UNRWA and the Palestinian precedent: Lessons from the international response to the Palestinian refugee crisis
Considering the major refugee crises currently facing the world, this essay argues that an examination of earlier refugee crises is needed in order to devise an effective international response today. On this basis, it assesses the unique international system that was set up in response to one of the largest refugee crises of the twentieth century: that of the Palestinians. Like the Syrian refugee crisis today, the Palestinian case encapsulated the connection between global politics and mass migration. On this basis, this article evaluates the merits of the international organization responsible for serving the Palestinian refugees: the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). Identifying and assessing the key features of the UNRWA system, the essay argues that its uniqueness generated both benefits and many disadvantages for the Palestinian refugees it served. In particular, the Palestinians’ ineligibility for UNHCR services has left them uniquely vulnerable when seeking international protection. Creating a similar international organization to serve Syrian refugees today is likely to cause similar problems, and will raise the question of whether other large refugee populations also need their own UN agencies. However, the internationalist rationale behind the UNRWA system is also contrasted harshly with the current imbalance in the response to the Syrian crisis, whereby a small number of countries are hosting the majority of the refugees. Thus despite its considerable flaws, UNRWA’s precedent still provides important lessons for the crisis today.