Lawrence Solomon: The UN’s phoney refugees

(August 14, 2014) In the up-is-down bizarro world of UNRWA, the number of refugees only grows and grows.

This article, by Lawrence Solomon, first appeared in the National Post

RIDDLE: You’re an American citizen, born and raised in the U.S., who has never set foot outside your country. You are also a refugee from a faraway land. What is the explanation?

HINT: Your parents and grandparents are also Americans, and they are also refugees.

ANOTHER HINT: Your children, born to you and your American spouse, are also refugees, and when they are old enough to have children of their own, their children will also be refugees.

This is not a trick question. Such refugees exist on this planet, not only in the U.S. but also in Canada and other countries. In fact, millions of refugees exist on this planet who have never set foot in the place from which they are deemed to have fled. But there’s only one place on this planet that these millions can have come from — Israel and the Palestinian territories — and there’s only one “people” on this planet who, for themselves and their children, can have this refugee status in perpetuity — Palestinians.

This bizarro alternate world is the creation of the United Nations, which established the United Nations Relief and Aid Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, or UNRWA for short. UNRWA should not be confused with the UN agency for real refugees, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, which deals with wrenching horrors such as those facing the desperate Christians, Yazidis and other minorities fleeing ISIS.

Unlike the UN’s real refugee agency, which defines a refugee as someone fleeing “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion,” UNRWA’s definition inflates the numbers by also including economic refugees — people who left either Israel or the Palestinian territories for economic reasons after war broke out between Israel and Arab states in 1948. Anyone who had lived in Israel or the Palestinian territories from 1946 to 1948 could qualify as a refugee.

While the UN’s agency for real refugees ends refugee status for people by overseeing their successful resettlement in new lands where they can make new lives for themselves, in this up-is-down bizarro world of UNRWA, the number of refugees only grows and grows, from an estimated 750,000 in 1948 to 7 million today. That’s because UNRWA implicitly sees a “right of return” as its goal — the ability of all Palestinian refugees to return to Israel proper. By 2030, the number of Palestinian refugees is expected to grow to 8.5 million and by 2060 to 20 million. Had the UN’s real refugee agency been doing the counting, the number of Palestinian refugees would have dwindled to perhaps 50,000 today, less than 1% of the claimed number. Had the UN’s real refugee agency been in charge of resettlement, there would be virtually no Palestinian refugees left today because, like other refugees, over time they would have been successfully resettled.

UNRWA’s bizarro world extends to its 30,000 employees, almost all of whom are Palestinians, making it the largest employer in the West Bank and Gaza apart from the government and a main source of political patronage. It is, in effect, not an independent UN agency but an organ of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and of Hamas in Gaza. Not surprisingly, UNRWA facilities long ago became terrorist bases, according to the Jordan-based Journal of Palestine Studies. This view is supported by James Lindsay, a former legal advisor and general counsel to UNRWA, and former UNRWA Commissioner Peter Hansen, who told CBC “I am sure that there are Hamas members on the UNRWA payroll ” and “I don’t see that as a crime.”

Such candid comments about Hamas’s role in Gaza’s UNRWA facilities explain why UNWRA schools become warehouses for rockets, why UNRWA science teachers moonlight making rockets, why UNRWA hospitals double as command centres for terrorist attacks, and why UNRWA houses refugees in dense areas, as cannon fodder: Rather than moving refugees out of harm’s way, as the UN’s real refugee agency does, UNRWA specializes in moving them into harm’s way.

In part because of UNRWA’s terrorist activities, members of the U.S. Congress — UNRWA’s largest financier — threatened to cut it off from funding. Two years ago, Canada actually did stop funding UNRWA.

Although many Palestinian “refugees” live in the West — the U.S. has an estimated 250,000, Canada 50,000 — most Palestinians live in the Middle East in poor conditions, about one-third of them in UNRWA-run refugee camps. Instead of focusing on the needs of the original, true refugees, as the UN’s real refugee agency did with refugees from all other parts of the world, UNRWA has for decades kept Palestinian refugees, and now their descendants, in a state of limbo, pawns in a political game that prevents millions of Palestinians from building productive new lives for themselves.

FINAL RIDDLE: Who benefits most from UNRWA’s existence?

(a) Average Palestinians, who face no realistic prospect of a rewarding life in UNRWA refugee camps, or

(b) The next generation of Palestinians, who are indoctrinated at UNWRA schools to hate their Jewish neighbours, and encouraged to make their careers as suicide bombers, or

c)  Hamas and other Palestinian radicals, who through UNRWA’s calculus can nurture the fiction of millions of Palestinian refugees, nursing their grievances to keep the radicals in control

This last riddle isn’t hard to figure.

Lawrence Solomon is executive director of the Urban Renaissance Institute and a member of the advisory board of StandWithUs Canada. Email:

Third in a series. For the second column, see: Playing make-believe over Gaza.


About Lawrence Solomon

Lawrence Solomon is one of Canada's leading environmentalists. His book, The Conserver Solution (Doubleday) popularized the Conserver Society concept in the late 1970s and became the manual for those interested in incorporating environmental factors into economic life. An advisor to President Jimmy Carter's Task Force on the Global Environment (the Global 2000 Report) in the late 1970's, he has since been at the forefront of movements to reform foreign aid, stop nuclear power expansion and adopt toll roads. Mr. Solomon is a founder and managing director of Energy Probe Research Foundation and the executive director of its Energy Probe and Urban Renaissance Institute divisions. He has been a columnist for The Globe and Mail, a contributor to the Wall Street Journal, the editor and publisher of the award-winning The Next City magazine, and the author or co-author of seven books, most recently The Deniers, a #1 environmental best-seller in both Canada and the U.S. .
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