A multifaceted legal category

Different historical upheavals since 1948 have complicated the determination of legal statuses provided to Palestinian refugees, both by UNRWA and by the respective states.

The legal status refugees received in the different states is to a great extent determined by UNRWA's criteria for the definition of "Palestine refugees" which plays a role in determining the personal legal status a Palestinian receives in their countries of residence. Another factor which further complicates the formal relation between Palestinian refugees and the host-state, is the conglomerate of legal statuses the refugees received according to their time of arrival to the host-country. Different historical upheavals such as the 1948-exodus, the 1967-Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, and the 1990-Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, created waves of refugees where each group was accorded with disparate legal statuses. Palestinian refugees are thus a multifaceted legal group, not only in terms of the variety of laws they are subjugated to in the different host countries, but also in terms of the heterogeneous legal identities they received due to differences in dates of arrival and places of origin.

In sum, there are three main factors that determine the legal status of Palestinian refugees:
  1. the historical period in which they fled;
  2. the set of official state-laws and regulations that deal with
  3. the Palestinian presence in each state; and
  4. UNRWA's definition of "Palestine refugees".
These factors are partly interrelated, as the case is with Palestinians who fled in 1948, most of whom met UNRWA's criterias for what the Agency termed as "Palestine refugees" which refers to the following category:

persons whose normal residence was Palestine during the period of 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948 and who lost both their homes and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict and took refuge in one of the countries or areas where UNRWA provides relief, and their direct descendants through the male line. (UNRWA's Consolidated Eligibility Instructions).

Refugees who met these criteria were registered and regarded as legitimate refugees by the states they resided in. For different reasons many Palestinian refugees failed to meet these criteria in the 1950s. Among the groups that were excluded are those taken off UNRWA's register on obtaining employment; those who lost their land but not their livelihood in 1948; those who left historical Palestine before 1948 including those deported after the 1936-Arab Revolt; those who left during the Second World War to work for the British elsewhere in Palestine; those who missed the dead-line to register; those who were not in economic need for receiving UNRWA-services; and those who refused to register due to political principle.

Palestinians who became refugees for the first time following the 1967-war are thus not registered by UNRWA. Although the Agency addresses them as Palestine refugees, they are formally referred to as "displaced persons". In addition, refugees formally categorised as 1967-refugees by UNRWA are not necessarily refugees who fled as a direct result of the 1967 War. The 1967-refugee figure also includes refugees who were not able to register as 1948-refugees, as well as Palestinians who actually left the West Bank before 1967. The latter category includes Palestinians who were studying or working outside the West Bank, in Jordan's East Bank for instance, at the time of the war and who were not able to resettle there when the war was over. The term "displaced persons" which Jordan uses for categorising 1967-refugees therefore reflects the Jordanian government's perception of West Bankers as displaced Jordanians since these Palestinians had Jordanian citizenships following Jordan's incorporation of the West Bank in 1950.

The 1967- refugees are administratively referred to as "N.R." (non-registered) by UNRWA, denoting that they are not registered as 1948-refugees who are eligible to UNRWA-services. 1967-refugees residing in Jordan do, however, receive UNRWA-rations and services that are subject to reimbursement by the Jordanian government, while 1967-refugees in Lebanon do not have access to UNRWA-services.

Palestinians who fled from Gaza to Jordan in 1967 number approximately 38,000 refugees (Guide to UNRWA, April 1994:10). Gazans do not have the same rights and obligations as their West Bank compatriots because they were under Egyptian administration before Israel's occupation in 1967.

The Gazans in Jordan, 1967-refugees in Lebanon, along with the unknown numbers of non-registered Palestinian refugees form categories of refugees who are either economically or legally in a vulnerable position; economically vulnerable because they do not have access to UNRWA's welfare services, legally vulnerable because they face a number of regulations whereof the most precarious is their security of residence in the state.

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