UNRWA and Palestine Refugees


In response to the Arab-Israeli hostilities of 1948, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) was officially established on 8 December 1949. Emergency assistance and relief was needed after the nakbah. Established as a temporary relief mission, UNRWA for over sixty years continues to provide relief services to approximately 4.5 million registered Palestinian refugees in five areas-making this one of the longest-standing refugee issues. Moreover, Palestinian refugees are the largest of the world refugee population.

The Agency provides a myriad of services that fall under the umbrella of four main areas: education, health, relief, and social services. Initially, approximately 104,000 Palestinians fled to Lebanon in 1948. Gradually more fled into Lebanon, particularly after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and the 1970 Black September massacre in Jordan’s refugee camps. Now, UNRWA-Lebanon serves approximately 425,000 Palestinian refugees-ten percent of Lebanon’s population-who are scattered throughout twelve refugee camps. The majority of refugees in Lebanon originate from Northern Palestine and come from the same villages through extended family migration, which helps preserve Palestinian culture and traditions. Palestinian identity in Lebanon remains relatively intact and almost all advocate for their “right of return” under UN Resolution 194. However, due to Israel’s defiance of the Resolution, Palestinian refugees are scattered throughout Arab host states in refugee camps awaiting their rightful return.

Relative to other Arab host countries, Palestinian refugees in Lebanon face the most social and civic discrimination. Palestinians are almost completely dependant-by necessity-on UNRWA for their livelihood. In addition, because Lebanon does not grant Palestinians nearly as many rights as Jordan or Syria, the demands and pressure on UNRWA-Lebanon is greater because Palestinians cannot be self-sufficient but instead more reliant.

Who are Palestine Refugees?

Under UNRWA’s operational definition, Palestine refugees are people whose normal place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948, who lost both their homes and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli hostilities. Nevertheless, it is important to note that Palestinians have had a rich and flourishing history and culture both before the nakbah and since then. Palestinians are frequently viewed within the context of hostilities and conflict with Israelis, however, as for every group of oppressed and marginalized people, there is a beautiful and often forgotten aspect of their heritage and culture that must be remembered, acknowledged, and celebrated.

UNRWA’s services are available to all those living in its area of operations who meet its definition, who are registered with the Agency, and who need assistance. The descendants of the original Palestine refugees are also eligible for registration. The Agency responded to the needs of about 750,000 Palestine refugees in 1949, and today, 4.7 million Palestine refugees are eligible for UNRWA services.

Where do Palestine Refugees live?

One-third of the registered Palestine refugees, nearly 1.4 million, live in 58 recognized refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, the Syrian Arab Republic, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem.

A Camp, according to UNRWA’s working definition, is a plot of land placed at the disposal of UNRWA by the host government to accommodate Palestine refugees and to set up facilities to cater to their needs. Areas not designated as such are not considered camps. However, UNRWA also maintains schools and health and distribution centers in areas outside camps where Palestine refugees are concentrated, such as Yarmouk near Damascus, in Syria, for example.

The plots of land on which camps are set up are either state land or, in most cases, land leased by the host government from local landowners. This means that the refugees in camps do not “own” the land on which their shelters are built, but have the right to “use” the land as residence.

Socio-economic conditions in the camps are generally poor, with high population density, cramped living conditions and inadequate basic infrastructure such as roads and sewers.

UNRWA’s Responsibility

UNRWA’s responsibility in the camps is limited to providing services. The Agency does not own, administer or police the camps, as this is the responsibility of the host country’s authorities.

UNRWA has a “camp services office” in each camp, where the residents visit to update their records or to raise issues to the Camp Services Officer (CSO). The CSO, in turn, refers refugee concerns and petitions to the respective UNRWA administration.

LEAP Program

LEAP is a grassroots volunteer program established to provide educational empowerment projects to support the intellectual growth and creative curiosity of refugee-youth in Lebanon so they may become agents of change. As an apolitical humanitarian US-based organization, LEAP aims to raise awareness about the plight of Palestinian refugees in general, but particularly in Lebanon, to American volunteers.

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