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Lecture by UNRWA Commissioner-General Karen AbuZayd - Palestine Refugees in Global Context: Issues and Prospects

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American University of Cairo, Center for Migration and Refugee Studies, 14 December 2009

Director Dr. Ray Jureidini,

Distinguished guests, faculty and students of the CMRS and AUC:


I extend warm thanks to the Center for Migration and Refugee Studies and the American University of Cairo for hosting me this evening. At the end of this month I retire as Commissioner-General of UNRWA after more than 28 years of professional refugee service. I, therefore, very much welcome this opportunity to share some departing thoughts with distinguished scholars in the area of refugee studies in the Middle East and Africa. Many of you have grappled with contexts and issues similar to those that have defined my nearly three-decades of refugee work.

My theme this evening is Palestine Refugees in Global Context: Issues and Prospects. I chose this theme to capture reflections on the Palestine refugee condition in comparative perspective. The more than nine years I have spent with UNRWA and 19 years with UNHCR have acquainted me with a range of conflict settings, humanitarian operations and development programmes on behalf of displaced peoples. From managing the complex emergency response at the outbreak of war in the former-Yugoslavia to relocating Liberian refugees to safe areas in Sierra Leone in 1991 to the particularly joyous mission repatriating Namibian exiles after years of occupation and colonialism, I have witnessed first-hand each stage of the refugee cycle - from conflict which triggers flight to the period of displacement and exile to the return home.

Each refugee and IDP situation is marked by distinct conditions, giving rise to varied needs, international responses and historical trajectories. Palestine refugees have, in particular, been treated in international and regional circles according to an ethos of "exceptionalism". In global refugee fora, Palestine refugees are often considered to be outside the bounds of comparative inquiry or beyond the reach of universal norms. Indeed, the Palestine refugee condition is marked by several far-reaching distinctive attributes that set the Palestine refugees apart from other refugee and IDP situations in many respects. How might these differences best be understood? How do they impact state responsibilities and the role of the United Nations? What do they bode for the refugees' future? How should we aspire to relate to them as refugee and migration scholars, practitioners and activists?

Before giving weight to the unique challenges facing Palestine refugees, let us consider that the experience of being uprooted transcends identities and borders. Forced displacement always carries with it a deep, personal pain, resulting from involuntary dislocation and alienation. At a practical level, persons fleeing persecution are cut off from traditional livelihoods and sources of income, as well as from fundamental forms of national protection, rendering them vulnerable and in need of international protection. These harsh conditions are compounded when flight takes place en masse due to generalized armed conflict, or where opportunities for quick recovery are lacking. In a majority of instances, refugees struggle to cope with powerlessness, as they attempt to reclaim a degree of normality, dignity and opportunity in their place of asylum.

These factors are ever present for Palestine refugees, who, for more than six decades, have coped with unresolved memories of flight passed down through the generations, uncertainties about their future, daily struggles for survival under conditions of occupation and human rights constraints that have precluded adequate chances for recovering losses.

In addition, Palestine refugees have withstood an added hardship of loss of patrimony and country when, in the wake of their flight in 1948, their historic homeland was transformed into a state for others. The result was the dispersal of the Palestinian nation, or el-Naqba, and the creation of the world's largest refugee population. Palestinian refugees who fled areas over which Israel asserted sovereignty were subsequently de-nationalized, compounding their plight into a situation of stateless refugees.

Some of the refugees who fled to the West Bank and Jordan in 1948 were granted Jordanian citizenship - later revoked for Palestinian residents of the West Bank when Jordan severed its legal and administrative control over the territory in 1988. Others in Europe and the Americas were also able to gain citizenship rights. Yet, the majority of Palestine refugees in the Middle East region have remained stateless for multiple generations. The status of "stateless" puts Palestine refugees in an especially vulnerable position in the Middle East, where rights are sometimes predicated on inter-state reciprocity. Stateless Palestinian refugees are also especially vulnerable in periods of instability, as witnessed in the case of Palestinian refugees who fled from Iraq due to persecution.

The un-remedied loss of home and nation has also seared into generations of Palestinian consciousness a sense of temporary-ness and injustice. Nearly all Palestinians, whether they possess another citizenship or not, are held hostage by historical conflict, continuing violations and indeterminate futures. Refugees have held fast to the notion of return, as individuals, families and communities aspire to claim their international rights and power over their destinies. Owing to the narrative of national loss and homecoming, Palestine refugees refer to the right of return as a collective right, despite its individualized underpinnings and the trends of political compromise.

Another defining feature of the Palestine refugee situation is the unique international arrangements applicable to the refugees, underscoring the special character of the conflict and the need for dedicated structures. In 1948, the General Assembly created the UN Conciliation Commission for Palestine, charging it with mediating a resolution to the conflict and achieving a solution to the refugee issue. UNRWA, established in the following year, was entrusted with attending to the needs of refugees from Mandate Palestine who remained in the 'Near East'.

The specific and exclusive nature of UNRWA's role was reaffirmed in 1951, when the Convention on the Status of Refugees excluded from the ambit of UNHCR's mandate "persons who are at present receiving from organs or agencies of the United Nations . . . protection or assistance." This clause is understood effectively to establish a demarcation of roles. UNRWA is responsible for Palestine refugees registered with the Agency or eligible to be registered in its five fields of operation, while UNHCR's duties pertain to all refugees elsewhere, including Palestinians.

As in other refugee situations, the particular dimensions of the Palestine refugee situation should be accounted for in calibrating humanitarian responses and in refining protection strategies. However, none of these features should be assumed to exempt Palestine refugees generally from the international normative system, nor should these unique aspects become a pretext for inaction in mobilizing for their rights.

The international community, including host states and their communities, are obligated to provide basic rights and freedoms to migrants or persons seeking shelter within their borders. These obligations stem from international human rights law, as well as the global refugee protection regime. In the past three decades there has been wide ratification by Middle Eastern states of the full plethora of human rights instruments. There are few distinctions allowed in international human rights law with respect to the treatment of national citizens versus non-nationals. State parties to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights are bound to the principle of non-discrimination and they are obligated to ensure the realization of economic and social rights for all residents. State parties to the human rights Covenants must ensure that their policies do not result in grave harm to refugee populations within their borders. These standards of dignity and fairness offer protection and give hope to all refugees in asylum countries.

In concrete terms these obligations should translate into basic legal protections against arbitrary or inhumane treatment, and allow access to social and economic opportunities. Such rights, including under regimes of temporary protection, have come to be regarded as a key to enabling refugee self-reliance and development during protracted periods of exile, a matter I shall address in more depth shortly. For host states, the provision of human rights to refugees in their countries has the potential to translate into economic benefit and improve social harmony until durable solutions are achieved.

Unfortunately the conditions under which the majority of Palestine refugees live fall short of these common requirements.