A catch 22. Palestinian refugees and the politics of humanitarianism

By Kjersti Berg
Submitted to Session P4348 (Regimes for handling the Palestinians, 2016 Annual Meeting
Arab-Israeli Conflict;
LCD Projector without Audio;
A catch 22. Palestinian refugees and the politics of humanitarianism

Refugee camps are normally intended to provide a temporary shelter for refugees. In the Palestinian case, after more than 60 years, 58 official refugee camps still exist. The longevity of encampment – and the refugee question – is related to the absence of a solution to the refugee problem created during the war over Palestine in 1948, and the establishment of the state of Israel. In this context the United Nations Relief and Works Agency in the Near East (UNRWA) was established in 1949 with a temporary humanitarian mandate to assist and rehabilitate the refugees. This paper is based on my PhD dissertation, and unique access to UNRWA’s own archives in Amman, Jordan.

The establishment of UNRWA shifted the Palestinian refugee issue from the political issue of return to the humanitarian issue of poverty. This was a highly political turn, as UNRWA’s mandate would be limited to humanitarian assistance, and there was no one organization with a active mandate to search for political solutions. Over the years, this setup has led to a status quo of humanitarian assistance, that all, except the refugees, have been living rather well with. Donors work under the assumption that improved living conditions will help the efforts for a political outcome. Simultaneously, Palestinian refugees have been presented as an obstacle to peace, and refugees’ genuine participation in negotiations has been denied.

UNWRA is in a catch 22 of long-term humanitarian assistance. While its assistance is needed, and has made important improvements, it will not lead to a just solution to the refugee situation. One paradox of refugee relief is that the urgent needs of survival may over time help accommodate a status quo. In this paper I discuss consequences of long-term humanitarian assistance through UNRWA with a view to its practices and relations to Palestinian refugees and refugee camps. I discuss consequences of long-term humanitarian assistance through UNRWA. What are the political implications of such humanitarian aid? Has it lessened the needs for political solutions or affected future solutions?