Posted by on March 13, 2013 in Blog

By Jennine Vari

Spring 2013 Intern

The United Nations recently registered its one-millionth Syrian refugee, and as the humanitarian crisis continues the international community is recognizing the need for increased aid to the Syrian people. However, one element of the problem has been overshadowed in all the attention paid to Syria: the issue of Palestinian refugees.

Despite the growing need for refugee assistance, the work of a United Nations organization devoted to Palestinian refugees has recently been called into question by Congress. Last year, Congress began discussing funding cuts to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA), but at a discussion hosted by the Middle East Institute last week, Commissioner-General  Filippo Grandi explained UNRWA’s necessary role in preventing further instability and improving the lives of Palestinian refugees.

Political Backlash Against UNRWA

Upon realizing the need for an organization devoted exclusively to Palestinian refugee assistance after the 1948 war, the United Nations established UNRWA. Since 1950 it has provided assistance, protection, and advocacy for those displaced by war or settlements.

However, the organization came under fire from US politician, who were unhappy with the curriculum offered at UNRWA’s schools, claiming that they threatened peace in the region by teaching the “Right of Return:”  the narrative is that all Palestinians and their descendants displaced by war have the right to return and reclaim their land and property. Critics argued that this promise is an impediment to peace because it threatens Israel’s existence  as a Jewish state and perpetuates the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Further debate about the “Right of Return” is also looking to redefine who is considered a “refugee” and therefore can stake a claim to the territory. According to UNRWA, there are currently 5 million Palestinian refugees in Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan, compared to only 750,000 in 1950. This dramatic increase caught the attention from Congress.

In 2012, Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL) introduced an amendment to the FY2013 Foreign Operations Appropriations bill to scale back the definition of a Palestinian refugee to include only those who were forced out as a direct result of the Palestinian-Israeli wars in 1948 and 1967, not their descendants. Kirk denied that this was meant to deprive Palestinians of UNRWA services, but was designed simply to tackle the “right of return” by stripping the refugee status from those born in refugee camps in Syria and Jordan.

UNRWA at the Middle East Institute

In order to discuss the plight of Palestinian refugees, the Middle East Institute, along with the American Friends for UNRWA and the Foundation for Near East Peace hosted a discussion with Commissioner-General Filippo Grandi. He addressed the almost-forgotten crisis and explained how UNRWA is working to assuage the plight of the refugees. He also denied allegations that the UN organization perpetuates the crisis, but rather addresses a problem that would persist with or without the involvement of UNRWA.

In defense of UNRWA’s education program, Grandi emphasized its operation of over 700 schools for 500,000 children who are unable to attend local schools and explained that the curriculum follows that of the host country, even using the same textbooks. In the absence of an education system, it’s the Palestinian youth who suffer most and according to Grandi, the “youth bulge” in the population has to potential to be gravely detrimental to the region.

As the Syrian conflict escalates, it is important to remember that it contains a Palestinian element, for which protection and services are required.

The influx of 30,000 Palestinian refugees into Lebanon is also placing a heavy burden on the country and could disrupt the sensitive balance between communities and religions. To make matters worse, Jordan has refused to take in Palestinians, claiming that it has done enough to Palestinians over the last six decades.

Palestinians are, in a way, “double refugees” and as their displacement continues attention must be given to Syria, but in a manner that is sophisticated enough not to forget Palestinian refugees. Through UNRWA, opportunities and stability are provided for those whose future would be absent or limited by the Palestinian-Israeli and Syrian conflicts.

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