‘Kirk Bill’ Aims to Reform, Control UN Aid for Palestinian Refugees

By: Ben-Dror Yemini published in Al-Monitor on June 25, 2012
Last month on May 31, the United States Senate Appropriations Committee approved a precedential amendment to the foreign appropriations bill regarding the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) and the Palestinian refugees. To understand the amendment, it should be called to mind that UNRWA was originally set up to promote a good cause. A United Nations relief organization whose mission was to respond to the needs of the British Mandate Arabs, who for the most part fled the country and in part were expelled in the course of the Arab onslaught aimed at devastating and annihilating the newly established State of Israel. However, the handling of the refugees has changed direction since and from a relief organization, UNRWA has become a colossal enterprise of perpetuation which keeping the refugee problem alive.

There are two organizations of the United Nations dealing with refugees — the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), also known as the UN Refugee Agency, which handles refugee affairs around the world, and UNRWA, which focuses exclusively on those refugees who are identified as Palestinians. Indeed, at first they did not even know they were identified as such. They were Arab. The separate Palestinian identity evolved later on. Over the years, the UN Refugee Agency has taken care of some 50 million refugees. They were granted initial assistance and today, they are no longer refugees. In contrast, when UNRWA started working in 1950, it was tending to the needs of 711 thousand refugees and since then, has miraculously managed to boost up their number to over five million. The UN Refugee Agency is rehabilitating refugees. UNRWA is nurturing, reproducing and perpetuating the refugee problem.

This paradox is well known and acknowledged by any reasonable observer familiar with the facts. It has numerous causes. One of them is UNRWA’s peculiar definition of the term “refugees” as any persons “whose normal place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948, who lost both their homes and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict.”

However, over the years the descendants of the original refugees have also come under the definition and strangely enough and contrary to UNRWA’s definition of refugees as “those who need assistance,” even those who had never been in need of assistance in the first place and even those who have come to wealth later on are still considered refugees. Thus, the number of “refugees” eligible for UNRWA’s services has been mysteriously skyrocketing year after year.

It is against this backdrop that Israeli Knesset Member Einat Wilf has been acting in recent months in collaboration with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), America’s leading pro-Israel lobby, to advance the amendment and win over to the cause the major financing body contributing to UNRWA — the United States. The result is the bill that has come to be known as the “Kirk Amendment” after its sponsor, Republican Senator Mark Kirk, which requires the US State Department to specify the real number of refugees who meet the definition as formulated in the original mandate of UNRWA. It is assessed that the number is no higher than 30 thousand individuals.

There is something sophisticated about the “Kirk Amendment,” as it does not call for any slashing of the aid funds, nor does it demand any change in criteria. The only thing required is accountability. It requires that an account be given of the original number of refugees personally displaced from their homes in 1948 and the actual number of their descendants. However, it emerges from reports concerning the amendment that that is, in fact, the first step toward a more fundamental change. After all, once the required numbers are specified, the question is bound to be asked: Why should the American taxpayers fund those who are not really refugees? Indeed, such questions have already been raised.

US Undersecretary of State Thomas Nides has sent a letter to the Senate Appropriations Committee, urging the Committee to vote against the proposed amendment. According to Nides, the issue under consideration is too sensitive, the Unites States should not interfere with determining the number of refugees and the matter has to be decided in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. The Jordanian embassy in Washington has exerted heavy pressure against the ratification of the bill, and Nides notes in his letter that the amendment is liable to provoke “a negative reaction, particularly in Jordan.”

The request put forward by Nides was rejected, and the amendment passed. And so far, no storm has been brewing over the issue, which is unfortunate, as it’s about time the inflated balloon of the Palestinian refugees, which is getting ever more overblown with time, burst. It is only once the Palestinian “refugees” enjoy the same treatment accorded to tens of millions of refugees all over the world that their situation will start improving, along with the prospects for peace, as the “refugee problem,” as the Arab side has been declaring time and again, “is perpetuated with the purpose of achieving the solution of the elimination of the State of Israel.”

The handling of the refugee problem has been and continues to be the biggest obstacle on the way to peace. The time for change has come. The Unites States Senate has taken a preliminary, limited and hesitant step. It is a step in the right direction, and we can only hope that the next ones will follow.

International norms

There are a number of other points the American Congress should consider: According to UNRWA’s official census, the number of refugees in Lebanon at the beginning of last year stood at 425 thousand. However, according to research conducted by the American University of Beirut and sponsored in part by UNRWA itself, there were at the time only some 260-280 thousand refugees in Lebanon. It further emerges from the research that the refugees are immigrating and fleeing from the Arab states, as they are subjected to harsh apartheid policies in the Arab world. It follows then that the number of registered and budgeted refugees is far from reflecting the real number of refugees still living in Arab states. The United States, which is the main donating country on behalf of the refugees, should thus ask itself: Precisely where is the money going, given the overblown number, exaggerated by 57% in Lebanon alone, of registered refugees?

What’s more, there is another scam involved: According to the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (CRSR), Article 1. A. (2), a refugee who has been granted citizenship in a certain country can no longer be considered a refugee. However, according to an official report released by UNRWA, there are more than two million registered refugees in Jordan, the vast majority of whom are holding Jordanian citizenship. The overall number of refugees can thus be reduced by two million in Jordan, and by another 150 thousand in Lebanon, and it stands to reason that in Syria, the situation is no different. The numbers there are most probably also bloated. A recommendation to this effect is offered in a report submitted by James Lindsay, a former senior UNRWA official. Following his retirement from UNRWA, in his capacity as a visiting research fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East policy, Lindsay published a comprehensive research paper including proposals for far-reaching reform.

The list does not end there. UNRWA has on its payroll in excess of 29 thousand employees, only 200 of whom are not Palestinians. It is a huge mechanism which is engaged not only in relief work but also in incitement, by means of the education system sponsored by the organization. It is the United Nations’ largest agency. Just for comparison, UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, which deals with all other refugees globally, has a much smaller labor force of 7,685 employees, while handling 34 million refugees. Whereas UNRWA has one employee per 172 refugees, each employee of the UN Refugee Agency takes care of 4,424 refugees. Furthermore, the budget per capita allocated by UNRWA is more than double that of the UN Refugee Agency. Given the fact that a large part of UNRWA’s registered refugees are, in fact, citizens of various countries (and thus, are no longer in refugee status) and considering the overblown records of registered refugees, as in Lebanon, for instance, it transpires that each Palestinian “refugee” costs the international community, and in particular the United States, much more than any other refugee in the world.

This ongoing string of absurdities and fraud must be brought to an end. Uniform definitions and norms should be formulated and put into practice. The anti-Israeli side keeps arguing that Israel has to comply with international norms. This is certainly a fair and just demand. However, the very same should be requested and effected with respect to the refugees. Identical definitions of who is a refugee should be applied to refugees wherever they are and equal treatment should be granted to the truly needy among them in an attempt to help them out of their plight rather than perpetuating their status. This would be the greatest contribution of the international community toward promoting peace.

Senator Kirk has made the first step in that direction. Let’s hope he carries on.