No settlement can be just and complete if recognition is not accorded to the right of the Arab refugee to return to the home from which he has been dislodged(...) It would be an offence against the principles of elemental justice if these innocent victims of the conflict were denied the right to return to their homes, while Jewish immigrants flow into Palestine, and, indeed, at least offer the threat of permanent replacement of the Arab refugees who have been rooted in the land for centuries.
- UN Mediator Count Folke Bernadotte, Report (UN Doc A1 648), 1948
"[R]efugees wishing to return to their homes and live at 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 of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or in equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible;" - U.N. General Assembly Resolution 194, Article 11 (11 December 1948)
Download the May 2004 PASSIA Special Bulletin on Palestinian Refugees.
The refugee situation has been one of the major sticking points to any peace process or proposal and continues to be an emotional touch-point for all involved. Palestinian refugees and internally displaced persons (see background for distinction) claim that they have a right to return. This claim is backed up by the famous UN General Assembly Res. 194 (1948), which in Article 11 states that refugees who wish to return in peace should be allowed to do so or should be fairly compensated for their loss. For Palestinians, and many in the Arab world, the facts that both options have been denied by the State of Israel and that this denial has been allowed by the international community are seen as great injustices.
The Jewish response to the refugee problem has drawn a wide range of opinions. On one end of the spectrum are those who claim that there is no “right of return” because Israel was attacked and the attackers should not be compensated for their losses. Others acknowledge that this is an issue which must be resolved but worry that it would mean Israel's loss of its Jewish character and majority. Also, the financial cost of compensating the refugees in full would devastate the Israeli economy. Peace proposals have been suggested, including one that would allow the refugees to return to a future Palestinian State with a few being permitted to return to Israel based on a lottery. Proposals for compensation have included drawing on the international community for donations to cover the cost.
This program of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) tracks fifteen different refugee stories in the hopes of giving a broad overview of what it means to be a Palestinian Refugee. These stories, presented in video and written form, come from refugees camps in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, cover a range of topics and deal with a multitude of family/individual situations. Click on the picture to the left to learn more.
The issues surrounding Palestinian refugees grow larger and more difficult every day as the population of refugees expands without resolution of their status. We ask that you contact elected officials to urge the United States government to press for
"We express our support for the President’s efforts to chart a path to a better future and to the following principles:
"Any peace plan that will succeed must have a shared Jerusalem, as the heads of churches in Jerusalem have outlined in recent statements. We ask you to endorse this call.
We also work for a just solution to the refugee problem and ending the settlement policy. It is also crucial that resources are shared equally and that economic development be fostered, because our economy is in a shambles from boycott and occupation."- Address to the ELCA Churchwide Assembly, August 2007
"How much the people of this camp, these Territories, and this entire region long for peace! In these days, that longing takes on a particular poignancy as you recall the events of May 1948 and the years of conflict, as yet unresolved, that followed from those events. You are now living in precarious and difficult conditions, with limited opportunities for employment. It is understandable that you often feel frustrated. Your legitimate aspirations for permanent homes, for an independent Palestinian State, remain unfulfilled."- Address at Al Aida Refugee Camp, May 2009
The situation surrounding the Palestinian refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) is a result of two wars, the War of 1948 and the Six-Day War of 1967. The vast majority of Palestinians who became refugees did so after the War of 1948, with a portion of these becoming refugees for a second time after the Six-Day War.
In response to the 1948 war the UN estimates that 726,000 Palestinians left or were evicted from what became the State of Israel. To address this situation the UN established the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). By 1950, 914,221 individuals were registered through UNRWA as Palestinian refugees. Of those registered about a third lived in UNRWA sponsored refugee camps, with the rest finding lodging within the adjoining cities, unofficial camps, and some with relatives. For many the status of refugee became permanent in 1952 when Israel adopted the Israeli Nationality Law, which left them with no official citizenship. At this time their property which was within the State of Israel was seized and eventually transferred to the state.
After the Six-Day War in 1967, around 300,000 Palestinians who had been living in the West Bank or Gaza Strip became displaced. A little over half of these were people who had already become refugees in 1948. Many of those displaced became, or continued to be, refugees with the remainder becoming IDPs.
As of 2009, the total Palestinian refugee population is estimated at 7.1 million people, or about two-thirds of the entire Palestinian population. According to 2010 PASSIA Diary, this makes Palestinians the largest refugee population in the world. Almost half of these refugees are stateless, meaning they do not have citizenship anywhere. Approximately 4.7 million of the registered Palestinian refugees continue to receive assistance, protection and advocacy from UNRWA. Among the major health care providers collaborating with UNRWA since 1950 for residents in the West Bank and Gaza is the Augusta Victoria Hospital operated by The Lutheran World Federation.
The refugee camps, official UN or otherwise, were normally built adjacent to towns or cities. In the time since the first camps were founded over sixty years ago, they have grown from erratic gatherings of tents to permanent dwellings such as multi-story houses, and have in some cases become indiscernible from the communities they border. Yet, the inhabitants of these refugee camps still have at times to deal with curfews, sporadic utilities and employment, as well as their continued unresolved citizenship.
One of the major problems facing refugee camps is expansion. Since they were not set up as permanent structures, the land made available for them was not meant for extended population growth. Over the past sixty-plus years, as fewer people move out of the camps and families continue to grow, some over three generations, the available space for expansion shrinks. This has led to over-population, putting a major strain on the limited resources available.
"Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state. Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country." - Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 13 (adopted by UN General Assembly 10 December 1948)
"Everyone has the right to a nationality. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality." - Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 15 (adopted by UN General Assembly 10 December 1948)
"No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property." - Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 17 (adopted by UN General Assembly 10 December 1948)
"Individual or mass forcible transfers, as well as deportations of protected persons from occupied territory to the territory of the Occupying Power or to that of any other country, occupied or not, are prohibited, regardless of their motive. Nevertheless, the Occupying Power may undertake total or partial evacuation of a given area if the security of the population or imperative military reasons so demand. Such evacuations may not involve the displacement of protected persons outside the bounds of the occupied territory except when for material reasons it is impossible to avoid such displacement. Persons thus evacuated shall be transferred back to their homes as soon as hostilities in the area in question have ceased. The Occupying Power undertaking such transfers or evacuations shall ensure, to the greatest practicable extent, that proper accommodation is provided to receive the protected persons, that the removals are effected in satisfactory conditions of hygiene, health, safety and nutrition, and that members of the same family are not separated." - Fourth Geneva Convention, Article 49 (12 August 1949)