How many refugees? (ISRAEL HAYOM OP-ED) Elliott Abrams 06/21/12)
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The Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics recently commemorated
World Refugee Day by releasing new statistics on Palestinian
refugees. Therein lies a tale.
The bureau reported that there are now 5.1 million Palestinian
refugees, saying of their ages: “The Palestinian refugees are
characterized as a young population where 41.7% are under the age of
15 in Palestinian territory, 35.9% of Palestinian refugees in Jordan
were under 15 in 2007, 33.1% of Palestinian refugees in Syria were
under 15 in 2009, and 30.4% of the refugees in Lebanon were under 15
This means, for example, that more than a third of
Palestinian “refugees” in Jordan were born after 1997. That is either
30 years (from the 1967 war) or almost 50 years (if they fled when
Israel was established in 1948) after their parents or more likely
grandparents arrived in Jordan. Those in Jordan have full Jordanian
citizenships and vote in Jordan, which means this: A young Jordanian
of Palestinian origin, whose family has lived in Jordan for 30 years
and who himself or herself has always lived in Jordan, is still
considered a "refugee."
This is bizarre, and the new statistics are a reminder of the unique
definition applied to Palestinian “refugees.” For every other
category of refugees in the world, the 1951 U.N. convention on the
status of refugees clearly applies to the refugee only, and not to
subsequent generations. This is the definition used by the U.N. high
commissioner for refugees today. Only when it comes to Palestinians
does a separate organization, the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, count
not only those who actually left their homes but also subsequent
generations, presumably forever, and regardless of whether those
progeny were born and are settled elsewhere with full citizenship.
So a young American boy of, say, 10 years of age, born in Chicago to
American parents, but whose grandparents were Palestinians who fled
Israel in 1948, is counted by UNRWA as a “Palestinian refugee.”
It is not surprising that the Appropriations Committee of the U.S.
Senate on May 31 adopted an amendment defining Palestinian “refugees”
the way all other refugees are defined, and rejecting the definition
that produces the number 5.1 million today and who knows how many
more millions as the years roll by. What’s surprising is that this
effort, led by Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois – who would represent the
young boy in my example as well as his parents – was widely held as
controversial. It is simply common sense.
Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle East Studies at the
Council on Foreign Relations. This piece is reprinted with permission
and can be found on Abrams’ blog “Pressure Points” here.
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