Thursday, June 21, 2012

How many refugees?

The Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics recently commemorated World Refugee Day by releasing new statistics on Palestinian refugees. Therein lies a tale.

The bureau reported that there are now 5.1 million Palestinian refugees, saying of their ages: “The Palestinian refugees are characterized as a young population where 41.7% are under the age of 15 in Palestinian territory, 35.9% of Palestinian refugees in Jordan were under 15 in 2007, 33.1% of Palestinian refugees in Syria were under 15 in 2009, and 30.4% of the refugees in Lebanon were under 15 in 2010.”

This means, for example, that more than a third of Palestinian “refugees” in Jordan were born after 1997. That is either 30 years (from the 1967 war) or almost 50 years (if they fled when Israel was established in 1948) after their parents or more likely grandparents arrived in Jordan. Those in Jordan have full Jordanian citizenships and vote in Jordan, which means this: A young Jordanian of Palestinian origin, whose family has lived in Jordan for 30 years and who himself or herself has always lived in Jordan, is still considered a "refugee." 

This is bizarre, and the new statistics are a reminder of the unique definition applied to Palestinian “refugees.” For every other category of refugees in the world, the 1951 U.N. convention on the status of refugees clearly applies to the refugee only, and not to subsequent generations. This is the definition used by the U.N. high commissioner for refugees today. Only when it comes to Palestinians does a separate organization, the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, count not only those who actually left their homes but also subsequent generations, presumably forever, and regardless of whether those progeny were born and are settled elsewhere with full citizenship. 

So a young American boy of, say, 10 years of age, born in Chicago to American parents, but whose grandparents were Palestinians who fled Israel in 1948, is counted by UNRWA as a “Palestinian refugee.”

It is not surprising that the Appropriations Committee of the U.S. Senate on May 31 adopted an amendment defining Palestinian “refugees” the way all other refugees are defined, and rejecting the definition that produces the number 5.1 million today and who knows how many more millions as the years roll by. What’s surprising is that this effort, led by Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois – who would represent the young boy in my example as well as his parents – was widely held as controversial. It is simply common sense.

Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle East Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. This piece is reprinted with permission and can be found on Abrams’ blog “Pressure Points” here.

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