Why UNRWA’s refugee count is so high

BEIRUT: A disparity between the results of Lebanon’s first official census of Palestinian refugees, which registered just 174,422 individuals in the country, and the 469,331 refugees registered with UNRWA has highlighted a long-standing misconception about the U.N. agency’s registration system. “There has been a wrong interpretation of UNRWA’s registration figures [for a long time],” Jalal al-Husseini, associate researcher at the French Institute for the Near East in Amman, told The Daily Star.

“The only population that is really closely documented are those who still interact with UNRWA [field offices]. These are refugees benefiting from their social support and services. Their whereabouts are known and well-documented. Also, let us not forget that registration is wholly voluntary.”

Focusing on the status of Palestinian refugees, Husseini has closely worked with UNRWA throughout the region, writing on the agency for years. In 2004, he began conducting research for a study with the Geneva-based Graduate Institute on the living conditions of refugees registered with UNRWA in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

“In Jordan, the West Bank, Gaza and Syria, [the research] was quite easy. This was not the case in Lebanon. We had so many problems because many of those from the registration list were untraceable. Many had left for abroad but of course were still registered.”

UNRWA’s figure of Palestinian refugees registered in Lebanon has widely been cited by local and international media given the lack of credible competing information.

However, a further reading into how the number is generated clearly shows it has not been an accurate representation of Palestinians in Lebanon for some time.

“UNRWA has never lied; there are about 450,000 registered refugees, but this has never meant they were always in Lebanon. There has been laziness to correctly understand this figure and registration records,” Husseini said.

“The Lebanese government both promotes UNRWA and the [return] of Palestinian refugees,” he said. “So for a matter of convenience, many have just chosen to use that [high] number to estimate the population in the country.”

Huda Samra, spokesperson for UNRWA in Lebanon, corroborated with The Daily Star that refugees were only deregistered from the agency if they were reported as deceased. “We do not deregister registered refugees who may have moved outside Lebanon,” she said.

“This registration … is used to determine eligibility for services in Lebanon. Even though they are not eligible for our services outside Lebanon, if they move back, they may be. Departure from Lebanon does not affect [registration status] or their status as Palestine refugees.”

Husseini noted that this has largely benefited Palestinians who moved abroad in the Arab world outside UNRWA’s purview, and were not guaranteed stability.

“Many Palestinians registered with UNRWA were living in Kuwait for decades. When they were expelled in 1991 following the Iraqi invasion, they were able to go back to Jordan, Lebanon and Syria and revive their registration,” he said.

“So no one has an interest in giving up their registration because you never know what’s going to happen in your new country of residence.”

However, those who were able to find refuge in Europe were less likely to use this to their advantage, as their rights were more likely to be secured, Husseini added.

In lieu of a headcount, UNRWA’s registration system in all active countries more resembles a consulate in which any eligible Palestinian can obtain papers that officially qualify them as a refugee, no matter their place of residence. Registration also serves as documentation for those who may be entitled to future compensation or restitution.

Aage Tiltnes, research director at the Fafo Foundation, confirmed that in his extensive work on Palestinian refugees, he had come across cases of UNRWA registrees who had no connection to the country of registration.

“I have personally met individuals who have told me they know they are in UNRWA registers although they’ve been born abroad and have never lived in the actual country,” he said.

Samra added that UNRWA uses a separate set of publicized figures determining the number of individuals using their educational, health and assistance services.

The sum of individuals attending UNRWA’s schools and vocational centers, obtaining health care, and receiving food assistance amounts to 259,000 refugees in Lebanon. However, users can be double-counted in these categories and some Palestinians in Lebanon may not take advantage of UNRWA services at all. The number would also include Palestinian refugees from Syria who have fled the war to Lebanon.

Husseini said that the disregard for the second set of numbers was largely a mix of misunderstanding and laziness.

Tarek Mitri, director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University in Beirut, previously told The Daily Star that political agendas are also largely to blame.

“People have all kinds of conspiracy theories about the [number of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon],” he said. “Much of the focus is frankly sectarian. It speaks about Lebanon’s existential threat of refugees who are changing the character of the country. But those who know the way sectarian language is used can see through this.”

The number of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon continues to be a contentious issue wielded to advance political agendas, but the census’ result should begin to put an end to such schemes, Mitri said.

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