Palestinian refugees are a slippery population -- but when 285,535 of them go missing from a small country such as Lebanon, it should raise eyebrows.
UNRWA in Lebanon reports on its website that 449,957 refugees live under its protection in 12 camps, but a survey by Lebanon's Central Administration of Statistics, together with the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, could only find 174,535. The Lebanese government said the others "left." Okay, maybe they did -- Lebanon constrained them viciously, so it would make some sense. What does NOT make sense, then, is the UN giving UNRWA a budget based on nearly half a million people when, in fact, there are far fewer than a quarter of a million. Who is paying and who is getting the money?
We are and they are.
The UNRWA website shows a budget of $2.41 billion combined for FY 2016 and 2017. The U.S. provides more than $300 million to UNRWA annually, about one-quarter of the total. In August 2017, UNRWA claimed a deficit of $126 million. A former State Department official said the budget shortfalls are chronic but that "the funds seemed eventually arrive" after pressing others for more money -- some of that additional money is from the U.S.
American funding for UNRWA is problematic itself because the organization is inextricably intertwined with Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon; see here, here and here. And specifically for Lebanon, the connection goes as far back as 2007. But stay with the "floating" population problem for a moment.
A July 2015 street celebration in Lebanon's Ain al-Hilweh camp, which is administered by UNRWA. (Image source: Geneva Call/Flickr)
The huge discrepancy in Lebanon suggests that UNRWA may have trouble counting refugees in the West Bank, Jordan, Gaza, and Syria as well. (We'll give them a pass on Syria for now.) The problem is not new, but that Palestinian agencies were running the census may help the United States overcome its own long-term obstinacy when it comes to counting and paying.
Ten years ago, a forum on Capitol Hill, then-Rep. Mark Kirk called for an international audit of UNRWA. Kirk admitted he was unsuccessful in generating demand among his colleagues despite such accounting anomalies as a $13 million entry for "un-earmarked expenses" in an audit conducted by UNRWA's own board. An amendment to the 2006 Foreign Assistance Act had called for $2 million in additional funds for UNRWA, specifically for an investigation of finances, but the amendment was withdrawn at the request of the State Department.
As a Senator, Kirk offered an amendment calling for the State Department to provide two numbers to Congress: the number of Palestinians physically displaced from their homes in what became Israel in 1948, and the number of their descendants administered by the UNRWA. The State Department denounced the amendment, saying:
"This proposed amendment would be viewed around the world as the United States acting to prejudge and determine the outcome of this sensitive issue."
Far from prejudging the outcome, a review of the number of Palestinian "refugees" in the world and the world's obligation to them would provide an honest basis from which to make policy.
In 1950, the UN defined Palestinian "refugees" as people displaced from territory that had become Israel after having lived there for two years or more -- this is distinct from every other population of refugees that must be displaced from their long-term homes. Furthermore, Palestinians are the only "refugee" group that hands the status down through generations, until there is a resolution of the status of the original group -- which is why they are governed by UNRWA; all other refugees are under the care of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which has a mandate to settle refugees so they can become citizens of new countries. UNRWA, naturally, produces the only population of refugees that grows geometrically over time rather than declining as the original refugees die and their children are no longer stateless. (See Vietnamese refugee resettlement for an example of how this works for others.)
The original population of refugees was estimated at 711,000 in 1950. Today, there appear to be 30-50,000 original refugees remaining, and UNRWA claims to care for 4,950,000 of their descendants. But 285,000 of them appear to have disappeared from Lebanon.
It has long been understood that there is an undercount of deaths in UNRWA refugee camps -- to admit a death means UNRWA loses that member in the accounting for the international community. It also wreaks havoc with Palestinian insistence that there are 6 million refugees (not UNRWA's 5 million) and that a million people are not registered, but should still have a "right of return" to homes their parents, grandparents or great-grandparents claim to have had inside the borders of Israel.
The numbers game also exists with people who do not live in refugee camps. The Palestinian Authority counts as residents 400,000 Palestinians who have lived abroad for over a year, and according to Deputy Palestinian Interior Minister Hassan Illwi, more than 100,000 babies born abroad are registered as West Bank residents -- both in contravention of population-counting norms. Jerusalem Palestinians are double-counted – once as Palestinian Authority residents and once as Israeli Palestinians. The PA, furthermore, claims zero net out-migration; Israeli government statistics differ.
How many Palestinians would there be in these territories if a proper census was taken? How many "refugees" would disappear from UNRWA rolls as they did in Lebanon? How might that affect the budget?
Can we please find out?
Shoshana Bryen is Senior Director of the Jewish Policy Center.