Netanyahu wants to dismantle UNRWA to eradicate the right of return
By: Hanin Abou Salem/ PhD researcher in International Law
On Sunday the 11th of June 2017 numerous news agencies reported that Benjamin Netanyahu, during a meeting with US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, called for the dismantling of The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). Netanyahu wants UNRWA, which he has accused of perpetuating the Palestinian refugee problem, to be merged with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Netanyahu wants to dismantle UNRWA because he wants to eradicate the right of return for Palestinian refugees and to force Arab countries hosting UNRWA camps to naturalize Palestinians or agree to their resettlement in a third country. Netanyahu will be able to achieve these 2 objectives if UNRWA is dismantled and merged with UNHRC because the UNHCR recommends 3 durable solutions to ending the plight of refugees and they are 1) “Voluntary repatriation to and reintegration in their homeland in safety and dignity” 2) “Integration in their countries of asylum” and 3) “Resettlement in third countries”. According to UNHCR Resettlement Handbook, “Resettlement involves the selection and transfer of refugees from a State in which they have sought protection to a third State which has agreed to admit them – as refugees – with permanent residence status…Resettlement also carries with it the opportunity to eventually become a naturalized citizen of the resettlement country”.
Furthermore if UNRWA is dismantled Palestinian refugees registered with UNRWA will no longer be excluded from the scope of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and Stateless Persons which recognizes the principle of naturalization. Article 34 of the Convention states: “The Contracting States shall as far as possible facilitate the assimilation and naturalization of refugees. They shall in particular make every effort to expedite naturalization proceedings…”
Palestinian refugees falling under the scope UNRWA are currently excluded from the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and Stateless Persons because when the Convention was drafted the Egyptian delegate added an exclusion paragraph in Article 1 (D) which stated that the Convention:
“…shall not apply to persons who are at present from organs or agencies of the United Nations other than the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees protection or assistance. When such protection or assistance has ceased for any reason, without the position of such persons being definitively settled in accordance with the relevant resolutions adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations, these persons shall ipso facto be entitled to the benefits of this Convention”
The Egyptian delegate added the exclusion clause because Arab States wanted to make sure that Article 34 of the Convention, which calls for the naturalization of refugees, did not apply to Palestinian refugees. Furthermore, Palestinian refugees falling under the scope of UNRWA were also protected from the recommendation made in Section IV (D) which states “that Governments …[must] act in concert in a true spirit of international co-operation in order that …refugees may find asylum and the possibility of resettlement”
Arab countries hosting UNRWA camps are not parties to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and Stateless Persons so this could lead them to conclude that the Convention cannot be used to pressure them into naturalizing Palestinian refugees. While this is theoretically true the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and Stateless Persons could nonetheless be used to pressure Arab countries to naturalize Palestinians because section IV (E1) of the Convention clearly stated that the drafters wanted “the Convention… to … [exceed] its contractual scope and that all nations will be guided by it in granting so far as possible to persons in their territory as refugees and who would not be covered by the terms of the Convention…”. Furthermore, the former UNHCR’s Director of International Protection Erika Feller confirmed that “the [1951 Refugees] Convention has already a legal and political significance that goes well beyond its specific terms: legal in that it provides the basic standards on which principled actions can be founded; political in that it provides a truly universal framework within which states can cooperate and share the burden resulting from forced displacements; …”
Hence, if UNRWA is dismantled Palestinian refugees will find themselves at best facing the prospect of being naturalized in Arab countries hosting UNRWA camps or being resettled in a third country. And at worst they could find themselves facing a legal limbo because not everyone who falls under the scope of UNRWA will necessarily be recognized as a refugee under the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees because a number of Judges in Western countries have argued that the Convention does not apply to descendants of Palestinian refugees. Therefore everyone who wants to protect the right of return for Palestinian refugees must do all they can to save UNRWA from being dismantled because saving UNRWA means saving Palestinian refugees and their right of return!