Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Middle East: Palestinian refugee factbox - a fresh look at the background to the Palestinian question

A Palestinian refugee living in al-Rashidiye refugee camp near Tyre, in south Lebanon

MADRID, 22 June 2010 (IRIN) - International attention has been focused on the Palestinian question in recent weeks in the wake of Israeli military actions against marine activists trying to deliver aid to the Gaza Strip and recent Israeli moves to ease the blockade. IRIN takes a fresh look at the background.


- 29 November 1947: By approving Resolution 181, the UN General Assembly adopted a plan to partition the 1923-48 British Mandate of Palestine.

- November 1947-July 1949: War in the British Mandate of Palestine led to the flight of over 720,000 Palestinians, according to the UN. Non-UN estimates for the number of refugees displaced in 1948 range from 400,000 to almost one million.

- 9 April 1948: The Deir Yassin massacre just outside Jerusalem in which over 100 Palestinians were killed, shocked civilian Palestinian populations throughout the British Mandate of Palestine

Fast facts
The total number of displaced Palestinians worldwide is 7.1 million, including:
6.6 million refugees, and
427,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs)
67 percent of all Palestinians worldwide are refugees or IDPs
4,766,670 refugees registered with the UNRWA
UNRWA definition of Palestinian refugees: “People whose normal place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948, who lost both their homes and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict.” As a rule, those displaced after 1948 do not qualify for UNRWA assistance
More than one million refugees whose displacement dates back to 1947-1948 are not registered with UNRWA
340,016 Palestinians are registered with UNHCR
- 11 December 1948: By issuing Resolution 194, the UN General Assembly recognized the Palestinian refugees’ right to return to their homes. To date, this resolution has not been implemented.

- 14 May 1948 - July 1949: Hours after British withdrawal from the British Mandate of Palestine on 14 May 1948, the state of Israel was declared on 78 percent of that territory. Following the Arab rejection of the UN Partition Plan to divide Palestine between Jews and Arabs, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Iraq invaded Israel.

- July 1949: Israel reached armistice agreements with Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt.

- 1 May 1950: UNRWA began its field operations.

- 5-10 June 1967: War broke out between Israel and Egypt, Syria and Jordan. As a result of the conflict, an additional 100,000-300,000 Palestinians became displaced.

- 1967-present day: Estimates vary greatly on the annual rate of new displacements, but Palestinian sources cite up to 20,000 newly displaced persons per year.

Reasons for new displacement include Israel’s construction of a separation barrier in the West Bank and Jerusalem, the construction of illegal Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, the revocation of residency rights and house demolitions.

(Sources: BADIL, UNRWA, Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs and The Institute for Middle East Understanding)

COUNTRY BY COUNTRY: 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. See Google map of where UNRWA works.


  • Around 1.9 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
  • Click here for more information on UNRWA’s operations in Jordan
    (Source: UNRWA)


  • Around 425,000 Palestinian refugees are registered with UNRWA
  • There are 12 official refugee camps
  • 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.
  • Click here for more information on UNRWA’s operations in Lebanon.
    (Sources: UNRWA, Danish Refugee Council)


  • Around 427,000 Palestinian 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.
  • Click here for more information on UNRWA’s operations in Syria.
    (Source: UNRWA)


  • An estimated 1.1 million Palestinians out of Gaza’s 1.5 million 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.
  • Military conflict, including Israel’s 23-day military offensive starting 27 December 2008, has led to the frequent destruction of homes and other infrastructure in Gaza, much of which has not been rebuilt because of the blockade.
  • Click here for more information on UNRWA’s operations in Gaza.
    (Source: UNRWA)

West Bank

  • 779,000 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.
  • Click here for more information on UNRWA’s operations in the West Bank.
    (Source: UNRWA)


  • Palestinians whose forbears were displaced in 1948 but remained within the borders of what is now Israel are estimated to number 335,204.
  • 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.
    (Source: UNHCR)


Such is the scale and uniqueness of the Palestinian refugee problem that the UN has one agency for Palestinian refugees alone and another for all other refugees across the world.

After the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict, the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) was established by the UN General Assembly on 8 December 1949 “to carry out direct relief and works programmes for Palestine refugees”.

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, most recently extending it until 30 June 2011.

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) was established on 14 December 1950 to help Europeans displaced by World War II. It is mandated to “to lead and co-ordinate international action to protect refugees and resolve refugee problems worldwide”.

The BADIL Resource Centre for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights describes the situation of Palestinian refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) as “the largest and longest-standing case of displaced persons in the world today.”

Disclaimer:This material comes to you via IRIN, the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations or its Member States.
Photo: Copyright IRIN