Academic journal article Middle East Quarterly

UNRWA Resists Resettlement

Academic journal article Middle East Quarterly

UNRWA Resists Resettlement

Article excerpt

The Palestinian refugee problem lies at the heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict. But since the 1960s, the international institution charged with aiding the refugees, the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), has resisted their resettlement in the Arab host countries. It has done so by shifting to an educational mission, devising expansive redefinitions of who a refugee is, and expanding its legal mandates to "protect" and represent refugees. As a result, a well-intended international relief effort has been progressively undone by the vagueness of its mandate, which allowed UNRWA to bend to the will of the U.N. General Assembly and be taken over by its own charges and by the bureaucratic imperative of institutional survival.


The idea of resettlement was implicitly encoded into UNRWA through U.N. General Assembly (UNGA) resolution 194(m) of December 11, 1948, which stated that "refugees wishing to itturn to theft homes and live at peate with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return."1 Those choosing not to return would presumably be resettled, and the resolution took care to ensure "the repatriation, resettlement and economic and social rehabilitation of the refugees and the payment of compensation."2

The language and stipulations of resolution 194 have been used by the Palestinians and their international champions as proof of a U.N.-sanctioned "right of return."3 But UNRWA was founded "without prejudice to the provisions of paragraph 11 of General Assembly resolution 194 (III),"4 and during its early stages, attempted to avoid the appearance of prejudice toward either repatriation or compensation and resettlement. But as prevailing interpretations of resolution 1 94 have changed, so too has UNRWA.

The overwhelming majority of the Palestinian refugees have not returned. Nor have they been "reintegrated." This novel term was introduced by UNGA resolution 393 (V) of December 2, 1950, which stated that "the reintegration of the refugees into the economic life of the Near East, either by repatriation or resettlement, is essential in preparation for the time when international assistance is no longer available, and for the realization of conditions of peace and stability in the area."5

The formal articulation of repatriation and resettlement notwithstanding, as early as 1951, reintegration was understood in diplomatic circles exclusively as resettlement.6 Refugees shared that assessment, and, along with Arab host countries, resisted it in a variety of ways, so much so that by the late 1950s, reintegration, resettlement, and rehabilitation had reached a dead end. In the words of the 1957 UNRWA director's report:

in spite of the fact that many are establishing themselves in new lives, the refugees collectively remain opposed to certain types of selfsupport projects which they consider would mean permanent resettlement and the abandonment of hope of repatriation. They are, in general, supported in this stand by the Arab host Governments. On the other hand, the Government of Israel has taken no affirmative action in the matter of repatriation and compensation. It remains the Director's opinion that, unless the refugees are given the choice between repatriation and compensation provided for in resolution 194 (HI), or unless some other solution acceptable to all parties is found, it would be unrealistic for the General Assembly to believe that decisive progress can be accomplished by UNRWA towards the "reintegration of the refugees into the economic life of the Near East, either by repatriation or resettlement" in line with General Assembly resolution 393 (V) of 2 December 1950.7


In his report for 1959, incoming UNRWA director John Davis noted that "the execution of the 'long-term task' of assisting refugees to become self-supporting requires certain conditions which so far have not prevailed. …

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