U.N. High Commissioner on Refugees Wrong about Refugees

“‘The current exodus [of Iraqis] is the largest long-term population movement in the Middle East since the displacement of the Palestinians following the creation of Israel in 1948,’ said the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.” – “Saddam’s Voice, Aura Still Fill Courtroom,” by Lauren Frayer, Associated Press, in the Washington Times, Jan. 9, 2007.

No, it is not, and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees – currently Antonio Guterres – could be expected to know better. So could news media that unquestioningly reported Guterres’ declaration, including CNN.com; the Voice of America; Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency, on January 8; the Associated Press, United Press International and the Guardian (U.K.) on January 9, and the San Francisco Chronicle, January 16.

How many Palestinian Arabs became refugees following the creation of Israel? Palestinian sources claimed 800,000 to 1 million, and more recently insist on from 3.5 million to 5 million refugees and descendants. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), itself heavily staffed by Palestinian Arabs and long close to the Palestine Liberation Organization, parrots these assertions. (It must be noted that Arabs resident for as little as two years in what became Israel received refugee classification. And only Palestinian Arabs, of all post-World War II refugees groups, have been permitted to claim refugee status as an inheritance.)

But reputable sources put the range much lower, from 472,000 to 650,000. The lower number is from a 1948 progress report by the U.N. Mediator on Palestine. The higher figure represents the difference between the number of permanent Arab residents in that part of Mandatory Palestine that became Israel, 809,100 according to the last census by British Authorities, and the number of Arabs counted in the first Israeli census, 160,000.

Yet a larger Middle East population displacement occurred in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Approximately 820,000 Jewish refugees fled ancestral homes in Arab countries. Of them, 586,000 settled in Israel.  

The U.N. High Commissioner on Refugees may not know, or remember, this history, but the U.N. Security Council does. That is why Security Council Resolution 242, the keystone of successful Arab-Israeli diplomacy since its adoption shortly after the 1967 Six-Day War, calls for, among other things: “achieving a just settlement of the refugee problem.” Not “the Palestinian refugee problem” but, understanding that those displaced included both Jews and Arabs, “the refugee problem.”

Another larger “long-term population movement in the Middle East” has been the migration of Christian Arabs. According to Jonathan Alderman and Agota Kuperman, senior fellows at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, “there has been a great – and little reported – Christian exodus from the Middle East, with some 2 million fleeing in the past 20 years alone.” The “single greatest cause of this emigration is pressure from radical Islam.”

Whatever the reason for High Commissioner Guterres’ mistake, and its uncritical repetition by news outlets, the 1948 flight of Arabs from Israel was not the largest such population movement until the current Iraqi turmoil. The flight of Jewish refugees, and Christian migrants, both have been greater. Once again, tunnel vision about the Palestinian Arabs – the tendency to see them not just as victims but as the Middle East’s most newsworthy victims – misinforms.

As for displaced and refugee Iraqis, AP put the total at 3.7 million. The figure seems to represent the maximum of up to 2 million estimated to have take refuge in other countries, many before the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 that topple Saddam Hussein’s regime, plus up to 1.7 million displaced inside Iraq.

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