Here's a puzzle: How do Palestinian refugees differ from the other 135 million 20th-century refugees?
Answer: In every other instance, the pain of dispossession, statelessness, and poverty has diminished over time. Refugees eventually either resettled, returned home, or died. Their children whether living in South Korea, Vietnam, Pakistan, Israel, Turkey, Germany or America then shed their refugee status and joined the mainstream.
Not so the Palestinians. For them, refugee status continues from one generation to the next, creating an ever-larger pool of anguish and discontent.
Several factors explain this anomaly, but one key component of all things is the United Nations' bureaucratic structure. It contains two organizations focused on refugee affairs, each with its own definition of "refugee."
The UN High Commission for Refugees applies the term "refugee" worldwide to someone who, "owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted... is outside the country of his nationality." Being outside the country of his nationality implies that descendants of refugees are not refugees. Cubans who flee the Castro regime are refugees, but not so their Florida-born children, who lack Cuban nationality. Afghans who flee their homeland are refugees, but not their Iranian-born children. And so on.
The UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), an organization set up uniquely for Palestinian refugees in 1949, defines Palestinian refugees differently from all other refugees. They are persons who lived in Palestine "between June 1946 and May 1948, who lost both their homes and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict." Especially important is that UNRWA extends refugee status to "the descendants of persons who became refugees in 1948." It even considers the children of just one Palestinian refugee parent to be refugees.
The High Commission's definition causes refugee populations to vanish over time; UNRWA's causes them to expand without limit.
LET'S APPLY each definition to the Palestinian refugees of 1948, who by the UN's (inflated) statistics numbered 726,000. (Scholarly estimates of the number range between 420,000 to 539,000.) The High Commission definition would restrict refugee status to those of the 726,000 yet alive. According to a demographer, about 200,000 of those 1948 refugees remain living today.
UNRWA includes the refugees' children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, as well as Palestinians who left their homes in 1967, all of whom add up to 4.25 million refugees.
The 200,000 refugees by the global definition make up less than 5 percent of the 4.25 million by the UNRWA definition. By international standards those other 95 percent are not refugees at all. By falsely attaching refugee status to these Palestinians who never fled anywhere, UNRWA condemns a creative and entrepreneurial people to lives of exclusion, self-pity and nihilism.
The policies of Arab governments then make things worse by keeping Palestinians locked in an amber-like refugee status. In Lebanon, for instance, the 400,000 stateless Palestinians are not allowed to attend public school, own property or even improve their housing stock.
It's high time to help these generations of non-refugees escape refugee status so they can become citizens, assume self-responsibility and build for the future. Best for them would be for UNRWA to close its doors and the UN High Commission to absorb the dwindling number of true Palestinian refugees.
That will only happen if the US government recognizes UNRWA's role in perpetuating Palestinian misery. In a misguided spirit of "deep commitment to the welfare of Palestinian refugees," Washington currently provides 40 percent of UNRWA's $306 million annual budget; it should be zeroed out.
Fortunately, the US Congress is waking up. Chris Smith, a Republican on the House International Relations Committee, recently called for expanding the General Accounting Office's investigation into US funding for UNRWA.
Tom Lantos, the ranking Democratic member on that same committee, goes further. Criticizing the "privileged and prolonged manner" of dealing with Palestinian refugees, he calls for shuttering UNRWA and transferring its responsibilities to the High Commission.
Other Western governments should join with Washington to solve the Palestinian refugee problem by withholding authorization for UNRWA when it next comes up for renewal in June 2005. Now is the time to lay the groundwork to eliminate this malign institution, its mischievous definition, and its monstrous works.
Gerardo Joffe, President