By far the most protracted and largest of all refugee problems in the world today is that of the Palestine refugees, whose plight dates back 57 years. The UN General Assembly's Resolution 181 of November 1947 recommending the partition of Palestine led to armed clashes between Arabs and Jews. The conflict, which lasted from November 1947 to July 1949, led to the expulsion or flight of some 750,000-900,000 people from Palestine, the vast majority of them Arabs. The General Assembly's subsequent Resolution 194 of December 1948 stating that those 'refugees wishing to return to their homes and live in peace 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 and for loss or damage to property,' was never implemented. Israel refused to allow the repatriation of Arab refugees, most of whose villages had been destroyed.
More Palestinians were displaced in the wake of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Israel's on-going construction of a barrier between its territory and the occupied West Bank is creating 'a new generation of Palestinian refugees', says John Dugard, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied by Israel since 1967. Today, more than 4.2 million Palestinian refugees are dispersed across areas of the Middle East in which their forefathers originally took refuge, with others dispersed across the world.
Responding to the crisis created by the partition resolution and subsequent conflict, in December 1949 the General Assembly created the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). Its brief was to 'carry out in collaboration with local governments . . . direct relief and works programmes' for refugees from Palestine. The Assembly recognized that 'continued assistance for the relief of Palestine refugees is necessary to prevent conditions of starvation and distress among them and to further conditions of peace and stability' without prejudice to the rights of the refugees as affirmed in Resolution 194. This provided UNRWA with a broad humanitarian mandate. Over time, that mandate has evolved to focus on four main programmes: education, health, relief and social services, and microfinance. The agency operates in three states – Jordan, Lebanon and Syria – as well as the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. In the absence of a just and durable resolution of the Palestine refugee problem, the General Assembly has repeatedly renewed UNRWA's mandate.
UNRWA defines a 'Palestine refugee' as 'any person whose normal place of residence was Palestine during the period 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948 and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict.' This is a working definition for the purpose of determining eligibility for UNRWA services. There are other groups of Palestinians who do not meet this definition but are refugees nonetheless, such as the thousands who were displaced by the 1967 war.
UNHCR's mandate does not extend to the majority of Palestinian refugees by virtue of Paragraph 7 (c) of the organization's Statute which excludes persons who continue to receive from other organs or agencies of the United Nations protection or assistance. A similar provision excludes these refugees from the scope of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. Article 1D of the Convention provides that it 'shall not apply to persons who are at present receiving from organs or agencies of the United Nations other than the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees protection or assistance.' Because refugees have to be physically present in UNRWA's area of operations to benefit from its assistance, stateless Palestine refugees living beyond that area get no assistance from the agency. Therefore, under the terms of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention they are entitled to assistance and protection from UNHCR. This leaves a 'protection gap' affecting Palestinian refugees who are not registered with UNRWA but live in its area of operations. In most cases they do not receive protection or assistance from UNHCR or UNRWA.
With the exception of a small number of international staff, UNRWA's 26,000-strong labour force is drawn almost exclusively from the Palestine refugee community. Because of the prolonged nature of the Palestine refugee problem, the agency's efforts to provide education and health care have been pivotal in developing the refugees' full human potential. Indeed, education is the largest of UNRWA's main programmes, accounting for approximately 54 per cent of its General Fund Budget in 2005. The agency makes a special effort to maintain gender parity in primary and preparatory education.
UNRWA's Health programme accounted for approximately 18 per cent of its General Fund Budget in 2005. Among other services, the programme provides primary care focusing on the needs of women and children. The programme has been crucial to improving environmental health. Some 10 per cent of UNRWA's 2005 budget went to its Relief and Social Services programme. This aims to alleviate poverty and hunger and fosters community-based efforts to promote gender equality. Another key programme is that of Special Hardship Case. It provides direct material and financial aid to families without a male adult able to earn an income or any other means of support. About 6 per cent of refugees require this assistance.
Finally, UNRWA's Microcredit and Microenterprise programme, created in 1991, offers credit to create employment. It provides loans to existing and start-up enterprises. The programme has developed credit products to improve the economic and social conditions of poor micro-entrepreneurs, small businesses, impoverished women and working-class families.
Since 2000, UNRWA programmes in the occupied territories have also tried to protect vulnerable refugees from the worst effects of the ongoing conflict and occupation. These effects have included death and injury, with more than 3,700 Palestinians killed and 29,000 injured; widespread destruction of property – both housing and agricultural land – and infrastructure; and the crippling of the local economy by Israel's complex system of checkpoints and restricted access. The last also makes delivery of humanitarian aid more costly and difficult.
UNRWA's efforts to mitigate the socio-economic effects of the situation have included emergency job creation, whereby the agency both funds and directs temporary work projects to try and mitigate the socio-economic crisis. Between January and March 2005, UNRWA offered 6,449 temporary employment contracts under direct hire. The agency's emergency assistance to households in need of food and money has contributed to nutritional and financial security, particularly in the event of the death or injury of a principal breadwinner or the destruction of a home. The agency also helps homeless families by repairing or rebuilding shelters, through cash grants and self-help projects. Between September 2000 and June 2005 UNRWA had rebuilt 775 dwelling units for 831 families in the Gaza Strip.
The humanitarian aid and assistance that UNRWA provides to the Palestine refugees can never be enough. But it will be required as long as the issues of statelessness, prolonged military occupation, economic marginalization and vulnerability characteristic of the Palestinian refugee crisis are not addressed.