UNRWA and the Palestinian refugees: Protecting refugee rights while structurally addressing the agency’s financially unsustainable modus operandi
Francesca P Albanese, Lex Takkenberg
The 73-year-long failure to resolve the Palestinian refugee question, and the discourse around it, especially since Madrid and Oslo, combined with the unsustainability of UNRWA’s current modus operandi – essentially a means to manage the humanitarian dimension of the of the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict – 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 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 realize 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. By doing so, the agency would build on its existing mandate in protecting the rights of the Palestinian refugees and address the void left by the demise of the UN Conciliation Commission for Palestine (UNCCP), which critically complements the UN mandate toward them. Palestinian refugees need and deserve, like all other refugees, an international entity engaged not only in supporting their humanitarian needs but equally in upholding their human rights, including to return, restitution and compensation, as well as facilitating such other durable solutions as the refugees may want to pursue. These latter rights flow from the illegality of the ‘ethnic cleansing’ of Palestine and have only become stronger with the passing of time and the further advancement of international law. The development of a CRF for Palestinian refugees (CRF-PR) has the potential to reenergize the discourse in support of unmet Palestinian refugee rights, and reactivate a common front among host countries, refugees, and Palestinian leadership. By generating discussion and awareness, it would shift political attention towards the refugees and create important momentum to ‘federate’ and advocate jointly for a just and durable solution of the refugee question. Giving proper weight to a rights-based approach, centred on the refugees, and advancing the development of a CRF-PR through a multi-stakeholder platform under the aegis of the UN, has the potential to break the current impasse. Implementing the above shift – including by turning UNRWA’s registration system into a central repository of documentary evidence of the refugees’ historic claims – could gradually pave the way for a broader reconsideration of the agency’s modus operandi, moving away from parallel delivery of some services in some of its “fields” of operations. As a first step, UNRWA may wish to develop a note on its mandate as UNHCR did in 2013. The reforms and initiatives in this paper should also help inform the imminent development by UNRWA of its next Medium-Term Strategy (MTS).