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Is the Palestinian exclusion eroding? UNHCR extends protection to Palestinians in Jordan and Syria, departing from decades-old practice

August 1, 2007

In a departure from its longstanding practice in the Middle East, UNHCR has told governments that Palestinian refugees fleeing Iraq fall under its mandate, even in Syria and Jordan, where the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) also operates.

According to both UNHCR and Human Rights Watch, Palestinians refugees in Iraq have been particular targets for both militia violence and government harassment since the US/UK invasion. According to UNHCR, more than half of the original 34,000 Palestinians in Iraq before 2003 had fled by the end of 2006.

When they flee, Palestinians from Iraq have often found the borders of neighboring countries closed. Human rights groups, the United Nations, the Palestinian Liberation Organization and the Syrian and Jordanian governments have been divided over how to resolve their plight. In the process, refugees have been left in limbo, some unable to escape from danger.

Under article 1D of the 1951 Refugee Convention, UNHCR’s mandate excludes refugees who are “at present receiving” protection or assistance from another UN agency, which is normally interpreted to mean Palestinian refugees who are registered with UNRWA. However, UNRWA only operates in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Inside Iraq, UNHCR provides minimal care and maintenance assistance to Palestinians.

Traditionally UNHCR and UNRWA have divided their activities with Palestinians geographically, with UNHCR refusing to assist Palestinians in Lebanon, Jordan or Syria regardless of individual circumstances because of UNRWA’s operations there. UNHCR’s office in Israel also generally refuses to consider asylum applications from Palestinians, even though UNRWA does not operate in Israel.

International refugee provides no basis for this blanket exclusion, however. The Lebanese organization Frontiers Association, along with other groups, has recently highlighted gaps between UNHCR and UNRWA policies that have left thousands of Palestinians in Lebanon and other countries unregistered and unrecognized.

In December, UNHCR issued a statement related to Palestinians from Iraq who had been temporarily housed in Ruwaished Camp in Jordan, El Hol Camp in Syria, and on both sides of the Iraqi-Syrian border. UNHCR said:

Syria and Jordan are countries which fall within UNRWA’s area of operations and Palestinians registered by UNRWA would fall outside UNHCR’s competence by virtue of paragraph 1 of Art. 1D of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. However, Palestinians in these three camps, as outlined, are not registered nor assisted by UNRWA and, therefore, fall within UNHCR’s competence, in particular, given that the individuals concerned have been within UNHCR’s  competence while inside Iraq. The Syrian and Jordanian authorities have respectively welcomed UNHCR’s assistance to these persons.

UNHCR’s willingness to extend its protection to Palestinians in Syria and Jordan – and the governments’ willingness to accept this action – could set an important precedent for other Palestinians who cannot access UNRWA assistance in the Middle East. However, UNHCR implied that this case might be unique since UNHCR had a previous protection mandate over these Palestinians in Iraq, although this has little apparent legal relevance.

In theory, most of the Palestinians from Iraq will likely fall under the “working definition” of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), which operates in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. But fulfilling the criteria of the working definition may not be enough to allow Palestinians from Iraq to simply join one of the many UNRWA-assisted refugee communities in another country.

UNRWA normally does not register refugees without government consent, even if they meet the criteria. Government resistance to registering new Palestinians has been a major cause of the “non-ID” problem in Lebanon, where many Palestinian families who arrived in the 1960s and afterward remain unregistered. UNHCR, by contrast, normally seeks to promote refugees under its mandate even if governments object.

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