Sine the 1940s, millions of Palestinians have been living as refugees in areas of the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt) and in surrounding host countries - mostly in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has described their plight as “by far the most protracted and largest of all refugee problems in the world today”. IRIN takes a fresh look at their number and whereabouts.
[This 2010 article was updated on 16 January 2018]
Where do the Palestinians live?
The overwhelming majority of Palestinians live in the Middle East. UNRWA operates in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the occupied Palestinian territory. There are also sizeable numbers of refugees living in Iraq, Egypt and outside the Middle East.
- More than two million Palestinian refugees are registered with UNRWA. Unlike any other host country, Jordan granted Palestinian refugees full citizenship rights, except for 120,000 people who originally came from the Gaza Strip. There are 10 official and three unofficial refugee camps in Jordan. UNRWA’s operations in Jordan
- Around 450,000 Palestinian refugees are registered with UNRWA. Given their condition as stateless, Palestinians in Lebanon are denied many basic rights. For instance, they are barred from around 20 professions and have no access to public social services. Even access to health and educational services is limited, often rendering registered refugees heavily dependent on UNRWA. Around 3,000 Palestinians in Lebanon are not registered with UNRWA and have no other form of identity documents. They are barred from practically every form of assistance, and survive thanks to NGOs. UNRWA’s operations in Lebanon.
- Around 526,000 Palestine refugees are registered with UNRWA.
- There are nine official and three unofficial camps.
- Palestinians enjoy the same rights as the Syrian population, barring citizenship rights.
- UNRWA’s operations in Syria.
- An estimated 1.3 million Palestinians out of Gaza’s population are UNRWA-registered refugees.
- There are eight UNRWA-administered camps in the Gaza Strip.
- As a result of Israel’s occupation since 1967 and an ongoing blockade on the Gaza Strip, the population suffers severe economic problems.
- UNRWA’s activities in the Gaza Strip have been severely restricted by the blockade.
- UNRWA’s operations in Gaza.
- Over 800,000 Palestinians are registered with UNRWA.
- There are 19 overcrowded and poorly serviced camps.
- The ongoing occupation and military checkpoints and closures implemented by the Israeli army put a huge strain on the West Bank economy.
- UNRWA’s operations in the West Bank.
- Palestinians whose forbears were displaced in 1948 but remained within the borders of what is now Israel are estimated to number 335,204 [2010 figure]
- They have the right to Israeli citizenship but are denied the right to return to their home towns or villages.
- (Source: BADIL)
- Palestinians fled to Egypt during the 1948, 1956 and 1967 wars.
- It is estimated that there are up to 50,000 Palestinians in Egypt.
- However, they do not have permanent residency rights, nor can they register as refugees.
- There is no UNRWA presence in Egypt.
(Source: Forced Migration Refugee Studies programme of the American University in Cairo)
- Up until May 2006, UNHCR estimated that 34,000 Palestinians lived in Iraq. Today, only 11,544 UNHCR-registered Palestinian refugees remain.
- Palestinians have been targeted and scores have been killed by militant groups since the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq. As such, many Palestinians who were living in Iraq have suffered forced displacement twice: once from their original homes, and then from their host country.
- Most fleeing Palestinians have sought refuge in neighbouring Syria and Jordan.
UNRWA versus UNHCR
Such is the scale and uniqueness of the Palestinian refugee problem that the UN has one agency for Palestinian refugees in the Levant countries and another for all other refugees across the world.
UNRWA was established by UN General Assembly Resolution 194 in December 1949 “to carry out direct relief and works programmes for Palestine refugees”. UNRWA was set up after 750,000-900,000 mostly Arabs were expelled or fled Palestine during fighting between Arabs and Jews from November 1947 to July 1949. The conflict arose after Resolution 181 of November 1947 recommended the partition of Palestine.
Resolution 194 stated that those “refugees wishing to return to their homes and live in peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss or damage to property”. However, it has never been implemented and Israel has refused to allow the repatriation of Arab refugees, many of whose villages had been destroyed.
More Palestinians were displaced in the wake of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon.
UNRWA began operations on 1 May 1950 and because no solution to the Palestine refugee problem has been forthcoming, the General Assembly has repeatedly renewed UNRWA's mandate..
Over time, UNRWA’s mandate has evolved to focus on four main programmes: education, health, relief and social services, and microfinance. It operates in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in oPt, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.
UNHCR was established on 14 December 1950 to help Europeans displaced by World War II. The following year, the UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees was signed and is the key legal document in defining who is a refugee, their rights and the legal obligations of states.
It then became mandated “to lead and co-ordinate international action to protect refugees and resolve refugee problems worldwide” at the request of a government or the UN itself. UNHCR’s mandate does not extend to the majority of Palestinian refugees because the 1951 UN Refugee Convention excludes assistance to those who receive aid from other UN organs or agencies - UNRWA in this case.
However, Palestinian refugees living outside UNRWA’s geographical scope, such as in Egypt or Iraq, may receive UNHCR assistance.