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The 73-year-long failure to resolve the Palestinian refugee question, and the discourse around it, combined with the unsustainability of UNRWA’s current modus operandi prompt a critical re-examination of the way the Palestinian refugee question has been approached and how UNRWA has interpreted and implemented its mandate over the past decades.

This new working paper calls for a fundamental paradigm shift in the approach to protection of and solutions for the Palestinian refugees, comprised of three elements:

(1)   The search for solutions for Palestinian refugees must move from the essentially bilateral approach of the last decades, namely the Madrid/Oslo framework, back to the multilateral arena of the UN;

(2)   The discourse on solutions must move beyond the current constraints of perceptions or politics, and refocus on the rights of the Palestinian refugees that remain unfulfilled, including both historical rights (self-determination, return, restitution compensation) and the panoply of human rights that for many refugees, especially in UNRWA area of operation, remains suspended;

(3)   It is necessary to abandon the ‘politics of suffering’, namely the resisting belief that the refugees must continue to live in substandard conditions with limited advancement of rights and a clear residential status in host countries in order to assert and maintain their right to return. In fact, allowing refugees to have a dignified life may enable them to be political actors determining their present and future.

The 2016 New York Declaration provides a unique opportunity to realise the above paradigm shift. Applicable to Palestinian refugees, it provides an UN-sanctioned mandate – with the broadest possible endorsement of the international community – for the elaboration of a comprehensive response framework (CRF) for Palestinian refugees, dealing with the various unresolved aspects of the Palestinian refugee situation, and developed through a multi-stakeholder approach.

The authors propose a radical yet gradual evolution of UNRWA’s strategic direction, from providing humanitarian assistance and support for human development to a comprehensive response to all aspects of the Palestinian refugee question, including a more expanded focus on protection and durable solutions.

This paper follows two earlier working papers focusing on the Palestinian refugee question: (1) Rethinking solutions for Palestinian refugees: a much-needed paradigm shift and an opportunity towards its realization by Albanese and Takkenberg (RSC Working Paper Series 135) and (2) Palestinian refugees and the Global Compact on Refugees by Damian Lilly (RSC Working Paper 136).