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In Between Politics and Humanitarian Agendas: UNRWA and Palestinian Statehood




The United Nations Work and Relief Agency (UNRWA) is the oldest, most-established and perhaps the most successful international humanitarian operation in the world. It was set up as a temporary agency in 1949 to assist displaced Palestinians after the Arab-Israeli hostilities of 1948. Its original mandate was to carry out relief and work programs in cooperation with local governments. Over the years, the UN General Assembly repeatedly renewed UNRWA’s mandate while awaiting resolution of the question of the Palestine refugees. As the situation continued to remain unresolved, UNRWA’s services were extended to include relief, human development and protection of Palestine refugees. Although the agency’s mandate was intended to be temporary, its existence has nonetheless been perpetuated because of the intractability of the Palestine problem. Today, UNRWA’s services reach out to over five million Palestinian refugees, living primarily in the Gaza Strip, West Bank, Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon.

This paper is concerned with the politics of humanitarianism, analyzing how geo-political relations influence the situation at the macro level and how that relates to the principles by which UNRWA is meant be guided.  More specifically, I will analyze UNRWA’s policies and practices through both the humanitarian and political lenses, and the resulting influence on the lives of Palestinian refugees. I will study the trends within the organization, how the mission of the organization is guided by a new brand of humanitarian imperative, and comment on the future of the organization itself. My primary mode of research is the existing body of research referenced throughout this paper as well as an interview conducted with Mr. Lex Takkenberg, current Chief of Ethics Office and previous Deputy Director General at UNRWA.[1]My aim is to investigate the policies and schemas of intervention, their relation to the political agenda, effect on the socioeconomic status of the refugee households and implications on the Palestinian aspirations of statehood.


In the aftermath of 1948 Palestine War (al-Nakba), more than 700,000 Palestinian civilians were displaced from their homeland to become refugees either in cities and towns within what remained of Palestine or in countries outside Palestine[2]. Immediately after the 1948 war,emergency aid was channeled to Palestinians via international agencies and international non-governmental organizations. On 8 December 1949, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) was established by the UN under General Assembly Resolution 302 (IV) to provide assistance, protection and advocacy for Palestinian refugees. UNRWA defined a Palestinian refugee as, “person whose normal residence was Palestine for a minimum of two years before the 1948 Arab-Israeli war and who lost both home and livelihood as a result of the conflict and took refuge in one of the areas which today comprise Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the West Bank and Gaza Strip.” This definition however has evolved over the years, as will be discussed later.


Currently, the total number of refugees who benefit from UNRWA’s services is over five million. UNRWA has been the main provider of basic humanitarian relief and human development services to the Palestinian refugees for more than 60 years. Over the years, the agency has provided services traditionally associated with government ministries in the fields of education, health, and social services, establishing itself almost as a quasi-state institution.[3] In spite of the Palestinian population being one of the highest per capita receivers of aid on a regular basis, the socioeconomic indicators for Palestinian households have not shown much improvement. Among some refugee groups, poverty is rampant, while the livelihoods of others have been taken hostage by the onslaught of war in Arab states. Moreover, the Palestinians remain a state-less population and 65 years latter are arguably no closer to a viable, sustainable solution.

These factors bring into question not only the impact of UNRWA’s work, but its approach to humanitarianism and even its reason for existence. On one hand, the severely under-funded organization has been questioned for the shortcomings of its rigor in providing humanitarian assistance, while on the other, its programs have been regarded as contradictory to the right of return of Palestinians. Only through an analysis of the evolution of UNRWA, its position in the geopolitical arena and scrutiny of its theory and methodology of change, can one attempt to answer these questions.


The Evolution of UNRWA

UNRWA was created by the UN General Assembly as a temporary humanitarian agency in response to the urgent problem of the Palestinian refugees. It is widely believed that UNRWA may have been created because of a misperception that the United Nations was responsible for the flight of the refugees from Palestine.[4] Hence, the General Assembly accepted the Palestinians refugees under its wards, until the umbrella of its protective agencies was no longer needed.Because UNRWA was created as an autonomous UN agency, directly accountable to the General Assembly and not incorporated as an international treaty, its accountability system has been flawed from the very beginning. Unlike UNICEF or UNHCR, the two welfare agencies which focus on formulating and coordinating programs, UNRWA executes its programs and has been the second largest employer in its field of operation.[5]The agency’s structure allows it broad freedom of action, making it capable of engaging in commercial transactions and establishing legally defined relations with governments, other international organizations, and employees.


In 1949, UNRWA served between 330,000 and 500,000 refugees. Today, this number has grown to over five million[6]. While initially UNRWA had a legal reason for existence, after the numerous efforts to settle the Israeli-Arab conflict, the UN replaced its initial legalistic approach with a humanitarian one. The 1967 conflict and the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip since then created new realities – there was an unexpected increase in the number of refugees and human rights became the new focus of attention.[7] UNRWA’s public works plan (to create permanent employment and build essential infrastructures in the camps) failed shortly due to resistance from both refugees and host country governments. Following this, there was a shift in focus to education, with health care and relief as second and third priorities. The intifada of 1987-1993 provided the next occasion for UNRWA to be called upon to implement “passive” protection activities in relation to the Palestine refugees.  The UN Secretary General submitted a report to the Security Council in which was mentioned four principal means by which the protection of the Palestinian people in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT), including the refugees, could be secured: physical protection, legal protection, protection by means of general assistance and protection by publicity. UNRWA’s role was seemed primarily to provide general assistance while creating awareness of the situation. The Madrid and Oslo peace frameworks provided new hope for a meaningful solution, and redefined the role that UNRWA could play in it. The UN General Assembly noted that UNRWA should work within the framework of strengthened cooperation with host countries and the Palestinian Authority to make a pivotal contribution towards economic and social stability of the occupied territories. This endorsed UNRWA’s Peace Implementation Program designed to improve infrastructure and services for the refugees and in the camps in the OPT.


UNRWA remains unique in the UN system as an operational body whose primary relationship is with the General Assembly. It was intended as a temporary organization that would provide emergency relief to the Palestine refugees alongside other UN mechanisms that were designed to address the political issues in their entirety. The failure of the UN mechanisms designed to handle political issues of the Palestine problem has forced UNRWA to metamorphose into an all-purpose vehicle. The evolving contours of its mandate have reflected this. However, at its core, UNRWA’s mandate continues to be the provision of essential humanitarian services and the empowerment of the refugees through development of their human capital until there is a just solution to the refugee problem[8].

The Humanitarian Imperative and New Humanitarianism

Humanitarian action is defined as “International attempts to help victims through the provision of relief and the protection of their human rights”.[9] There is however an ethical framework that directs humanitarian work through the humanitarian principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence as defined bellow.[10]

Humanity Human suffering must be addressed wherever it is found. The purpose of humanitarian action is to protect life and health and ensure respect for human beings.
Neutrality Humanitarian actors must not take sides in hostilities or engage in controversies of a political, racial, religious or ideological nature.
Impartiality Humanitarian action must be carried out on the basis of need alone, giving priority to the most urgent cases of distress and making no distinctions on the basis of nationality, race, gender, religious belief, class or political opinions.
Independence Humanitarian action must be autonomous from the political, economic, military or other objectives that any actor may hold with regard to areas where humanitarian action is being implemented.

Table 1: UNOCHA Humanitarian Principles



Humanitarian response has always been molded by politics, although this relationship is constantly evolving and depends on the geopolitical context. As a UN mandated humanitarian organization, UNRWA is bound by these UNOCHA humanitarian principles. While in theory, the agency strives towards these principles, geopolitics, funding, conflict and internal disagreements have had major implications on the practice of these principles. Many scholars have argued that “humanitarian intervention is increasingly becoming an integral part of western governments’ strategy to transform conflict, decrease violence and set the stage for liberal development”.[11] This changing role of humanitarian aid is often termed ‘New Humanitarianism’, and is seen as “an overt politicization of aid’’.[12]  UNRWA’s directive to uphold the humanitarian principles can be in direct conflict to the foreign policy interests of governments, many of which are its primary donors. This is particularly true in areas of conflict such as Gaza and more recently in Syria. Palestinian refugees from Syria have been severely affected by the ongoing armed conflict, with virtually all of their residential areas experiencing armed engagements or the use of heavy weapons. UNRWA’s humanitarian initiatives for the 540,000 Palestine refugees in Syria has been at the mercy of the conflicting rebels and pro-Assad forces. Thousands of refugees have been stranded in camps that have been utilized as militant strongholds. This has led the Syrian government forces to lay siege on camps such as Yarmouk on the outskirts of Damascus, obstructing the delivery of aid by UNRWA for months at a time. Once again, the humanitarian imperative has come secondary to political interests.

Moreover, the international donor assistance community has continued to use disciplinary conditionality aimed at producing desired political and social change. This new-humanitarianism becomes vulnerable when it is financially dependent on donor countries with political interests. UNRWA must consider alternative sources and vehicles of funding in order to ensure that the humanitarian principles of independency is upheld.

One of the main debates about humanitarianism is whether it should be a rights-based approach or needs-based approach. One of the main proponents of grounding humanitarian action in rights and laws, Hugo Slim sees a rights-based approach to humanitarianism as giving it an integrated moral, political and legal framework to affirm universal human values.[13]  I think that rights and needs go hand-in-hand and there needs to be a more holistic reasoning behind the operations of UNRWA. UNRWA must defend the rights of Palestinians to sustenance and protection, while upholding the principles of humanitarianism needed to ensure that political justification will not be used to withhold aid and violate these rights.


Political Flow of Aid

While the non-political character of UNRWA’s mandate remains unchanged on paper, its assistance has gradually acquired an exceedingly political dimension that has become embedded in the Palestinian nation-building process. This has been primarily due to the evolution of the political context in which UNRWA operates, namely the rise of the Palestinian national movement and the subsequent manifestation of a Palestinian national identity among the refugee communities. As Lex Takkenberg, current Chief of Ethics Office and previous Deputy Director General at UNRWA, explains, “UNRWA was created as a humanitarian agency with a political agenda. Although politics exists in the paperwork, it has been left dormant since the early 60s. UNRWA’s humanitarian mandate has not changed. UNRWA, unlike the UNHCR does not have a statement in its mandate that asks to seek for a durable solution. However, UNRWA has a duty to advocate for a durable solution”.


The manner in which humanitarian aid and politics interfere in UNRWA’s operations is best demonstrated by two examples. One concerns the Oslo accords, which marked a turning point in donors’ attitude toward Palestinians. Prior to these accords, international donors seemed to be indifferent to the need for strengthening the Palestinian society. However, following the Oslo accords, there was a shift in focus to the reinforcement of civil society institutions in the refugee communities and a gradual move towards empowering the population. By late 1998, the total pledged support was over $4 billion although not all of this was actually delivered.[14] There was a preference for funds to be channeled to support peace and civil society-building projects, and not towards the core budget of UNRWA. Another example of the politicization of aid concerns the flow of international aid as well as the tax revenue collected by Israel, supposedly on behalf of the Palestinian government in the West Bank. Israel uses its control over the tax revenue to apply pressure in the political arena, with devastating effects. For example, in July 2011, Israel delayed the transfer of tax revenue, and international donors (including some Arab countries) failed to fulfil their pledge[15].

UNRWA’s assistance is influenced by geopolitics, and without a strong mandate and support from international entities, its service cannot reach satisfactory levels. UNRWA’s inability to prevent budget cuts and securing sufficient quantities of food aid amidst the current situation of political pressure from Israel and its donors, is a clear sign of the humanitarian agenda being hijacked by a political one. While UNRWA runs massive education and health programs, it still struggles to meet the basic food needs of several refugee camps, particularly those in Syria at the onslaught of the recent crisis.

UNRWA is virtually a non-territorial administration, taking on national governmental responsibilities but does not have any legal jurisdiction over either the territory or its inhabitants. This lack of local autonomy argument has been used by Arab countries and Israel to shift responsibility from them to UNRWA. While UNRWA cannot be subordinated to any sovereign government, no sovereign government would submit to the authority of UNRWA. This has led to UNRWA being used as a political pawn by the Arab countries hosting Palestinian refugees.

Members of the Palestinian delegation to the UN cheer the results of a vote granting Palestine non-voting observer status on November 29, 2012. UN Photo/Rick Bajornas

Members of the Palestinian delegation to the UN cheer the results of a vote granting Palestine non-voting observer status on November 29, 2012. UN Photo/Rick Bajornas

The United States is by far the biggest donor to UNRWA, contributing $294,023,401 in 2013, representing more than 26% of the entire UNRWA budget. The US views UNRWA as a stabilizing force in the Middle East, whose services to the scattered Palestinian refugee population in absence of a solution, prevents social and political upheavals. UNRWA has been expected to avoid political exposure.[16] In order to preserve UNRWA’s ability to provide services to the refugee communities, the organization strives to remain on good terms with all authorities in the region, Arab and Israeli governments, as well as donor countries. UNRWA has abstained from overt cooperation with PLO since this would have led to political controversies. As an organization that is bound by funds originating from countries that have an active political stake in the region, the form and mechanism of delivery of aid by UNRWA is highly politicized.

Arab states have so far officially rejected all schemes of refugee integration, and continue to emphasize UNRWA responsibility for the refugee communities in their territory. The reasons for this seemingly united Arab position are diverse. Jordan remains an exception, granting Jordanian citizenship to the majority of the Palestinian refugees in Jordan. The Lebanese government opposes Palestinian integration, and has repeatedly rejected the implementation of large scale infrastructure projects by UNRWA. Moreover, it was an essential component of PLO’s struggle for national liberation to reject all plans of Palestinian refugee integration. However, following the Oslo Accords, there has been increasing collaboration between the Palestinian Authority (PA) and UNRWA. In the West Bank and Gaza Strip, more and more projects are being implemented jointly by UNRWA and PA. These regions are seemed as test cases for the transfer of UNRWA services to a Palestinian organized body. The PA emphasizes the importance of UNRWA’s existence until a final solution of the refugee problem is achieved. The politics of the Arab states and the PA have major implications on the work that UNRWA does.


Puppets are used as a therapeutic technique in UNRWA schools for children terrified by the sound of bombs and coping with the shock of loosing relatives. Source: desde-palestina.blogspot.com/

Puppets are used as a therapeutic technique in UNRWA schools for children terrified by the sound of bombs and coping with the shock of loosing relatives. Source: desde-palestina.blogspot.com/

The state of Israel is perhaps the biggest political influence on UNRWA’s humanitarian work. Israel has resented UNRWA’s existence for a variety of reasons, but most importantly since the agency symbolized and was a reminder of the human tragedy of Al-Nakba. Israel is opposed to UNRWA reports being discussed at the UN and the extension of UNRWA’s mandate every year[17]. Over the years, Israel has interfered with UNRWA’s operations in a variety of ways, including the bombing of its facilities. On January 6, 2009, there was an Israeli military strike at the UNRWA-run al-Fakhura School in the Jabalia Camp in the Gaza Strip[18]. According to UN and several non-governmental organizations, 42 people were killed, 41 of them civilians. UNRWA attempts to maintain its neutral stance, and in many ways has shielded Palestinian refugees from the Israeli military[19]. Protection extended to the refugees is usually based on humanitarian principles and the agency’s reliance on the basic principles of international law. For example, following the first intifada, UNRWA established the Refugee Affairs Office (RAO) program which resolved issues between the Israeli military and the Palestinians and monitored the camps’ needs for emergency assistance.[20]

Given these facts, one has to conclude that politics plays a huge role in UNRWA’s humanitarian activities, and in turn on Palestinian statehood. Just as the issue is political, so must be the solution. UNRWA’s ability to deliver a satisfactory level of assistance is also limited by a combination of bad policies and bureaucratic dysfunction, in addition to the political constraints. The responsibility for failure does not lie with UNRWA alone, but primarily with the whole system of host countries, donor states, the Palestinian Authority, and Israel.

The failures of specific interventions should not affect the spirit of humanitarian action. Humanitarian agencies should use their power to ensure that their organizations abide by principles and are accountable to their beneficiaries. Thus, UNRWA should continue providing basic services and humanitarian assistance to one of the world’s largest refugee population, but without ignoring the larger political context in which it was created and it currently operates. UNRWA should also try to influence the donors and highlight the refugees’ priorities. Starting a dialogue with the refugees about their vision of implemented activities would help to change the perspective of beneficiaries towards the Agency’s programs.


UNRWA and other humanitarian agencies need to be aware that there is a conflict between traditional humanitarian principles, and the conflict management principles underlying peace and stability. History shows that humanitarian assistance cannot fill the vacuum left by ineffective political arrangements. The challenge for UNRWA and other humanitarian organizations is to understand their role in the growing politicization of aid, to uphold the need for witnessing and the duty of care, and to harness a new consensus for humanitarian principles that is based on a collective respect for humanity. If this trend of political agendas influencing intervention continues, the humanitarian imperative is weakened, and the needs of the victims will go unmet. Understanding and mass awareness of how this New Humanitarianism may radically differ from the principles of humanitarian action should be the first step to counteracting the politicization of aid. International watchdog agencies must be set up in order to disassociate political agenda from the humanitarian imperative. Be it a needs or a rights based approach, delivery of humanitarian aid to those who need it must be at the forefront of the international cooperation agenda. The UN must institute an accountability framework, where any member country found to hinder the humanitarian principles in order to gain political influence will be punished.


UNRWA and the Palestinian Nation-Building Process

UNRWA’s mandate was based on the Economic Survey Mission reports (late 1949), which specifically recommended the socioeconomic integration of the refugees in the host countries through the provision of work opportunities, a large part of the agency’s efforts in the early years involved development/resettlement schemes[21]. It was because of the emphasis on resettlement that UNRWA, despite assurances of the humanitarian nature of its efforts, was from the outset seen in Palestinian political circles as having been created by the Western powers to liquidate the refugees’ political rights through socioeconomic means. Refugee opposition to the resettlement efforts in the early to mid-1950s was such that by the end of the decade, UNRWA was obliged to terminate these programs and reorient its mandate toward general and vocational education[22].


Over the years, UNRWA has set up an administrative infrastructure that is primarily managed in the field by Palestinian staff. This helped preserve a collective, though fragmented, Palestinian identity in exile[23]. Moreover, since UNRWA’s status protected it from interference by host country governments, it rapidly became a forum for Palestinian activism and institutional action. UNRWA establishments, particularly schools and youth centers, have become sites where a collective Palestinian exile identity, grounded on the memory of Palestine and hopes of return, has been created amongst a new generation of refugees who are more nationalistic and politically aware.

UNRWA has been attacked for providing development services to refugees which have been questioned to be detrimental to the concept of Palestinian statehood. Host Arab states and even Palestinian refugees have expressed that sustainable development will integrate the Palestinians in the camps and will erode the zeal for return. UNRWA has consistently denied such claims, as Lex Takkenberg explains, “Your right of return does not depend on the conditions you live in. As long as the plight of the refugees continue, UNRWA has a humanitarian imperative to provide services of quality. This is also a human rights issue.”

The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was founded in 1964 with the purpose of creating an independent State of Palestine. It is recognized as the “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people” by over 100 states with which it holds diplomatic relations, and has enjoyed observer status at the United Nations since 1974.[24] By the time the PLO was established, UNRWA was already deeply integrated in the refugee communities as a provider of welfare and career opportunities. UNRWA’s services were instrumental in ensuring the prosperity of the Palestinian refugee camps, and became bastions of Palestinian nationalism, which was leveraged by PLO as recruiting grounds. Due to its robust position in Lebanon, the PLO used UNRWA facilities for military purposes during the onslaught of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982[25]. PLO has been viewed as a potential threat to UNRWA’s integrity and neutrality due to the political and military stance of PLO[26].

UNRWA’s refusal, usually on technical or financial grounds, to represent Palestinian political interests gave rise to considerable resentment toward the agency.  UNRWA has been accused of having a condescending attitude and of “conspiring” against the refugee cause. However, in view of the socioeconomic, political importance and long history of service, criticism of the organization never goes so far as to question the existence of the agency. While PLO is on the forefront of the movement towards Palestinian statehood, UNRWA has strategically positioned itself as a humanitarian organization that looks after the livelihood of the refugees, thus promoting their ambitions of statehood. At the initiative of the UN and the donor countries, UNRWA’s mandate since 1988 has turned into a socioeconomic prop for the future Palestinian state entity, thus resuming, on a smaller scale, the developmental approach the agency had abandoned more than 30 years ago[27]. Since then, UNRWA and PLO have entered into a non-formal agreement of support. While PLO is able to leverage large amounts of funds for UNRWA, particularly from remittances sent from the Gulf States, UNRWA retains control of the choice of projects and their implementation. Given the fact that the United States is by far the biggest financial contributor to UNRWA, this shielding of PLO from UNRWA’s humanitarian and development work is particularly commendable and has ensured long term sustainability of donor funding.

RWA school in Rafah. Photo: Ahmad Khateib / Flash90

RWA school in Rafah. Photo: Ahmad Khateib / Flash90

UNRWA seeks to empower the refugee population by initiatives that encourage refugees to prove social relief services of its own[28]. Thus UNRWA has initiated a transition process whereby services would be administered by the Palestinians themselves. The emergence of a sustainable Palestinian state is dependent on the entire Palestinian refugee population overcoming social and economic marginalization, and on their strong will to return. The refugee issue is increasingly seen as a Palestinian problem, rather than an international, or UNRWA problem. This realization has urged the Palestinian leadership to support UNRWA’s development goals, and has gained the support of international entities aligned with the Palestinian statehood aspiration.  As Lex Takkenberg describes, “UNRWA has made it clear, and so has its master, the General Assembly, that UNRWA will not go beyond an advocacy role. What we have realized is that – were there to be a political settlement involving some framework agreement including the refugee issue, arrangements made through which Palestinians could choose whether to stay or go to Palestine, compensation, etc. – UNRWA will have to play a very crucial role in the transition.

It will be premature if UNRWA hands all services to the Palestinian authorities now. Although host Arab countries have welcomed the Palestinian refugees, they are not willing to take responsibility of them. Unlike UNHCR, UNRWA cannot subcontract projects to host countries since they are not willing to take that responsibility. This explains why UNRWA is one of the biggest employers among UN agencies, employing over four times as many employees as UNHCR[29]. However, given the scope and reach of its projects, UNRWA is actually one of the most lean and effective agencies within the UN.

Over the decades, the Palestinian refugees’ vision of return has evolved to an increasingly abstract and incremental process, yet remaining a potent motivating concept. The Palestine of pre-Nakba times has changed, leading to a dissonance between the narrative of grandparents and the discovery of the current generation. The young Palestinian population have no memory other than that of occupation.[30] The efforts of UNRWA towards the improvement in the living standards of refugee population is not seen by the Palestinians as detrimental to their political rights. The refugees have organized themselves in the camps such that they remain collective symbols of organization and the right of return. UNRWA is widely regarded as an indispensable pillar upon which the Palestinian state entity could rely on during the transitional period.


Optimism in the face of an Uncertain Future

In the immediate wake of the Oslo agreements, the gap between the political aims of the Palestinian leadership (focused on state formation) and the refugee communities (which insisted on the right of return) seemed less unbridgeable than originally thought. There was more acceptance of UNRWA’s developmental policy that they were pursuing since the intifada of 1987, from both the refugee population and the Palestinian leadership. As Lex Takkenberg explains, “UNRWA has been part of a natural evolution. Changing circumstances have changed the organization. The 1990s saw the change in focus to social services. Poverty was a huge issue, and only in addressing this UNRWA would live up to its promises. The Lebanese Civil War and the first Intifada led towards a systematic plan of protection for the Palestinians. The optimism of Oslo set a new mindset among the host countries and also the donors. There seemed to be hope in the possible end to this crisis. UNRWA was asked to harmonize the relationship with the host countries, so if the Palestinian state was created, UNRWAs work could be transferred to government ministries of Palestine”.

Absiya Jafari, aged more than 100 years old, holds a Palestinian passport issued during the British Mandate belonging to her husband and herself, in the West Bank village of al-Walaja, 23 November. The original village of al-Walaja was completely destroyed by Zionist forces in 1948. (Anne Paq / ActiveStills)

Absiya Jafari, aged more than 100 years old, holds a Palestinian passport issued during the British Mandate belonging to her husband and herself, in the West Bank village of al-Walaja, 23 November. The original village of al-Walaja was completely destroyed by Zionist forces in 1948. (Anne Paq / ActiveStills)

UNRWA is a major provider of public services such as education, healthcare and microfinance, services that are usually provided by governments. In order to sustain a decent level of service, its budget needs to grow as a function of population growth and inflation.  Moreover, UNRWA cannot charge taxes to the beneficiaries of its services. Although the UN has handed UNRWA its mandate, the funds come primarily through donor countries. Due to severe recent budget cuts, the agency has had to stretch itself too thin – putting more students in each classroom, cutting down hospital operation hours, etc. This incompatibility of mandate and funding model has resulted in a deteriorating state of UNRWA’s work which then in turn has implications on the standard of life of the Palestinians.

UNRWA will be there until a political settlement has been reached. Struggling with resource constraints, will make it difficult for UNRWA to do business as usual. Maybe a moment will come when UNRWA will not be able to sustain its services. There are other humanitarian crises that are pulling donor funding. Additionally, 65 years into the Palestine issue, donor fatigue is setting in. When asked what his biggest concern was at UNRWA, Lex Takkenberg answered, “In my 25 years of service at UNRWA, I am scared for the first time that we will not be able to pay our staff. We will be forced to close down some services – perhaps vocational training – things that are not the prime focus like education and healthcare. There is a crisis coming in the next two to four years. Perhaps that is necessary for the international community to re-evaluate UNRWA’s role and the funding crisis.”

UNRWA’s provision of personal rights does not go against the collective rights of the Palestinians. Any discourse regarding this has been detrimental for UNRWA’s efforts in uploading the rights of the Palestinians and in advocating for them. UNRWA as an organization will continue to exist as long as the plight of the Palestinians remains unmet. UNRWA is not an end in itself, but part of the means to an end. While it is difficult to predict the geopolitical conditions of the future, it is only through cooperation between UNRWA, the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian refugees, that there can be a hope for a meaningful solution to the Palestinian issue.



Few humanitarian organizations around the world can claim the same international entanglements as UNRWA. Whether through the list of nations from which it derives its mandate, or the multinational group of donors who sustain its operations, or the complexity of its relationships with a variety of host governments, UNRWA finds itself permanently mired in international and local politics. While no humanitarian organization engaged in the delivery of aid from the most prosperous to the disadvantaged can maintain total neutrality, UNRWA finds itself forced to engage in the diplomacy of aid. UNRWA has been placed in charge of keeping alive the hope of the Palestinian nation as if it were a quasi-state or a state within a state.

While UNRWA and the politics surrounding it have drawn criticism from the Palestinian refugees, they still support the organization and understand the importance of its existence. The indispensability of UNRWA to life in the Palestinian camps and to the refugees’ survival is recognized by everyone. While UNRWA is arguably the most effective international humanitarian organization, they are bound by a strict mandate and are at the mercy of Middle Eastern instability and political turmoil.

Clearly, what is needed today is a sincere dialogue between UNRWA, the Palestinian Authority and international actors involved in the Palestinian refugee issue aimed at defining the roles and status of each within the framework of the Palestinian nation-state formation process and future of UNRWA.


[1]UNPUBLISHED INTERVIEW: Takkenberg, Lex. Interview by Rahul Mitra. Personal interview. Amman Jordan, May 1st 2014.
[2] Benny Morris, “The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited”, pp. 602–604. Cambridge University Press 2004.
[3] United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. “UNRWA in Figures.” Last modified January 1, 2012.
[4] Belgrad, Eric A., and Nitza Nachmias. The Politics of International Humanitarian Aid Operations. Westport, Conn: Praeger, 1997.
[5] UNRWA. “UNRWA chief calls on East Asian countries to strengthen support.” Accessed May 2, 2014.
[6] UNRWA. “UNRWA in Figures.” Accessed April 20, 2014
[7] UNISPAL-United Nations Information System on the Question of Palestine. “Evolution of UNRWA’s mandate to Palestine refugees – Statement of Commissioner-General (21 September 2003).”
[8] Schiff, Benjamin N. Refugees Unto the Third Generation: UN Aid to Palestinians. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1995. p. 134
[9] Weiss, Thomas G. “Principles, Politics, and Humanitarian Action.” (1999)
[10] United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. “Humanitarian Principles | OCHA.” Accessed April 20, 2014
[11] Duffield, Mark. “Governing the Borderlands: Decoding the Power of Aid Paper presented at a Seminar on: Politics and Humanitarian Aid: Debates, Dilemmas and Dissension. 2001”
[12] Fox, Fiona. “New Humanitarianism: Does It Provide a Moral Banner for the 21st Century?” Disasters (2001)
[13] Slim, H. “Claiming a humanitarian imperative: NGOs and the cultivation of humanitarian duty.” Refugee Survey Quarterly (2002)
[14] Divine, Donna R. “A Very Political Economy: Peacebuilding and Foreign Aid in the West Bank and Gaza; Rex Brynen.” Digest of Middle East Studies (2000)
[15] The New York Times “West Bank – Tax Withholding by Israel Will Delay Pay checks for Palestinians – Isabel Kershner.” May 9, 2011
[16] UNRWA – Between Refugee Aid and Power Politics: A Memorandum calling upon International Responsibility of the Palestinian Refugee Question. Gerhard Pulfer and Ingrid Gassner, 1997
[17] Cossali, Paul, and Clive Robson. Stateless in Gaza. London: Zed Books, 1986.
[18] Macintyre, Donald; Kim Sengupta (2009-01-07). “Massacre of innocents as UN school is shelled”. London: The Independent. Archived from the original on 16 January 2009.
[19] Ibid., 120-1
[20] Rempel, T. “UNRWA and the Palestine Refugees: A Genealogy of “Participatory” Development.” Refugee Survey Quarterly (2009)
[21] UNISPAL-United Nations Information System on the Question of Palestine. “Mideast situation/Palestine refugees – Economic Survey Mission for the Middle East final report signed – Press release (19 December 1949).”
[22] Rosenfeld, M. “From Emergency Relief Assistance to Human Development and Back: UNRWA and the Palestinian Refugees, 1950-2009.” Refugee Survey Quarterly (2009)
[23] Khalidi, Rashid I., Baruch Kimmerling, and Joel S. Migdal. “Palestinians: The Making of a People.” American Historical Review (1994)
[24] United Nations General Assembly Resolution 3210
[25] Brynen, Rex, and Benjamin N. Schiff. “Refugees unto the Third Generation: UN Aid to Palestinians.” American Historical Review (1998)
[26] “The Report of the Commissioner- General of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East” June 1969-June 1970
[27] UN General Assembly Resolution 19 48/40, Aid to the Palestine Refugees, 10 December 1993
[28] Joint Programme Proposal, “Gender Equality And Women’s Empowerment In The Occupied Palestinian Territory” 2008-2011
[29] Niklaus Steiner, Mark Gibney, Gil Loescher, Problems of Protection: The UNHCR Refugees and Human Rights. Routledge, Apr 30, 2003
[30] Georges E. Bisharat, “Displacement and Social Identity: Palestinian Refugees in the West Bank,” in Population Displacement and Resettlement: Development and Conflict in the Middle East, ed. by Setenay Shami (New York: Center for Migration Studies, 1994), p. 178.

The Trayvon Martin case – one small trial, one big societal question


On the night of February 26, 2012 one 17-year-old African American high school student, Trayvon Martin was fatally shot by a member of the neighborhood watch George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida. On July 13, 2013, Zimmerman was found not guilty by a jury on the grounds of self-defense. That’s the two-line synopsis; but beneath lies layer upon layer of moral, social, legal and human questions.

Trayvon Martin Protest - Sanford

Trayvon Martin Protest – Sanford (Photo credit: werthmedia)

The Trayvon Martin trail was not supposed to happen. Police arrived within 2 minutes of the gunshot, following an earlier call from Zimmerman, and Martin was declared dead within 15 minutes. Zimmerman was treated for bloody wounds, questioned for 5 hours and had his sidearm impounded, but he was released as a case of self-defense. The trail only took place because of continual public outrage for a month following the shooting, which left the Florida police with no choice but to arrest Zimmerman. But was Zimmerman ever tried? I think not. I think it was a trail of Trayvon Martin – his background, hoodie and skin color taking the focus. But then again maybe our society has put him on trial all his life; so why not after his death?

The fact is: Trayvon Martin is dead, and the man who killed him walks free.

The verdict in the Trayvon Martin case exemplifies the rising racism in the United States. The roots of this racism lies within systematic social and economic discrimination. “The American Dream” is a thing of the books as social mobility has stalled and the gap between the classes has widened. The recession has been a double-edged sword for minorities in the US, who have been long denied a fair shot – not only have they been hit the hardest economically, but racial barriers have also increased. Trayvon Martin is just an allegory for society’s perception of the black teenager – out of school, in and out of prison, up to no good, a seemingly disposable element of our community.

Justice is blind, so as they say. It forgot to try the main culprit, and made a criminal of an innocent young man. When this society allows for the unpunished murder on perception of a citizen, it is our societal values that must stand on trial.

Trayvon is not alone. According to Rev. Jesse Jackson, “There is a Trayvon in every town”. Our perceptions and biases have relegated young black men as something to be feared. We need to look beyond the evidence to the environment that creates such situations; that creates George Zimmermans, and snuffs out Trayvon Martins.

Protests at Times Square following the ruling

Protests at Times Square following the ruling

Racism exists, and I would argue that it is flourishing. Only last month the Supreme Court invalidated parts of the Voting Rights Acts stating that discrimination against African-Americans is a thing of the past. This comes following numerous reports of discrimination against blacks at the polling booth. Exit Jim Crow, enter voter ID laws. The Trayvon Martin trial has only brought this issue to the surface.

Many will riot, many will advocate. But above all, we need to think about our social structure that vilifies and marginalizes minorities. An America that harbors racial and class barriers is a dangerous place for the dreams of an ambitious young individual.


The Zaatari Refugee camp in Jordan, and the plight of the Syrian people


One million Syrians have now made the journey from their homes to neighboring countries. This mass exodus is accelerating, with international relief organizations struggling to keep up. More importantly, the refugees’ journey has taken a toll on the most vulnerable and is testament to the dismal human rights situation within the Syrian borders. They are escaping massacres and bombing campaigns led by Bashar al-Assad‘s regime, and their only choice is to step into an impending humanitarian catastrophe in crowded refugee camps.

Satellite image of Zaatari Camp (copyright DigitalGlobe)

Satellite image of Zaatari Camp (copyright DigitalGlobe)

The Zaatari Refugee Camp in northern Jordan is one such camp. In August of 2012 it was a cluster of 500 neatly arranged tents. Today, it is a refugee metropolis, with 146,000 Syrians in exile. What is even more shocking, is the fact that the Zaatari Camp only has the capacity to support 60,000 people. Faced with harsh weather and public health conditions, many have already died, and the remaining are surviving day-to-day. They are left hoping for the day when they will return to their homes, if their homes are still standing when they return.

In December 2012, I was contacted by my friend Rahaf Baker, who I had met at the Clinton Global Initiative Conference in 2012. She introduced me to Jordan Hattar, a humanitarian journalist, who at that time was reporting from Zaatari. Jordan told me about the grave humanitarian crisis in the camp, and the desperate need for improved housing for the refugees to cope with the harshest winter in Jordan in recorded history. The first thing I did, was to contact Engineers Without Borders, the organization I have been involved with for the past six years. Their response was sincere, simple and not too surprising – a refugee camp setting does not fit within EWB’s community development model.

ShelterBoxes being deployed to Syrian refugees

ShelterBoxes being deployed to Syrian refugees

Following this, I emailed a sleuth of my contacts in the humanitarian aid realm. Rotarian Judy Hutcherson, who I had worked with several years ago on a ICT project in Mexico, replied back. She put me in touch with representatives from ShelterBox, a UK-based organization that delivers the essentials a family needs to survive in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. Among other things, ShelterBox provides weatherized tents that can safely house families in harsh conditions, and other basic necessities including cooking supplies and blankets. I sent them a report that Jordan Hattar had written, that documents in detail the suffering of Syrian families at Zaatari. Rahaf, Jordan and I provided them with all the information we had about the current situation in Zaatari and in the next couple of weeks, our request began a slow ascend in the ShelterBox chain-of-command.

Syrian Family with Winterized tent

Syrian Family with Winterized tent

Finally, over the first week of February 2013, a ShelterBox Response Team visited the Zaatari camp to assess the conditions on the ground. They met with the Jordanian Red Crescent and United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR). ShelterBox discovered that the most immediate need was along the Syria-Jordan border where there have been many causalities due to the harrowing cross-country journey amid sniper shootings and exposure to the natural elements. Starting the third week of February, ShelterBox started distributing emergency supplies to Syrian refugees along the Syria-Jordan border. These tents will provide housing for thousands of Syrians who otherwise would be sleeping in the open-air after their horrific crossing. ShelterBox has made a commitment to the Syrian refugees not just in Jordan, but also in neighboring Lebanon and Turkey, to act quickly in meeting their immediate needs and continually seek avenues to ease their suffering.

To bring back a smile on these young faces, each ShelterBox contains a children’s pack with drawing books, crayons and pens.

To bring back a smile on these young faces, each ShelterBox contains a children’s pack with drawing books, crayons and pens.

This might sound like a happy ending, but it is neither happy nor an ending. As thousands of Syrians are forced to leave their homes behind as their only hope of surviving the heinous crimes of Assad, the international community is largely dormant. Their plight is being lost to the UN Security Council’s refusal to intervene and the hesitation of governments around the world to respond. World leaders haven’t made up their minds whether to side with Bashar al-Assad or the Syrian Resistance Movement. They need to realize that they really should be siding with the Syrian people.

I urge you to contact your government in making the right decision, and supporting the Syrian people as they begin their journey to regaining control of their country, and their lives. Support organizations such as ShelterBox, whose work may mean  a life-and-death difference in the lives of many refugees.


Against Impunity – A song for the Gambian dictator


This song by Gambian artists is directed at Yahya Jammeh, the dictator of Gambia who has been in power for 19 years. Yahya is arguably the worst dictator in Africa (if not the world), and has absolutely no respect for human rights. Gambia is the smallest nation in mainland Africa, and is mostly devoid of resources – which is probably why we never hear about Gambia in the news.  Yahya banned homosexuality in his country and announced that he would “cut off the head” of any gay or lesbian person discovered in Gambia. In 2007, Jammeh claimed he could cure HIV/AIDS and asthma with natural herbs. Subsequently, he ordered Gambians to stop taking anti-retroviral medicine. He continues to rule today, and Gambians continue to strive against him.

Let’s recognize this brave work by Gambian artists who have the courage to stand up against impunity.

Quest for Justice, 40 years after Independence

A child protesting in 1971

A child protesting in 1971

Four decades have passed since Bangladesh got her independence. It came at the climax of one of the bloodiest wars of our times. It came at the cost of three million lives, and 20,000 women raped. Independence ushered a new hope for a country in her infancy, one of equality and justice. And thus began our experiment in democracy. We were naïve to think that with the oppressors, the oppression would end. We knew only that we were free at last, that justice and the rule of law will now prevail.

For forty years, Bangladesh as a nation has failed to try the Razakars – the pro-Pakistani Bengalis who committed some of the gravest atrocities during the 9-month liberation war. The Razakars supported the Pakistani army, and helped them infiltrate the country. Their leaders were absolved after the war, and have been prominent opposition figures. They were free, had full citizenship and had their own political party with seats in the parliament. These are the men who supported the killing and rape of Bangladeshis; religion is more important to them than nation. And it is in their freedom that Bangladesh has failed to respect the sacrifice of so many.

"Ar kono dabi nai, Razakarder fashi chai."

“Ar kono dabi nai, Razakarder fashi chai.”

In 2010, the Bangladeshi government set up a tribunal to prosecute those accused of committing war crimes during the 1971 war of independence. Three years later, on the 5th of February 2013, the tribunal has handed down a life sentence to Abdul Quader Molla, assistant secretary-general of the Jamaat-e-Islami, which supported the cause of undivided Pakistan in 1971. Nine other top Jamaat leaders, including its former chief Ghulam Azam and current chief Motiur Rehman Nizami, are also standing trial in the two war crimes tribunals for alleged crimes against humanity.

Shahabag - the new Tahrir Square

Shahbagh – the new Tahrir Square

This war trails have reopened old wounds among Bangladeshis. The youth of Bangladesh have rekindled the spirit of 1971, and have gathered on the streets of Dhaka, to demand capital punishments of war criminals and an end to religion-based politics. Hundreds of thousands of people are gathered in Dhaka’s Shahbagh intersection, in the biggest public gathering since 1971. This is neither about politics nor religion. This is about national pride and justice. The protesters have been in the streets for four days now and have vowed to stay until their demands are met. People around the country are boycotting businesses, social and cultural organizations that are owned by Jamaat leaders. In the words of the prominent author, Muhammad Zafar Iqbal, “The year 2013 has turned into 1971 and those of you who did not see 1971 are now witnessing it this year.”

The youth of Bangladesh is not trying to overthrow a regime. This is not our Arab Spring, but the parallels are striking. Shahbag is our Tahrir Square. Social media is our means of organization. The time is now to end what we started in 1971.

As a Bangladeshi in expatriation, this is my tribute to the protesters all across my country.

Rigoberta Menchú and I


This is part biography, part book review and homage to one of the greatest human rights activists who remains largely unheard-of. Rigoberta Menchú is more than an activist; she is the embodiment of the struggles of millions of indigenous people in Latin America. In all honestly, I have only known of her since the summer of 2011 when I came across the book titled “I, Rigoberta Menchú” at a used bookstore in Austin. If you have an interest in indigenous rights, Latin America, women’s issues in the rural setting, or just human rights, I recommend you read it too.

Rigoberta Menchú

Rigoberta Menchú was born in 1959 in Chimel, a small town in the central Guatemalan province of Quiché. The area of land that is now known as Guatemala has been home to indigenous tribes (some 25 of them) for centuries, although today only 40 percent of the Guatemalan population is pure indigenous. Rigoberta belongs to the Quiché people, who have lived in the highlands of Guatemala since before the Spanish conquistadors arrived, and who to this day maintain their culture and language. She grew up in a rural peasant family, who at that time were at the mercy of ruthless landowners. They were forced to work on farms owned by Mestizos (people of mixed heritage) who kept a strong hold on the country through government support and militiamen.

The land provided sustenance to the rural families for generations, and when this was snatched from them, they began to lose control of the outcome of their lives. They were in effect slaves. The country of Guatemala was formed on their backs – their toil fed the rich, while families such as Rigoberta’s were forced to go hungry, sometimes reverting to eating grass. With no access to healthcare, the infant mortality rate soared; a child reaching his/her fifth birthday was seen as a miracle and the event celebrated by the entire village.

Indigenous Family in Guatemala

On the backdrop of the civil war, Rigoberta’s family was decimated. Because the Menchú family was active in the land reform movement and grass-roots activities such as women’s groups, they were suspected of being subversives by the local government. Her brother was captured and her family was forced to watch as he was burned alive in a village square. After her father was arrested and tortured, most of the family, including 20 year old Rigoberta, joined the local rebel organization, the CUC (Committee of the Peasant Union). Her father Vicente was a leader of a small band of rebels who captured the Spanish Embassy in protest of government policies: security forces were sent in and most of the rebels, including Vicente, were killed. Her mother was likewise arrested, raped, and killed. By 1981 Rigoberta was a marked woman: she fled Guatemala for Mexico and from there to France.

In France, Rigoberta met Elizabeth Burgos-Debray, a Venezuelan-French anthropologist and activist. Burgos-Debray convinced Rigoberta to tell her compelling story and these interviews became the basis for I, Rigoberta Menchú, a ghost-written autobiography. The book alternates between the beautiful scenery of Guatemala that is home to such colorful indigenous cultures, and harrowing accounts of war, torture and rape. The book is very personal and the reader turns every page with the feeling that the words are being secretively whispered. It is not a revolutionary book, just the growing up story of girl amidst incredible cruelty and hardship. It is not a story of survival or triumph, but a retelling of life as it was for millions.

Rigoberta marching with women’s group

I, Rigoberta Menchú was quickly an incredible success and was translated to several languages. Rigoberta was surprised that people took an interest in her story, but she used her newfound fame to good effect – organizing protests and conferences around the world and championing indigenous rights. In 1992, Rigoberta Menchú was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of her work for social justice and ethno-cultural reconciliation based on respect for the rights of indigenous people. The day she was awarded the prize accidentally happened to be the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ famous voyage which set off in motion a chain of events including the conquistadors, colonization, epidemics of diseases, loss of culture, language, religion, and the rape/pillage of the Americas (the “new world”). Rigoberta remains to this day, a strong voice for indigenous people around the world who are still struggling to ascertain their rights.

Centuries have passed since Columbus first set foot, and decades have passed since Rigoberta’s childhood in the Guatemalan highlands. Indigenous tribes are still oppressed, still in a battle for their land. I have had a chance to work with several indigenous tribes in Panama, Mexico and Honduras. In every tribe I have found a loss of culture and the indigenous way of life. People have now discovered on their land – oil, heavy metals and opportunities for power generation through water, wind, etc. Rigoberta’s work is very much relevant today, and I urge you to read her book and do what you can to support indigenous rights around the world.

Without the right to have rights

Thousands in the newly found South Sudan face statelessness

Thousands in the newly found South Sudan face statelessness

If they were all together under one nation, they could populate a fairly big country, somewhere between Zimbabwe and Chile. They however are spread across the planet and cannot call any country “home”. We do not know their exact number, as they are undocumented and unrecognized – fallen between the cracks of conflict, geopolitics and discrimination. They are the stateless – no country recognizing them as citizens and thus devoid of the basic human rights derived from citizenship. In 1958, the UN branded citizenship as a human right, stating “Citizenship is man’s basic right for it is nothing less than the right to have rights.”1

Some of the most invisible people on the planet, there is somewhere between 12 and 15 million people who are stateless (depending on how the term is defined). The stateless are often times confused with refugees, the later might have some travel document and a particular country might claim his/her allegiance2. A stateless person on the other hand, is barred from healthcare, education, formal employment and a national identity.

At a Palestinian Camp

At a Palestinian Camp

The lack of any legal binding between such an individual and a state, results in the person not being able to own property, start a business, hold a driver’s license, open a bank account, etc. Worst still, he/she is unable to vote, thus lacking the power to elect representatives who can voice their concerns.

Statelessness aggravates poverty, creates social tension and in some cases, fuels wars. It is a self-perpetuating condition with children being born stateless as a result of their parents being stateless. Unrecognized by the state, they are denied government assistance and protection making them vulnerable to exploitation. Forced labor and slavery are common among such groups, as are other poverty-driven forms of human exploitation.

How people become stateless

So how does one become stateless? How does one lose the right to have basic rights? The reasons are myriad, but here are some of the leading ones:

A Bihari camp in Dhaka, Bangladesh

A Bihari camp in Dhaka, Bangladesh

  • Redrawing of borders – when borders change, so does the identity of the ones who live on either side. Some however, like many after the dissolution of the USSR, are left without a state.
  • Citizenship laws – Different countries have different sets of citizenship laws. Some grant citizenship by birth (jus soli), while others by descent (jus sanguinis). Depending on the laws of the country, the parents’ descent and the location of birth, a child may be born stateless.
  • Arbitrary revocation of protection – Sometimes states intentionally snatch rights from a subset of its population. This is mainly due to cultural (Biharis) or religious (Rohingyas) differences.
  • Discrimination against women – Many countries have citizenship laws that discriminate against women. Women in these countries cannot claim citizenship for their children. UNHCR claims that there are over 30 countries with such laws.

Aside from these reasons, there are millions around the world who lack proper documentation to prove and claim citizenship. However, lack of identity documents is less of an issue in underdeveloped countries, where birth certificates, social security numbers, ID cards, etc. are pretty much nonexistent.

Who are the stateless?

The following are some stateless groups around the world. This list is by no means complete and it is not a ranking of any sorts. There are countless other such groups who share the same fate.

The Rohingyas of Myanmar

The Rohingyas of Myanmar

  • Rohingyas (Myanmar, Bangladesh) – The Rohingyas are a Muslim minority group of the northern Rakhine state of Myanmar. They have been subjected to systematic discrimination by the ruling military junta and in the 1990s, nearly a quarter of a million fled to neighboring Bangladesh. In Bangladesh, the Rohingyas live as illegal immigrants in abject shanty towns. Many have migrated to Malaysia and Thailand, where they can earn money to be sent to their families.
  • Palestinians – Easily the largest stateless community, the lives of four generations of Palestinians have been shaped by a lack of national identity. Living in a disputed and geopolitically charged zone, many have moved to neighboring Arab countries, where they continue to lead a stateless life.
Bedouin women in Palestine, 1880

Bedouin women in Palestine, 1880

  • Bedouins (Middle East) – The nomadic Bedouin (“without” in Arabic) tribes have roamed across the Middle East for centuries. After the division of the land into what are now Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Jordan and Iraq, many countries used tribal affiliations to determine citizenship, leaving hundreds of thousands stateless. Today, the Bedouins are concentrated mostly in Kuwait.
The Roma of the Balkans

The Roma of the Balkans

  • Roma (former Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia) – The Roma belong to the ethnic Romani people (Gypsies) living in Eastern Europe and the Balkans. Many European governments do not allow these gypsies the same rights as their other citizens. Thousands of Roma in Europe were left stranded without a state to call home, when Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia broke up. Decades of conflict in the region, has made the Roma an easy target to ethnic violence.
Black Mauritanians

Black Mauritanians

  • Black Mauritanians (Mauritania) – In 1989, Mauritania’s Arab-dominated government revoked the citizenship of an estimated 75,000 black Mauritanians.Most were then forced to flee to neighboring Senegal and Mali, where they continue to live as stateless.  Since then, there has been a slow trickling of black Mauritanians back to their homeland, only to be treated as second-class citizens.
Hundreds of people of Haitian origin were persecuted in the Dominican Republic in 2005.

Hundreds of people of Haitian origin were persecuted in the Dominican Republic in 2005.

  • Dominicans of Haitian descent (Dominican Republic, Haiti) – Haiti and the Dominican Republic share the same island (Hispaniola) and have a long history of cross migration. Yet, the Dominican government systematically refuses to issue passports or other proofs of citizenship to people of Haitian descent. The government’s claim: it is merely trying to “clean up” its civil registry rolls3.
  • Hill tribes (worldwide) – Millions of tribal people living in mountainous regions worldwide, are denied a true national identity and state privileges. Governments in Thailand, India, Bangladesh and many other Asian countries, do not recognize these indigenous tribes as citizens and have led “campaigns” to integrate them to mainstream culture.

The State of the Stateless today

Civil war in Darfur has displaced 2 million people

Civil war in Darfur has displaced 2 million people

Statelessness has been historically overlooked by people, governments, aid agencies and also the UN. You hardly ever hear about the almost 15 million stateless on the news, or find scholarly papers at the library or the internet. In 1961, the UN organized a Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, although to date, only 34 countries have signed this. One UN agency, the UNHCR has recently launched a campaign to highlight the global statelessness problem. One thing this campaign achieves to do is to clearly define the term statelessness, so that the true scale of the problem becomes clear.

There have been some notable successes in alleviating the problem. In 2009, the Bangladeshi High Court ruled that Biharis (who sided with Pakistan during the 1971 independence war) born in Bangladesh after 1971 would be granted Bangladeshi citizenship. Several North African countries, including Egypt and Morocco now permit women to pass their citizenship onto their children. After 25 years of gruesome civil war where millions have been victims to ethnic cleansing, Tamils can now obtain nationality in Sri Lanka.

One hopes that this UN campaign and the positive actions taken by governments across the world will bring this issue to limelight and grant the basic human right of statehood to those who don’t have it today. The world needs a coordinated effort in recognizing those around us who are not recognized by any states. Statelessness is an issue whose time has come.