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February 12, 2018 4:07 pm

It’s Time to Tell the Truth About UNRWA

avatar by Emily Benedek

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Palestinian students raise their hands in a school run by the UNRWA. Photo: UN Photo / Shareef Sarhan.

In December 2017, Lebanon conducted its first-ever census of Palestinian refugees living in the country — and the results were startling. The census workers counted 174,422 people — a number that was one-third of the generally accepted figure.

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) has maintained that there are 449,987 Palestinians on its rolls in Lebanon. When asked about the 275,535 refugees who don’t seem to exist, UNWRA spokeswoman Huda Samra told Arab News: “UNRWA does not have a headcount of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. What we have are official registration records for the number of registered Palestine refugees in Lebanon. If someone registered with UNRWA in Lebanon decided to live outside Lebanon, they don’t notify us.”

With the Trump administration withholding $65 million from UNRWA’s budget — and with millions of new Syrian refugees commanding international attention — it is time to rethink UNWRA’s future. (The US is UNRWA’s largest donor, paying $360 million of the agency’s $1.25 billion annual costs.)

The new, real number of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon offers an opening for a practical way forward to end a program that has not worked to resettle a single refugee in 70 years. Furthermore, UNRWA  — alone among refugee organizations in history — has increased rather than decreased the number of its charges.

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Despite UNRWA’s 70-year insistence that the Palestinians are a permanent class of dispossessed, under-educated, and underemployed people, the Palestinians in Lebanon are voting with their feet: two-thirds of them have left the country.

The reasons are clear: the census revealed abhorrent conditions. 7.2% of Lebanon’s Palestinian refugees are illiterate. They also suffer from an unemployment rate of 18.4%. Fifteen to 19-year-olds had an unemployment rate of 43.7%, and 28.5% of 20 to 29-year-olds had no jobs.

This sorry state was already well-known.

In 2010, UNRWA published a socio-economic study of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon that revealed that despite 70 years in that country, they were “barred from owning property or practicing in more than 30 professions, among which all liberal professions.” 56% were jobless, and only 6% had a university education.

In contrast, Palestinian refugees in Syria and Jordan are allowed to work in all professions and to own property.

Lebanon was understandably wary of upsetting its critical demographic balance by granting citizenship to a bloc of Sunnis totaling 450,000 (UNRWA’s incorrect number). But 177,000 is another story entirely — especially since Lebanese Prime Minister Said Hariri recently announced that he would not force the one million new refugees from Syria to go home. Palestinians are an entrepreneurial people who value education, yet they have been held hostage by Arab countries who use them as a lever to manipulate their own citizens and the West — and to bludgeon Israel.

With Syria in meltdown and Lebanon the only remaining Middle Eastern country (outside of Gaza and the West Bank) with a large Palestinian population, it is high time to do what former UNRWA general counsel James G. Lindsay recommended in several reports for the Washington Institute: “the removal of citizens from recognized states — persons who have the oxymoronic status of ‘citizen refugees’ — from UNRWA’s jurisdiction.”

The agency should help only those in need (much of UNRWA’s excess food is sold in secondary black markets) and allow the rest to integrate into the economies in which they have effectively been settled for decades. This would allow Palestinians to live the future “most of them so desperately seek: normal lives.” And it would eliminate a major impediment to peace talks: the right of return, which today, with UNRWA numbers of 5 million refugees, is a deal breaker for Israel.

UNRWA was created in 1949 by the UN General Assembly to care for the 700,000 Palestinians who left or were forced out of conflict zones during Israel’s War of Independence. However, over the years, UNRWA has expanded its definition of refugees to include those from the 1967 war and all their descendants. No other refugee agency has extended refugee status in this way. It is estimated that only 20,000 of the original refugees are still alive.

UNRWA also expanded its mandate year after year to include health care and education, turning itself into a permanent welfare arm funded by foreign donations. It has become a self-perpetuating entity that depends on its clients as much as its clients depend on it. According to a study by the Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education (IMPACT-se), UNRWA schools espouse the goal of violent jihad to uproot and replace the Jews in Israel. These schools have also been used to house Hamas rockets and to conceal Hamas terror tunnels.

In contrast, the rest of the world’s 65 million refugees are cared for by a single UN agency: the High Commissioner of Refugees (UNHCR). The relative sizes of the two groups shows UNRWA’s bloat.

The UNHCR, which deals with the world’s 65.6 million refugees from Congo to Bangladesh, has a staff of 10,966 executives and employees. Meanwhile, UNRWA supports 30,627 executives and 21,571 educators to care for the descendants of Palestinian refugees, whose number, even with the inflated multi-generational claims, remains ten times lower than all other displaced persons in the world combined. Even accepting the vastly inflated figure of 5 million refugees, each Palestinian beneficiary receives 50 times more assistance and monetary payments than an African or Asian victim of persecution.

It is time, carefully and sensitively, to transfer responsibility for needy Palestinians from UNRWA to UNHCR. In order to maintain stability, proper jobs for the 30,000 Palestinian UNRWA employees must be found. But it is time to acknowledge reality: most Palestinians refugees have for decades effectively been resettled. Since politics at the General Assembly will never allow changes to the status quo in regard to UNRWA, it will be up to the US Congress to help take on the challenge.

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