Saturday, August 20, 2005

Jonathan Edelstein on refugees and their children

The brilliant, patient and rigorous analysis of Jonathan Edelstein focuses on the challenges of the protection and entitlements of refugees all over the world. This topic has renewed importance as the Middle East enters a new period of ferment. Anyone who imagines that the United Nations is not important is living in a fool's paradise and needs to read this until the facts sink in. Like it or not, there are large populations of refugees who are not going to vanish simply because those of an isolationist mindset would have it so.

Two UN Agencies deal with refugees, United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). I'm trying to make this simple, but the issue is by no means easy to understand. Like all bureaucratic institutions the years have left behind a lot of conflicting and overlapping institutions. Before anybody gets all huffy about the ineficiencies of the UN, they might want first to figure out why our own bureaucracy maintained the REA from 1935 until about a decade ago, long after the need was gone.

The differences between the two agencies are not only administrative, however; they also use different definitions of refugee status. One freuqently-cited distinction between the two is that Palestinian refugees can bequeath their status to their children, while other refugees cannot. This distinction, however, is often more theoretical than practical, as children of non-Palestinian refugees are often able to obtain refugee status in practice, and is also critical to protecting the status of
stateless Palestinians' children. It is in fact other aspects of the UNRWA's mandate, particularly its third-country citizenship rules, that are potentially subject to abuse and political manipulation.

That's just for starters. This is another thicket of stuff I have run into trying to grasp the facts of what is happening in the Middle East and elsewhere. Again, it isn't quick and easy reading, but once the content is digested, events that look crazy at first glance begin to make a little more sense. For example...

The United Nations has made some attempt to rectify [the problem of how to legally handle the rights of the children of refugees] in the International Convention on the Rights of the Child. Article 7 of that convention provides that a child shall have "the right to acquire a nationality," which has often been interpreted to obligate states to grant citizenship to stateless children born on their soil. Many countries, however, aren't signatory to the ICRC or refuse to implement Article 7 in practice. This leads, in some circumstances, to stateless children living under circumstances worse than refugees...
Hello. It turns out that the "rights of the child," so often cited as some sinister conspiracy on the part of evil people to destroy the family or advance some other demonic agenda, is not as bad as advertised. It is instead an attempt to untangle some pretty thorny practical problems.

There is a lot more, but this stands out as the status of Palestinian refugees (heard that word before, have we?) gets renewed scrutiny. I mentioned the other day that Lebanon may be ready to excuse some of their Palestinian population ("forces") to relocate in the now available, presumably safer and more appropriate, Gaza area. Consider the financial impact on both areas.

The fact that there refugee camps no doubt due in part to financial incentives. if the camps close, the UNRWA money will stop flowing, and the financial assistance provided by the United Nations is invaluable to poor countries like Jordan and the PA that would otherwise have to shoulder the burden of resettlement. However, the continuation of refugee camps containing third-country citizens is also an exercise in political exploitation. It enables Palestinian advocacy organizations to paint the Palestinian refugee problem as much greater than it would be under UNHCR rules, given that they can claim nearly 1.8 million Jordanian citizens (and potentially 1.65 million PA residents) who would not be regarded as refugees elsewhere in the world. If the same definition were used for the post-World War II German refugees, for instance, as many as 20 million people might be able to claim long-term refugee status. The UNRWA rules thus exaggerate the magnitude of the Palestinian refugee problem as compared to other long-term refugee populations.
Like a house of cards, anything that touches one part can have consequences affecting the whole structure.

In addition, unlike the granting of refugee status to stateless Palestinians' children, the operation of camps for Palestinians who have acquired third-party citizenship really does provide an incentive to make their conditions worse. As long as UNRWA administers these camps, the host countries will be disinclined to extend their own services and to integrate the camps into the national infrastructure and economy. Jordan, for instance, is legally responsible for providing roads and basic sanitation to the camps under its jurisdiction, but has generally provided minimal infrastructure and left most day-to-day operations to the UNRWA. In addition, the camps have been poorly integrated into the national transportation system and haven't been included in most economic development and jobs programs. This is a condition that artificially enhances the misery of the 280,000 Palestinians living in these camps, and the political incentives generally favor this misery being continued rather than alleviated.

He concludes...

The Palestinian refugee problem could be administered much more effectively and fairly if the UNRWA were merged with the UNHCR....

A major obstacle to this, however, is the status of stateless Palestinian children....

In addition, any adoption of the UNHCR rules with respect to Palestinian refugees would have to be accompanied by transitional measures. A sudden cutoff of United Nations funding to the camps in Jordan, for instance, would leave the residents in limbo until Jordan can extend its slender resources to integrate them into the national infrastructure. The closure of the camps, or their transformation into ordinary towns, would have to be gradual and accompanied bysubstantial international aid for their residents' integration or resettlement. The idea of ending the UNRWA or merging its services with the UNHCR is one that is worthy of discussion and planning but that cannot be accomplished until measures are taken to protect the status of those in need.

Let's hope that people other than Jonathan's small community of commentators and I are working on this. Surely they must be.

When I allow myself to remember that John Bolton is now the US Ambassador to the United Nations it makes me shudder. All I can say is I hope that all that we have seen, read and heard about this man are slanderous lies, that beneath his tough exterior lives a person able to come to terms with these nuances.

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