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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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    I am not sure I follow your thinking on the “right to return”. Legal texts on refugees (whether international treaties or national legislation) typically provide that a person ceases to be a refugee when she returns to her country of origin or avails herself of its protection. It might not exactly be formulated as a right but the expectation is there. – Relaxed Sep 1 '15 at 13:26
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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 '15 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 '15 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 '15 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 – David Herskovics Sep 1 '15 at 20:50
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I don't think the Palestinians have a special status in the general sense. People born in refugee camps are usually counted as refugees. 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

So using this definition most of the Palestinian refugees, who have not acquired a new nationality, would be counted as refugees.

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.

In principle, 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 very hard to implement in most 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. – newenglander May 18 '17 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. – Björn Lindqvist May 18 '17 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". – newenglander May 18 '17 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. – Björn Lindqvist May 18 '17 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 – newenglander May 19 '17 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.

  • Sources for "more strict rules" and for "It has been asserted" would improve this answer. – Evargalo Feb 16 '18 at 8:20
  • One of the "strict rules" is the heritability of refugee status not afforded by unhcr. – Clint Eastwood Feb 16 '18 at 12:38
  • That claim might very well be right, but still needs to be supported by sources. – Evargalo Feb 19 '18 at 15:32

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