In previous weeks, we presented the history of UNRWA and its failures as an organization meant to deal with the Palestinian refugee problem. Last week, we presented some information on UNHCR, the U.N. refugee agency, as a contrast to UNRWA and a possible partner for future refugee rehabilitation. The Israel Initiative proposes that Palestinian refugees are transferred to UNHCR’s jurisdiction as a part of the first step in any peace process. The following are ways in which UNHCR rehabilitates refugees, and recent examples of this course of action.
Three Possible Solutions: Voluntary Repatriation, Local Integration or Resettlement
UNHCR’s ultimate goal is to find “durable solutions that will allow to rebuild their lives in dignity and peace,” offering three options to refugees. UNHCR has helped millions of refugees achieve one of these “durable solutions” since its inception.
The option of voluntary repatriation entails helping refugees return to their homes. This is the solution of choice for the largest percentage of refugees; however, in order to be successful, repatriation requires the commitment of the country of origin to help these people reintegrate in society and ensure a stable living environment.
Many refugees do not have the option of repatriation because their countries are involved in continual conflict or because they fear persecution upon their return. Some such refugees find a home in the country of asylum, integrating in the local community. This complex, slow process imposes demands on the refugee and the receiving society; integration includes cultural, economic, legal and social aspects. The culmination of the local-integration process is obtaining the nationality of the country of asylum.
Some refugees, in addition to not being able to go home for various reasons, live in perilous situations in their place of asylum. These individuals are resettled in a third country by UNHCR. The resettlement country grants refugees legal and physical protection as well as rights similar to those of citizens, usually allowing for refugees to become naturalized citizens. Governments and NGOs facilitate integration by providing services such as cultural orientation as well as language and career training. The United States is the world’s top resettlement country, while Australia, Canada and Scandinavia have provided many places each year, and the number of European and Latin American countries participating in UNHCR resettlement programs has risen in recent years. In 2008, more than 121,000 refugees were considered by resettlement countries, mostly from Iraq, Myanmar and Bhutan, as well as Thailand, Nepal, Syria, Jordan and Malaysia.
Rehabilitation Options and the Palestinian Refugees
Of the three options, resettlement seems to be the one that most suits the Palestinian refugees. Voluntary repatriation is not possible: it will lead to the desrtruction of the state of Israel. Due to the population exchange during the War of Independence, the ‘Right of Return’ is also not just. Local integration is a more realistic approach, but it is limited: the area is not fit for such large number of refugees, and the hostility of these people towards the Israelis turns their presence to be a problem.
Resettlement, however, is realistic for a number of reasons.
First, many Palestinians want to leave the Middle East, especially those in Gaza. As reported in last week’s newsletter, “desperate Gazans fake fatal diseases in order to get permission to enter Israel and receive medical care, or pay hundreds of dollars to smugglers and counterfeiters in order to cross the border to Israel or Egypt.”
Second, countries are willing to accept these refugees. Although the Palestinian refugees’ Arab brothers do not want to help, in order to maintain the Palestinian narrative, others are more welcoming. The president of Chile, for example, has expressed that he is willing to free many refugees of their plight by welcoming them to his country. When resettlement will become a wide international effort, there will be dozens of states that will take part in rehabilitating the Palestinian refugees.
Recent Examples of Refugee Rehabilitation Successes
The UN refugee agency’s program to resettle Iraqi refugees began in 2007, and as of October 2009 over 80,000 refugees from Iraq have been resettled in a total of 14 countries around the world, including the United States, Canada, Australia, Germany, Norway and Sweden. This includes the 1,500 Palestinian refugees that lived in the Al-Waleed refugee camp in Iraq, near the Syrian border. In 2008 and 2009, 444 Palestinian refugees from Al-Waleed were resettled in Iceland, the UK, the US, Denmark, France, Netherlands and Norway. Nearly 1,300 other Palestinian refugees are expected to be moved temporarily to Romania before being resettled in the United States, in accordance with an agreement between the Romanian government, UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration.
Yoav Sorek is manager of The Israeli Initiative. Find out more: www.israelinitiative.com