The Palestinians are indeed the most privileged and cosseted of all the hundreds of millions of refugees created in the world since 1945. For every other refugee community in the world, the only people who count as “refugees” are those who actually leave, flee, or are expelled from their country of origin. The children of these refugees, born abroad, are not themselves refugees. Henry Kissinger can be described as a “German Jewish refugee.” His son David, born in New York, is not. Vladimir Nabokov was a “Russian refugee.” His son Dmitri, born in Berlin, was not. That has always been the universal rule: the children of refugees are not themselves considered to be refugees if they are born outside the parents; country of origin. But a special rule has always applied to the Palestinians, and only the Palestinians. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, or UNRWA, was set up in 1949 to tend to all the needs of Palestinian “refugees.” But UNRWA decided to treat the children of refugees, born outside “Palestine,” as refugees themselves. And so would the grandchildren, and indeed all succeeding generations. No one seems to know quite how UNRWA managed to convince the donor nations, and the world, that such special dispensation should be applied uniquely to Palestinian refugees.
One could argue that a great many of those who were described as “refugees” by UNRWA in 1949 were not true refugees. That is, they were not fleeing persecution or killing. In fact, most of them left willingly, encouraged by Arab leaders who told them to leave “Palestine” so that the Arab armies could get in, and once the Jews had been destroyed, those Arabs of Palestine – the “Palestinians” as a separate people would only be invented in the late 1960s – could safely return to reclaim not only their own homes, but also whatever property the Jews, having fled or been killed, left behind.
More on UNRWA’s ever-expanding definition of the “Palestinian refugee” can be found here: “UNRWA gives free services to 775,000 who aren’t refugees even by its own definition!,” Elder of Ziyon, June 14, 2023.
We’ve discussed many times how the UNRWA definition of “refugee” is completely at odds with the official UN definition of refugee, drastically inflating the number of real refugees they raise funds for. They include descendants of refugees that UNHCR would never consider refugees, they include two million Jordanian citizens, they include well over two million Palestinians who are citizens of the Palestinian Authority.
The UN’s accepted definition of refugees is taken from the 1951 Convention on Refugees, and reads as follows:
Any person who…owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.
Note that nothing is said to suggest that the progeny of such a person are also refugees. Elder of Ziyon continues:
We’ve seen how their “registered refugee” metric includes hundreds of thousands of people who no longer live in their areas of operation but whom UNRWA still counts as receiving services.
We’ve seen how hundreds of thousands of today’s UNRWA “registered refugees” were not even refugees under their own definition when it started, but UNRWA registered them anyway and today hundreds of thousands of UNRWA’s “Palestine refugees” didn’t even descend from real refugees in 1948.
Here Is UNRWA’s original definition of a refugee:
DEFINITION OF A REFUGEE
For working purposes, the Agency has decided that a refugee is a needy person, who, as a result of the war in Palestine, has lost his home and his means of livelihood. A large measure of flexibility in the interpretation of the above definition is accorded to chief district officers to meet the many border-line cases which inevitably arise. In some circumstances, a family may have lost part or all of its land from which its living was secured, but it may still have a house to live in. Others may have lived on one side of the boundary but worked in what is now Israel most of the year. Others, such as Bedouins, normally moved from one area of the country to another, and some escaped with part or all of their goods but cannot return to the area where they formerly resided the greater part of the time. These examples give an idea of the varying conditions that must be met in administering the relief programme.
Using its own definition of a refugee, should UNRWA cover those who are not “needy” — just as it has been doing? And can those who left “Palestine” between, say, November 1947 and May 1948, before the war started, be considered to be people who “as a result of the war in Palestine,” have lost their homes and means of livelihood? And are those who could have remained, but chose not to, so as to make things easier for the invading Arab armies, be considered to be ‘refugees” according to UNRWA’s own definition? In each case, ignoring its own definition, UNRWA has treated these people as “refugees.”
A Palestinian “refugee” could be living far from any UNRWA camp, say in New York or Stockholm, as a well-paid American or Swedish citizen, yet he or she would continue to be on UNRWA’s rolls, still counted as receiving services from UNRWA that in fact were not being supplied. In this way do UNRWA’s rolls never decrease, as very few people are ever taken off the rolls, no matter where they live or how prosperous they are, and that includes even those who have died but remain on UNRWA’s rolls, so that UNRWA can ask donors for more money.
According to UNRWA, they provide services to over 770,000 people who aren’t refugees even according to its own bizarre and counterfactual definition.
Doing some digging, I found the definition of “non-refugee” spouses and children.
The UNRWA definition of “other eligible population” includes: (i) “Non-Refugee Wives” – women who are (or were) married to registered Palestine refugees, and as such are eligible to register to receive UNRWA services; (ii) “Non-Refugee Husbands” and “Non-Refugee Descendants” (including legally adopted children) – husbands and descendants of women who are Registered Refugees and are (or were) married to a non-refugee. They are also eligible to register to receive UNRWA services. Once they are registered with UNRWA, persons in this category are referred to as Married to Non-Refugee (MNR) Family Members.
So being married to a “refugee” makes one eligible to access free UNRWA health and housing. Which would have made Palestinian “refugees” very attractive marriage partners! According to this, some 450,000 non-refugees have married UNRWA aid recipients – an astonishing number.
Moreover, even if the spouses get divorced, he or she can keep getting those benefits forever – and so can their descendants! Not a bad deal!
Think about that. Not only are the children, and grandchildren, and ever more distant descendants of refugees, treated by UNRWA as refugees themselves, but upon marriage, the non-refugee spouses of refugees suddenly become transformed into refugees themselves. Still better, even if they get a divorce, they remain “refugees” in UNRWA’s view forever, and for the rest of their lives, they will be receiving housing, medical care, family allowances, and much other largesse from UNRWA. A non-refugee woman could be married to a refugee male for a year, a month, a week, get a divorce, and from then on be the recipient of UNRWA’s lifetime support. Nice work if you can get it.
Think of how many non-refugees get married to refugees, no matter how short the marriage may last.
UNRWA’s Commissioner-General (then Director) stated in his annual report to the General Assembly in 1961: “The Agency’s definition of a refugee eligible for assistance is narrowly drawn and stipulates the loss of both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 hostilities. Substantial numbers of Palestine Arabs do not qualify for Agency relief on the technical grounds that they did not lose both home and means of livelihood, i.e. they may have lost their source of income and may be wholly destitute, but did not lose their home. This category has become known as ‘economic refugees’ and includes frontier villagers in Jordan, some destitute inhabitants of Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, and certain Bedouin expelled after 1948. The General Assembly has more than once confirmed that, despite the undoubted need of these unfortunate people, the Agency’s mandate does not extend to them.
That was 1961. Since then, “The present Agency position is that, while registered for the purposes of receiving UNRWA services, these persons are not counted as part of the official registered Palestine refugee population. Except for descendants through the male line, UNRWA does not accept new applications from persons wishing to be registered in these categories.
So if a person was considered a “frontier villager” or “Jerusalem poor” in 1950, even though they weren’t refugees and the UN consistently said they are not to receive UNRWA services during the 1950s, today their descendants can continue to receive UNRWA benefits as a poverty stricken Palestinian – even if they live in a mansion in Ramallah.
The UN (not UNRWA) in 1950 did not consider that the Jerusalem or Gazan poor were “refugees” to whom UNRWA needed to provide relief. And throughout the 1950s, UNRWA did not consider them as such. But since then, UNRWA has managed to provide the Palestinian poor, even if living in Gaza and the West Bank, where they never were refugees, as beneficiaries of UNRWA’s largesse. And even when some of those who started out poor become rich – “living in a mansion in Ramallah,” as Elder of Ziyon puts it – they remain recipients of UNRWA benefits. UNRWA has no means test to determine eligibility; the millionaire grandson of a refugee, who like his father was born and grew up in London, can still be on UNRWA’s rolls as eligible to receive benefits. If this sounds crazy, it’s because it is crazy.
UNRWA was set up in 1949 to provide for the care and feeding of just one group of refugees – those who left “Palestine” during the 1948 war. All other refugees, who since 1948 have numbered in the hundreds of millions (and today there are more than one hundred million), are provided with just one UN body to look after their welfare — the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner For Refugees). No one can explain, much less justify, why “Palestinian refugees” alone should be so favored as to have a massive agency devoted only to them.
Only “Palestinian refugees” have been allowed to pass on, as if it were an inheritable trait, the status of “refugee.” For all other refugees – there have been hundreds of millions of refugees since 1948 — that status is not passed on to their progeny, but stops with them. Those of their children, who were born in countries other than the one their parents fled, are not themselves refugees.
Palestinian refugees can not only pass on their status to descendants, but also to non-refugee spouses. 450,000 non-refugee spouses have through marriage been placed on UNRWA rolls, which entitles them to lifetime benefits. Even if they divorce, these ex-wives and ex-husbands retain their lifetime eligibility for UNRWA benefits.
The children adopted by a Palestinian refugee are also eligible for lifetime benefits from UNRWA.
UNRWA’s rolls now include many of the Gazan and West Bank poor, even if neither they nor any of their ancestors were refugees.
Many of the refugees who have died since 1949 nonetheless remain on the UNRWA rolls, thus the number of refugees UNRWA claims to care for never decreases, nor does the amount of money UNRWA asks of donors.
With each new birth of a descendant of a refugee, no matter how distant, UNRWA rolls increase, and so do demands on donors for increased aid.
Even the Arab states have stopped contributing to UNRWA. The Agency, recently wracked with money and sex scandals at the very top, needs to be put out of its – and our — misery. Let the donor aid continue to dry up, the bloated staff of 30,000 forced to make severe cuts. Above all, at long last, donors must insist — with the Americans in the lead — that Palestinian “refugees” must be treated like all other refugee groups. That means that only those who left “Palestine” because they were driven out during the 1948 war (many left because they were convinced they would soon return) should be eligible for UNRWA benefits. That will shrink the UNRWA rolls from the inflated claim of 5.7 million to less than 30,000, with the numbers of genuine refugees diminishing each day.