Most recently, Israeli President Shimon Peres remarked to the European Union’s Middle East Envoy Miguel Moratinos, that the time has come to revive the dormant Refugee Working Group, comprised of 38 nations, chaired by Canada since the Madrid Middle East peace talks that were held in October, 1991. Indeed, despite the fact that Palestinian refugees and their descendents who dwell in or near United Nations refugee camps represent more than half of the Palestinian population, their fate has been overlooked by Middle East peace negotiations
Adopting the UNHCR model
The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East, UNRWA, which has serviced the Palestinian refugees for more than for half a century, has countenanced a situation in which the agency operates as an anomaly: UNRWA, founded in 1949 to provide relief to the Arabs who fled from Israel in the course of the war of 1948-49, to keep them in refugee camps under the in principle promise of the “right of return” to the villages which no longer exist.
Less than one year later the UN High Commission for Refugees, UNCHR, was founded with the express purpose of protecting the rights of refugees to be rehabilitated in a permanent state of resettlement.
In real terms, this meant that UNRWA was permitted to continue to operate under its own terms with its own definition and not bound by the UNHCR Convention. UNRWA was, and remains, the only international agency devoted to keeping one specific group of refugees in a permanent state of refugee status. Why? The answer can be found on the UNHCR website, “The State of the World’s Refugees, Part 1, The Early Years puts the matter baldly: “Arab States… feared that the non-political character of the work envisioned for the nascent UNHCR was not compatible with the highly politicized nature of the Palestinian question.”
In other words, UNHCR operates on the principle that they help the refugees under their jurisdiction to find solutions so that they might get on with their lives with permanency, while UNWRA operates under the premise that the Palestinian Arab refugees are still refugees even if they acquire a new citizenship,[as many have in Jordan] until such time as they will return to their homes in Israel, from which they or their grandparents and great-great parents fled.
Canada, in the leadership role that it plays in the RWG, could ask the 38 nations that contribute to UNRWA to ask that UNRWA operate according to the principles of UNHCR – to protect the right of refugees to be resettled instead of implementing a policy that perpetuates their suffering, while fostering the illusion of the “right of return”
For a generation, any attempts to provide the refugees with permanent residence elsewhere are blocked by the UN
Indeed, in December 1985, when Israel attempted to move refugees into 1,300 permanent houses built for them near Nablus, a UN resolution was passed demanding that Israel not move refugees, because this would violate their “right of return”.
The time has come for Canada to apply UNHCR principles into the operation of UNRWA, to protect the right of Palestinian refugees to be resettled in permanent conditions, instead of dooming Palestinian refugees to yet another generation of squalor and indignity of life in 59 teeming refugee camps spread in areas ruled by Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan.