Between 1948 and 1949 the United Nations General Assembly accorded mandates to two separate UN agencies to provide international protection (including durable solutions) and assistance to Palestinian refugees. This unique regime is comprised of the UN Conciliation Commission for Palestine (UNCCP), and the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA).
Palestinian refugees also have a unique and complex relationship to a third UN agency - the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The UNHCR was established in 1949 as a temporary agency to provide international protection and seek permanent solutions for refugees. Generally, UNHCR has a mandate to provide international protection and search for durable solutions for refugees world-wide, including persons defined as ‘Convention refugees’ under the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (Refugee Convention). According to special provisions set forth in Article 1D of the 1951 Refugee Convention, Palestinian refugees are entitled to the benefits of the Convention (i.e., considered as ‘Convention Refugees’) when protection or assistance from other organs or agencies of the United Nations has ceased for any reason, without the position of the refugees being definitively settled in accordance with relevant resolutions of the UN General Assembly.
UNCCP protection collapsed in the mid-1950s. Neither the UNHCR nor any other international agency, however, explicitly stepped in to completely fill the subsequent gap created by the cessation of comprehensive international protection for Palestinian refugees. UNHCR does not have an explicit mandate to provide protection for all Palestinian refugees. The collapse of UNCCP protection, limited intervention by the UNHCR, and lack of an explicit UNRWA protection mandate, has resulted in severe gaps in international protection for Palestinian refugees. No international agency is currently recognized by the international community as having an explicit mandate to systematically work for the realization of the basic human rights of all Palestinian refugees and search for and implement durable solutions consistent with international law as affirmed in UN General Assembly Resolution 194(III).
Practically this anomaly means that most of the more than five million Palestinian refugees, or nearly one-third of the world’s total refugee population, do not have systematic access to international protection. The protection gap is evident in all areas where Palestinian refugees reside in exile today, with the situation most severe in Lebanon and in the 1967 occupied West Bank (including eastern Jerusalem) and Gaza Strip. Palestinian refugees face varying degrees of arbitrary restrictions on the realization of basic human rights, including, for example, freedom of movement, the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, the right to education, the right to an adequate standard of living, and the right to work, as well as access to durable solutions. The severe gap in international protection is an obstacle to the realization of fundamental human rights and freedoms for Palestinian refugees in their current areas of exile, as well as the fundamental human rights associated with durable solutions (i.e., return, real property restitution, compensation).
Brief No. 7 provides an overview of the UNHCR vis--vis Palestinian refugees. The Brief examines the unique and complex relationship between UNHCR and Palestinian refugees as set forth in the 1950 Statute of the UNHCR and the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and raises questions about a UNHCR role concerning international protection and the search for and implementation of durable solutions for Palestinian refugees based on a review of UNHCR’s mandate, operational experience, and political environment.
* Brief No. 8 is currently available in English language; an Arabic language edition will be completed shortly. Email copies are available free for charge. For orders of print coplies, please contact BADIL. The Brief is also available on the BADIL website in pdf format