, and UN Security Council Resolution 237 of 1967.
 UNHCR had recognized the situation of Palestine refugees among the most emblematic “protracted situations of mass displacement” as early as 1997. See UNHCR The State of the World’s Refugees: A Humanitarian Agenda, 1997.
 See further discussion at para 49.
 Figures provided by UNRWA in September 2018.
 UN General Assembly, Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, 28 July 1951, United Nations, Treaty Series, vol. 189, p. 137, Article 1A(2),.
 UN General Assembly, Statute of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 14 December 1950, A/RES/428(V).
 UN General Assembly, 194 (III). Palestine - Progress Report of the United Nations Mediator, 11 December 1948, A/RES/194.
 Ibid, para.11.
 UN General Assembly, 302 (IV). Assistance to Palestine Refugees, 8 December 1949, A/RES/302.
 Unlike other refugees, Palestine refugees were not “the results of action taken contrary to the principles of the United Nations”, but “the direct result of a decision taken by the United Nations itself”; as such, they were a “direct responsibility of the United Nations” and “could not be placed in the general category of refugees without betrayal of that responsibility”. See statement of the representative of the government of Lebanon GAOR, 5th sess., 3rd comm., 328th mtg., para. 47.
 See statement of the representative of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, General Assembly, Fifth Session, Official Records, Third Committee, 328th Meeting, 27 November 1950, paras. 52, 55 UN doc. A/C.3/SR.328. www.un.org/en/documents/index.html.
 Paragraph 7 of the UNHCR statute states: “Provided that the competence of the High Commissioner as defined in paragraph 6 above shall not extend to a person: . . . (c) Who continues to receive from other organs or agencies of the United Nations protection or assistance”.
 UN General Assembly, Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, 28 September 1954, United Nations, Treaty Series, vol. 360, p. 117, Article 1.
 UNHCR, Guidelines on International Protection No. 13: Applicability of Article 1D of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees to Palestine Refugees, December 2017, HCR/GIP/16/12, para. 6. [Emphasis added] http://www.refworld.org/docid/5a1836804.html.
 Ibid., para. 19 and subsequent paras regarding “objective reasons”. HCR/GIP/16/12.
 UNHCR, Guidelines on International Protection No. 13: Applicability of Article 1D of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees to Palestine Refugees, December 2017, HCR/GIP/16/12. http://www.refworld.org/docid/5a1836804.html.
 Heather Nauert, “On U.S. Assistance to UNRWA,” 31 August 2018, https://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2018/08/285648.htm.
 In November 1948, the General Assembly had set up a UN Relief for Palestine Refugees (UNRPR), a special fund to finance relief activities implemented by relief organization such as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the League of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (LRCS), and the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). These are the ones that compiled the earlier rolls that UNRWA inherited.
 See records of statement of U.S. and British representatives in UN official meetings, UN docs A/AC.80/SR.23,97, UN doc. A/AC.80/SR.15, 57, A/AC.80/SR.19, 75, A/AC.76/SR.32, 145.
 E.g. UNRWA Memo Ref 1.191, 1 April 1950, on file with the author.
 The importance of establishing “firm definitions”, including of who was a “refugee” under Resolution 194, received significant attention among UNCCP members. See recorded statement of Mr. de la Tour du Pin of France, Chairman, UNCCP, Summary Record of the Seventeenth Meeting, 27 June 1949, UN. Doc A/AC.25/Com.Gen/SR.17.
 UNCCP, analysis of paragraph 11 of the General Assembly's, Resolution of 11 December 1948, working paper compiled by the secretariat, UN Doc. A/AC.25/W/45 of 15 May 1950. Records indicate that “[t]he above interpretation has not been specifically disputed by the parties directly concerned”. ibid.
 Definition of a refugee under paragraph 11 of the General Assembly's .Resolution, 11 December 1948. The note by the Principal Secretary, UN Doc. A/AC.25/W/61, 9 April 1951, must be read in connection with its addendum, 29 May 1951, UN Doc. A/AC.25/W/61/Add.1.
 Not “all those who are receiving humanitarian assistance are [….][ . . . ] necessarily refugees”, UN Doc. A/AC.25/W/61 of 9 April 1951, “Necessity for a definition” section.
 UNRWA, Assistance to Palestine Refugees: Report of the Director of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, GAOR, 6th sess., suppl. 16, UN doc. A/1905, para. 18.
 UNRWA, Annual Report, 1951-1952, GAOR, 7th sess., supp. 17, UN doc. A/2171, 2, n. 1.
 See UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld’s reference to “UNRWA’s working definition of a person eligible for its services . . . not contained in any resolution of the General Assembly but . . . stated in Annual Reports of the Director and tacitly approved by the Assembly.” See: UN Doc. A/4121, 15 June 1959, paras. 4-8.
 UNHCR, Protection of persons of concern to UNHCR who fall outside the 1951 Convention: a discussion note, EC/1992/SCP/CRP.5, 2 April 1992, http://www.unhcr.org/excom/scip/3ae68cc518/protection-persons-concern-unhcr-fall-outside-1951-convention-discussion.html.
 Article 1[A].
 UNHCR mandate over stateless persons derive from the Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, 28 September 1954, United Nations, Treaty Series, vol. 360, p. 117.
 This language is from the Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa (“OAU Convention”), 10 September 1969, 1001 U.N.T.S. 45, and the Cartagena Declaration on Refugees, Colloquium on the International Protection of Refugees in Central America, Mexico and Panama, 22 November 1984.
 CERI, Section III.A(1)).
 CERI, Section III.A (2.4)).
 The family is universally recognized as the fundamental group unit of society and as entitled to protection and assistance from society and the state. Cf UDHR Article 12, Article 16(3), ICCPR, Article 17; Article 23(5) and related Human Rights Committee General Comment No. 19, 1990, CRC, Article 16.
 American Convention on Human Rights, Article 11(2) and Article 23(1); African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, Article 18(1); European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, Article 8; European Social Charter, 1996, Article 16.
 UNHCR ExCom, “Protracted Refugee Situations”, 30th meeting of the Standing Committee, EC/54/SC/CRP.14, 10 June 2004, para. 3.
 UNHCR, Global Trends: Forced Displacement in 2017, 19 June 2017, p. 22.
 UNHCR, Guidelines on International Protection No. 13: Applicability of Article 1D of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees to Palestine Refugees, December 2017, HCR/GIP/16/12, para. 8, www.refworld.org/docid/5a1836804.html.
 Report of the Director of [UNRWA], 1 Jul. 1953 to 30 Jun. 1954, UN Doc. A/2717, para. 10, noted by the General Assembly in UNGA Resolution 818 (IX), 4 December 1954; Report of the Commissioner-General of [UNRWA], UN Doc. A/57/13, 27 October 2002, para. 76, considered by the General Assembly in UNGA Resolution 57/121, 11 December 2002.
 E.g. UNGA Resolution 68/76, 11 December 2013.
 E.g. UNGA res 68/78, 11 December 2013.
 UN Doc. A/38/382, Special Identification cards for all Palestine refugees. Report of the Secretary-General, 12 September 1983, para. 9. UNGA Resolution 67/116, 18 December 2012, para. 20.
 Article 3(2) of Jordanian Law No. 6 of 1954 on Nationality (last amended 1987), 1 January 1954, expressly refers to Palestinians.
 1951 refugee Convention, Article 1C.
 Avi Plascov, The Palestinian Refugees in Jordan 1948-1957., (Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2017); Benjamin N. Schiff, Refugees unto the Third Generation: UN aid to Palestinians (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1995,), pp. 8-9; see also Benjamin N. Schiff, “Defunding Aid for Palestinian Refugees is Not a Road to Peace,” The Hill, 12 September 2018, https://thehill.com/opinion/international/406306-defunding-aid-for-palestinian-refugees-is-not-a-road-to-peace,.
 Guidelines on International Protection No. 13: Applicability of Article 1D of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees to Palestine Refugees, December 2017, HCR/GIP/16/12, para. 32, states, “This interpretation of the 1951 Convention is necessarily without prejudice to the meaning of ‘the Palestine people,’ as well as to the meaning of the terms ‘refugees’ and ‘displaced persons’ as used in various UN General Assembly and UN Security Council Resolutions.” http://www.refworld.org/docid/5a1836804.htm.