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The UN body dedicated to protect and help the refugees all around the world is the UNHCR - except for the Palestinian refugees who are the sole group to have their own, specially dedicated UN body: the UNWRA. No other group has such. Also, definition of refugee used by UNWRA is broader than the one used by UNHCR and they also have a different mandate (UNHCR is to help integrate the refugees in their current country which means that there is no "right to return" principle for any other group of refugees except for Palestinians)

From the wiki page of UNWRA:

"UNRWA is the only agency dedicated to helping refugees from a specific region or conflict and is separate from UNHCR. Formed in 1950, UNHCR is the UN main Refugee Agency, which is responsible for aiding other refugees all over the world. UNHCR, unlike UNRWA, has a specific mandate to aid its refugees to eliminate their refugee status by local integration in current country, resettlement in a third country or repatriation when possible. UNRWA allows refugee status to be inherited by descendants."

Why are the Paletinian "refugees" treated so specially?

("" is because the vast majority of them wouldn't be counted as refugees according to the Geneva Convention used to define who is a refugee in the case of any other group)

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    One difference with Palestinians is that other refugees are generally citizens of their country of origin so their right to live there is already enshrined in general human rights texts (cf. article 13 of the UDHR). Not so with Palestinians, whom Israel does not recognises as citizens.
    – Relaxed
    Sep 1, 2015 at 13:27
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    UNWRA was created in 1949, to respond to a specific crisis, before any generic system existed (including the UNHCR, which as you note was only created in 1950). I don't have any positive evidence that this is the only reason but that seems to readily explain why it's separate.
    – Relaxed
    Sep 1, 2015 at 13:30
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    Also, beside all historical and legal issues, the “right to return” isn't usually controversial. In practice, it's the possibility to remain in the country where you took refuge once your country of origin stabilises a little that has been more sensitive. Some countries (e.g. Germany) have expelled thousands of (former) refugees who didn't really wish to return, e.g. from/to Yugoslavia.
    – Relaxed
    Sep 1, 2015 at 13:34
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    @Relaxed after WW2 millions of ethnic Germans were expelled from their Eastern European country of origin which naturally means their citizenship being revoked. Many ethnic Hungarians in Czechoslovakia were stripped of their citizenship by the Benes decrees and forced out of the country. Just two examples from my local region where the refugees were not citizens of their country of origin. Or looking for examples at other ex-colonies becoming independent resulting in war you will find numerous other examples just like the Palestinians (like India-Pakistan). Except they were not treated special Sep 1, 2015 at 20:50
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    @Relaxed If the UN body responsible for the refugees (apart from Palestinians) is mandated to help them resettle in the current country or a third country then you can't really speak about expectation of returning them to their country of origin. Nor with the fact that in any other group's case the descendants are not regarded as refugees so there is no possibility of passing several generations in refugee status "expecting" to return. There was no expectation of return for the expelled Germans, Hungarians, Jews (from Arab countries) or any other group of refugees Sep 1, 2015 at 21:04

2 Answers 2

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The Palestinians refugees don't have any special status. The main claim is that Palestinian refugees would be unique in that their refugee status is passed along to their children. While widespread, the claim is wholly untrue. People born in refugee camps are themselves counted as refugees. For example, the Nakivale refugee camp in Uganda was established in 1958 for Rwandan refugees and the people living there are still tended to by the UNHCR.

The Geneva Conventions definition of refugee:

A. For the purposes of the present Convention, the term “refugee” shall apply to any person who: As a result of events occurring before 1 January 1951 and owing to wellfounded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country

And

C. This Convention shall cease to apply to any person falling under the terms of section A if:

  • (1) He has voluntarily re-availed himself of the protection of the country of his nationality; or
  • (2) Having lost his nationality, he has voluntarily re-acquired it; or
  • (3) He has acquired a new nationality, and enjoys the protection of the country of his new nationality; or

Using this definition most of the Palestinian refugees, who have not acquired a new nationality, would be counted as refugees. This is explained well on the UN's website:

Descendants of refugees retain refugee status

Under international law and the principle of family unity, the children of refugees and their descendants are also considered refugees until a durable solution is found. Both UNRWA and UNHCR recognize descendants as refugees on this basis, a practice that has been widely accepted by the international community, including both donors and refugee hosting countries.

Palestine refugees are not distinct from other protracted refugee situations such as those from Afghanistan or Somalia, where there are multiple generations of refugees, considered by UNHCR as refugees and supported as such. Protracted refugee situations are the result of the failure to find political solutions to their underlying political crises.

It is stated even more explicitly on UNRWA's website:

Is the transfer of refugee status to descendants unique to UNRWA?

No. Under international law and the principle of family unity, the children of refugees and their descendants are also considered refugees until a durable solution is found. As stated by the United Nations,this principle applies to all refugees and both UNRWA and UNHCR have recognized descendants as refugees on this basis.

The principle of family unity is further described in UNHCR's Handbook on Procedures and Criteria for Determining Refugee Status under the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees:

  1. If the head of a family meets the criteria of the definition, his dependants are normally granted refugee status according to the principle of family unity. It is obvious, however, that formal refugee status should not be granted to a dependant if this is incompatible with his personal legal status. Thus, a dependant member of a refugee family may be a national of the country of asylum or of another country, and may enjoy that country's protection. To grant him refugee status in such circumstances would not be called for.

The reason UNRWA exists is, as has been pointed out in the comments, because it was founded before UNHCR existed. This was the first big war and refugee crisis after the UN was founded and it certainly was a feeling that it should solve the crisis, especially as the UN had been involved in the creation of the State of Israel from the beginning. With the failed Partition Plan and all that.

There is a right of return for all refugees because conventions and legal texts are clear that a persons rights have been violated when that person is driven from or prevented from returning to his or her home. But that right of course has been hard to implement in many conflicts around the world.

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    Your example of a refugee camp opened in the 1950s is not an example of refugee status being passed on to the next generation, but simply the fact that there are still refugees from other conflicts coming to the country. According to the link you provided, the majority of the residents are from the DRC, which as you probably well know has been ravaged by war for decades. May 18, 2017 at 17:32
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    The refugee population in Nakivale has arrived in waves since the 50's and many have stayed for decades. People who are born to refugees are routinely registered with the UNHCR as refugees. It is a fairly non-controversial example of refugee status "being passed on to the next generation." Se f.e this interview study with refugees born in Nakivale. May 18, 2017 at 18:20
  • Still see no example in the linked interview about refugee status being inherited. Those born in the camp are referred to as "nationals". May 18, 2017 at 19:38
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    Perhaps you can see this article instead?: "These mothers are seeking a precious document that would grant refugee status for their babies and provide some security in a land hundreds of miles away from home. In Nakivale, waiting has become a routine for the estimated 72,000 refugees currently located here." It really is standard operating procedure to register children of refugees as refugees. May 18, 2017 at 20:27
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    It's not clear from the story if the babies were born in the conflict area or in the refugee camp. And even if one government agency in one country is giving refugee status to non-refugees, it doesn't mean that other countries are required to do this. This Wikipedia section contains interesting (though without citations) information on the matter: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Refugee#Legal_definition May 19, 2017 at 8:29
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Palestinian Refugees effectively have special status because the UN agency that deals with them (UNRWA) was established before the broader agency that handles other refugees (UNHCR).

UNHCR chose more strict rules for establishing who counts as a refugee.

It has been asserted that the agencies were not combined (and some Palestinian Refugees would no longer be counted) due to Anti-Semitism, but it could very well be due to banal reasons.

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    Sources for "more strict rules" and for "It has been asserted" would improve this answer.
    – Evargalo
    Feb 16, 2018 at 8:20
  • One of the "strict rules" is the heritability of refugee status not afforded by unhcr. Feb 16, 2018 at 12:38
  • That claim might very well be right, but still needs to be supported by sources.
    – Evargalo
    Feb 19, 2018 at 15:32
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    I've recently read that from the late 1950s the refugees and the Arab states insisted on UNRWA remaining a separate agency in order to support their vision of a Palestinian state which would replace Israel; and the West agreed to these demands in the hope of preventing Soviet influence in the Middle East.
    – Zev Spitz
    Jul 7, 2021 at 12:02

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