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Where is UNRWA When it Comes to the Syrian Refugees?

January 7, 2013 8:50 am 1 comment

Syrian refugees in Reyhanli district, in Antakya, Turkey. Photo: EPA/TOLGA BOZOGLU

What does it mean when Assad’s regime bombs the Yarmouk – Syria’s largest Palestinian refugee neighborhood? driving dozens of formerly pro-government Palestinian fighters to defect and join the rebels. All of this, demands a closer look at the Palestinians in Syria.

In September, following the death of a UNRWA staffer in Syria, UNRWA spokesman Christopher Gunness stated, “an UNRWA staff member in Syria, aged 28 years, was killed while on his way to catch a bus to work. The death occurred in the area of Or’uba just outside the southern border of Yarmouk residential area. Yarmouk is home to approximately 1 million Syrians and more than 150,000 Palestine refugees.”

The majority of Syria’s 500,000 UN-registered Palestinian refugees are descends of the original refugees of 1948. While not citizens, Palestinians in Syria have had more than their brethren in other Arab countries. They have been able to hold government jobs, attend state universities for free and serve in the military. As such, the Assad’s regime has long painted itself as champion of the Palestinian cause.

According to UNRWA’s calculations, virtually every Palestinian born since that time is also a refugee. That number now reaches into the millions. This is unprecedented in the history of refugee crises. In no other situation has a group been extended specific status that has been continually expanded to include subsequent generations over a period of decades.

There is no question that this was a tragic incident, yet it raises a fundamental question about the level of attention given to UNRWA’s work within the borders of Israel versus other Arab countries specifically, Syria under Assad which has been killing its own citizens for months now.

Case in point, during Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in 2008 and now again in Operation Cloud Pillar Israel was bombarded on a daily basis with accusations that it intentionally targets UNRWA schools with the goal of killing kids. Of course, this was a complete fallacy but UNRWA went out of its way to highlight this in order to depict Israel as coldblooded and inhumane despite the fact that those schools were indeed used as launching pads hoping the IDF would retaliate. The reality was the Israel indeed took hits in order to not put women and children in harms way as it has always conducted itself. In contrast, Palestinians have used their youth as human shields.

Enter Syria, where is the outrage? An UNRWA field worker is killed and there is barley a mention in the press whereas in Israel it engenders a slew of UN condemnations centered on its “crimes against humanity” and intentionally sabotaging UNRWA’s operations and good work. Moreover, we are now seeing Syrian-Palestinians who fled protesting outside UNRWA’s offices in Lebanon asking for help. The double standard is no accident as Palestinian identity is linked to the Nakba narrative that mandates the creation of a Palestinian state only in Israel that is to say that everything beyond those borders where UNRWA operates, should be a constant reminder that there is no option for resolution outside of “Palestine.”

Syria is unique as it serves as a paragon of Palestinian support. Consequently, Palestinian activists argue that it was their integration into Syrian society facilitated by Assad’s regime that made them join the uprisings. As Yarmouk-Palestinian activist Abu Omar states, “We have never felt that there was a big difference between the Palestinians and the Syrians [but we want our home in Palestine].” UNRWA is an open-ended, educational, social welfare system for millions of Palestinians, primarily in the West Bank, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. But given what we see in Syria in what sense are any of these individuals refugees?

UNRWA’s success has been in transforming itself into the guardian of the refugees’ isolation, preserving the uniqueness of the Palestinian refugees’ identity as an entity that cannot be assimilated into any Arab country but ONLY into what is perceived as Palestine instead of the Jewish State. This dependency prevented the refugees from directly getting involved in politics, leaving UNRWA as their only voice in the “Arab Wilderness.”

The idea that on the one hand Palestinians are part of the Arab world but on the other different and isolated from it enabled UNRWA to become the vehicle that represents their “otherness” and eventually led to the agency’s politicization. The tragic scale of the human-rights crisis in Syria—more than sixty thousand dead, hundreds of thousands displaced and murderous abuses on all sides—has put the Palestinian situation in proper perspective especially when it comes to UNRWA. Had UNRWA truly been concerned about the welfare of refugees in the region it would look to Syria where there are real refugees who could benefit from their support. UNRWA was founded for Palestinians and is now run by Palestinians who monopolize and exploit a factious reality to a problem that could have been solved decades ago, as such it is time to reassess what UNRWA actually does and what it was intended to do.

Asaf Romirowsky PhD is a Philadelphia-based Middle East analyst, an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Forum and the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.  Anat Berko PhD is a Jewish refugee from Iraq, a visiting professor at George Washington University and a research fellow at the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Israel. She is the author of “The Smarter Bomb: Women and Children as Suicide Bombers.”

1 Comment

  • Reply from Chris Gunness, UNRWA Spokesman.

    The authors should acquaint themselves with the literature on this subject, including UNHCR materials, before publishing ill founded opinion, dressed up as analysis. Their article, which is politically motivated, is academically and journalistically poor and contains falsehoods which I will not repeat but correct.

    1. UNRWA-registered refugees are not alone in having their status transferred through generations. UNHCR’s Handbook on Procedures and Criteria for determining Refugee Status provides in paragraph 184: “If the head of a family meets the criteria of the definition, [for refugee status] his dependants are normally granted refugee status according to the principle of family unity.” There are numerous examples of this in practice.

    2. UNRWA has spoken out robustly about the situation of its beneficiaries in Syria on numerous occasions. See the following examples of the most recent statements:

    3. No evidence has been produced to show that UNRWA schools in Gaza were “used as launching pads” by militants during the fighting in 2008/2009 or late last year. Even the popular Israeli TV network, Channel Two, has admitted this and issued a retraction after making such false claim:

    4. UNRWA does not take a precise position on how the issue of Palestine refugees should be resolved. The Agency does advocate for a resolution of the refugee crisis in the context of a just and durable solution, based on international law and UN resolutions and in consultation with the refugees themselves.


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