February 3, 2021 | The Wall Street Journal

The U.N. Refugee Agency With Few Actual Refugees

Less than 5% of five million people deemed ‘Palestinian refugees’ meet the criteria for this status.
February 3, 2021 | The Wall Street Journal

The U.N. Refugee Agency With Few Actual Refugees

Less than 5% of five million people deemed ‘Palestinian refugees’ meet the criteria for this status.

Lost amid President Trump’s unceremonious send-off were a pair of Jan. 14 tweets from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo : Of the more than five million people identified as “Palestinian refugees” by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, fewer than 200,000 meet the criteria for refugee status.

This is a breach of trust by a U.N. agency, but Unrwa is not the only one to blame. One administration after another, Democrat and Republican, enabled Unrwa to perpetuate its fiction. It’s time for a new U.S. policy that promotes regional peace, advances Palestinian human rights and defends the U.S. taxpayer.

History can explain, in part, how this mess was created. In 1948, five Arab armies invaded the fledgling state of Israel but lost. Unrwa was established to care for Arab residents displaced by that conflict. The organization was dedicated solely to Palestinian Arabs—independent of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, which took responsibility for all other world refugee populations.

Unrwa became part of a new Arab narrative: Millions of Palestinians were trapped as refugees, living in destitution and yearning for home. Until these people achieved their “right of return,” the Arab world insisted, the Middle East would never see peace. Meanwhile, Israel absorbed 800,000 Jewish refugees who were exiled from Arab states.

Over time, America somehow allowed itself to become Unrwa’s leading donor. From 1950 to 2018, American taxpayers contributed more than $6 billion, even as legislators from both parties raised concerns about the agency. Employees moonlighted as terrorists. Schools were used to store weapons and launch rockets against Israel. Concerns in Congress mounted over waste, fraud and abuse.

For years, Unrwa stymied congressional investigations into its distribution of textbooks that promote hatred and incitement against Israel and Jews. When the Trump administration suspended funding to Unrwa in 2018, it cited the agency’s textbooks as justification. After repeated denials, the agency’s chief acknowledged recently that Unrwa’s curricula refers to Israel as the “enemy,” teaches math by counting “martyred” terrorists, and includes the phrase “Jihad is one of the doors to Paradise” in grammar lessons.

But Unrwa’s corruption runs deeper. The agency today claims 5.6 million people as refugees. That is simply false. There were 800,000 refugees in 1948. How could that number have grown to such an extent while the population in question aged and died?

In 2012, then- Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois tried to answer this question. His amendment to an annual spending bill demanded an estimate of people receiving Unrwa services who were actually displaced by the 1948 war. The Obama administration delivered a classified answer in 2015. The State Department guarded the secret, even during the Trump years—until Mr. Pompeo’s tweets.

“Unrwa is not a refugee agency; it’s estimated <200,000 Arabs displaced in 1948 are still alive and most others are not refugees by any rational criteria,” Mr. Pompeo tweeted. “Taxpayers deserve basic truths: most Palestinians under UNRWA’s jurisdiction aren’t refugees, and UNRWA is a hurdle to peace. America supports peace and Palestinian human rights; UNRWA supports neither. It’s time to end UNRWA’s mandate.”

President Biden reportedly intends to restore funding to the agency. Some questions he needs to answer: Should America support more than five million people through a refugee agency if fewer than 200,000 of them are refugees? Why should the State Department’s refugee bureau oversee Unrwa if the majority of its registry are not refugees?

Since most people registered with Unrwa are citizens or permanent residents of another country—such as Jordan—or currently reside within the borders of a future Palestinian state, Congress should work with the administration to find bilateral solutions. America can still assist the remaining 200,000 refugees while supporting others outside the Unrwa framework.

Remarkably, there are no technical teams from the U.S. Agency for International Development or other federal agencies designing programs, projects, or budgets to help Palestinians registered with Unrwa achieve economic independence. In other words, there are no plans to improve their lives. That needs to change.

American oversight of the U.N. must also change. When the U.S. contributes to U.N. agencies, it often takes a seat on the board to exercise basic oversight. Unrwa, however, has no board of governors and no oversight.

It took more than eight years, but we finally got the truth: Less than 5% of those on Unrwa’s registry are refugees. This means Unrwa is not a refugee agency, but something else entirely. That demands a bipartisan policy to halt the abuse of taxpayer funding.

Mr. Goldberg is a senior adviser and Mr. Schanzer senior vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow them on Twitter @rich_goldberg and @JSchanzer. FDD is a nonpartisan think tank focused on foreign policy and national security issues.


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