I realize it’s been a busy week, what with ISIS beheading journalists, Russia invading Ukraine, and deadliest of all (to quote the inimitable Sultan Knish), Israel threatening to build new houses. But it’s nevertheless shocking that one UN announcement last week should have attracted so little international attention: Last Friday, the number of registered Syrian refugees topped the 3 million mark. And those are just the ones who have made it out of Syria and registered with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. The agency estimates that another 6.5 million are internally displaced, bringing the total number of displaced Syrians to almost half the country’s population.
But buried about halfway through the announcement is a sentence that goes a long way toward explaining the international apathy: “Syrians are now the world’s largest refugee population under UNHCR care, second only in number to the decades-long Palestinian crisis.” In other words, even as it tries to solicit aid for distressed Syrians, the UN itself is telling people that another refugee crisis is even greater, and hence presumably more deserving of their money and attention. And it has peddled this nonsensical claim so successfully, for so long, that it now finds itself unable to meet the needs of a real crisis: The $2 billion it’s desperately seeking to keep Syrian refugees alive through the upcoming winter has already been squandered on five million faux refugees, most of whom don’t need it at all.
Of course, there are real Palestinian refugees–primarily the 500,000 in Syria, whose plight, like that of other Syrians, is dire. Moreover, though most of the Palestinians temporarily displaced by the Hamas-Israel war are now returning home, Gaza will need reconstruction aid.
But of the 5 million Palestinians registered as “refugees” with their own private UN agency, UNRWA, most aren’t displaced in any fashion: They have lived in the same places for decades, and have houses, jobs, extended families, friends, schools, health care, and all the other accoutrements of normal life. Moreover, most live in places that, by Mideast standards, are exceptionally safe and stable, including 2.1 million in Jordan and 750,000 in the West Bank.
Nevertheless, UNRWA’s staff and budget dwarfs that of UNHCR. It has 30,000 employees to deal with 5 million “refugees,” while UNHCR has 8,600 to handle 10.5 million refugees plus more than twice as many other “people of concern,” including 17.7 million internally displaced. UNRWA’s regular budget is $1 billion a year, bolstered by periodic emergency appeals ($300 million in 2013); UNHCR had a regular budget of $4 billion plus $1.3 billion in emergency appeals as of mid-2013, but for a population seven times as large–35.8 million “people of concern.”
Thus UNRWA has one staffer for every 167 Palestinians while UNHCR has one for every 4,163 non-Palestinians, and UNRWA has $260 for every Palestinian while UNHCR has $148 for every non-Palestinian. Yet the needs of the people UNHCR cares for–who have lost their homes, their jobs and their entire lives–are incomparably greater than those of the Palestinians, most of whom lead completely normal lives.
Much has been written, correctly, about how UNRWA helps perpetuate the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. But to my mind, the greater outrage is the degree to which UNRWA diverts international money and attention from those who need it desperately–like the Syrian refugees–to those who don’t need it at all, like the many Palestinian “refugees” who became Jordanian citizens decades ago.
And unlike the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, this is a problem the West can easily solve. Western nations provide most of UNRWA’s budget, so all they have to do is reallocate this money–some to UNHCR, and some, at least initially, to Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, and perhaps Lebanon, to cushion the shock of suddenly having to provide health, education, and welfare services to millions of people who currently receive those services from UNRWA.
Then, with five million faux refugees out of the picture, perhaps the real ones will finally get the attention they deserve.
Originally published in Commentary