3. The Refugee Registration Records

Research on a population is dependent on vital statistics about its size and members. There has, however, never been a census of the Palestine refugee population in any of the Agency's areas of operations. As a non-governmental agency, UNRWA has neither control over the registration of births, deaths and movements, nor access to such information from the various authorities in the Agency's five Fields of operation. All vital statistics collected by UNRWA consequently stem from voluntarily reporting from the refugees themselves.

The registration records are the core of UNRWA's vital statistics. They consists of records and statistics and determine who is eligible for UNRWA's services in the fields of health, education and social relief. Registration has always been the task of UNRWA's Relief and Social Services Department which has distributed basic rations of foodstuff to all registered refugees as part of the Agency's relief services. The rations have been gradually reduced, and since 1982 UNRWA has distributed them only to refugees qualifying for "Special Hardship" assistance and to refugee and non-refugee communities in the areas affected by emergencies (war, extended curfews, etc.).2
Access to the records for research purposes has been constrained due to their political sensitivity, and their sensitivity in regard to confidentiality and personal privacy. UNRWA does, nevertheless, publish aggregated tables of the registered refugee population.3

The problem of assessing the number of Palestine refugees is controversial. Both the number of those who fled in 1947-48 and the question of who should be defined as a Palestine refugee have been disputed. For example whether persons who fled for the first time in 1967 should be included or not has been under discussion.

Because the registration records are the core of UNRWA statistics, erroneous reporting in this regard is important for any evaluation of use of UNRWA's statistics in social science research.4 It is important to distinguish between two main dimensions of the problem of determining the number of refugees accurately, namely problems of registration and problems of classification. Problems of registration refer to non-existing persons being counted as refugees, or persons who fulfil the classification criteria for being UNRWA refugees but who are not registered, (for example many newly born babies). In contrast, problems of classification refer to which criteria a person should fulfil to be defined as a "Palestine Refugee", and whether those persons who are registered actually fulfil these criteria.

The problem of classification is to a large extent a historical one. To present a thorough discussion of the problems of classification is far beyond the scope of this study. Throughout the report, we will use the term (Palestine) "refugee" about a person who is registered as such with UNRWA.

According to UNRWA, "Palestine Refugees" are persons:

  • whose normal residence was Palestine during the period 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948;
  • who lost both their homes and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict;
  • who took refuge in one of the countries or areas where UNRWA provides relief; and
  • who are direct descendants through the male line of persons fulfilling 1. -3. above.

UNRWA has had to grapple with problems of incorrect registration since its earliest days. When UNRWA was established, it inherited refugee registration records from its predecessor organization, the United Nations Relief for Palestine Refugees (UNRPR), and from various voluntary agencies. For refugees living in the area of UNRWA operations, eligibility for Agency services has always been tied to registration with UNRWA, a fact which has generated incentives for erroneous registration of persons.5 Acknowledging the problem of erroneous registration, UNRWA made several attempts to rectify the registration records from 1950 and onwards. During this work half a million names were deleted.6

In spite of persistent efforts by UNRWA to correct erroneous reporting of the number of refugees, UNRWA acknowledges that its registration figures are inaccurate. UNRWA works, and will continue to work, with approximate figures in its planning of services to the registered refugee communities. The report UNRWA: A Brief History: 1950-1982 concludes its section on the number of refugees by noting:

It has to be borne in mind that UNRWA's registration figures do not necessarily reflect the actual population due to factors such as unreported births and deaths or false and duplicate registrations. It is presumed that the true number of registered persons present in the area of UNRWA operations is less than the registered population. (1986; 8)

What can be said about this problem as of 1994? It should be noted that an important incentive for erroneous registration of persons was removed when UNRWA ceased to distribute rations to all registered refugees. In the following we will discuss issues related to the research potential of data generated by the refugee registration system.

2.)Admission to Special Hardship Case(SHC) status builds on the criteria of a particularly difficult situation, such as absence of a male adult medically fit to provide for the family and of any alternative source of income sufficient to meet basic needs.
3.) As an example, does the UNRWA Statistical Yearbook for Education include a aggregated table of registered refugees by age and sex.
4.) The Demography of Palestinian Refugees: An assessment of UNRWA Statistics (1984, Centre for the Study of Population) examines UNRWA registration statistics for evidence of age-heaping and digit preferences/avoidance for the years 1966,1970 and 1972-1982. In addition, the authors apply indirect methods of estimating fertility and mortality levels from the age and sex composition of the registered population
5.) In UNWRA: A Brief History 1950-1982 (1986; 5) the problem of erroneous registration is clearly stated by the International Committee of the Red Cross in its final report to the United Nations: "Finally, thousands of individuals, destitute persons and others, have tried to evade the controls by registering themselves in more than one region, or under several names, by increasing the number of family members, or by registering false births and hiding deaths."
6.) This was not an easy task, however: "Thus a degree of failure in this sector must be admitted. However, no organization in the Agency«s position, without legal power, could ever fully succeed in an enterprise of this nature against the wishes of both the beneficiaries, the refugees themselves, and the Host Governments within whose territories the process was to be carried out. The failure has by no means been total, however. Over the years half a million names have been deleted from the registration records - mainly of persons deceased, or false or duplicate registrations..."(UNRWA: A Brief History 1950-1982: 1986;73).


al@mashriq                       960428/960613