Palestinian refugees in Jordan stand to lose from Kushner’s Middle East plan

If Jordan assents to Kushner’s request and removes the refugee status of Palestinians, it could mean the end of UNRWA.
Sunday 19/08/2018
Palestinian refugee women sit if front their homes in Al-Baqaa Palestinian refugee camp near Amman. (Reuters)
Uncertain future. Palestinian refugee women sit if front their homes in Al-Baqaa Palestinian refugee camp near Amman. (Reuters)

US President Donald Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, reportedly tried to convince Jordan that it should remove the refugee status of the 2 million Palestinians living in the Arab country.

A report in Foreign Policy magazine stated that Kushner raised the issue in June during his visit to Jordan. Removing the Palestinians’ refugee status appears to be part of a greater plan to end the existence of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA).

In January, the United States said it was withholding $65 million from UNRWA. The United States for a long time has been the agency’s largest donor, keeping the organisation alive with more than $364 million in 2017.

However, US President Donald Trump questioned the wisdom of providing aid when the Palestinian Authority refuses to resume peace talks. In e-mails published in Foreign Policy, Kushner called UNRWA “corrupt and inefficient.”

Of the 2 million Palestinian refugees in Jordan, 370,000 live in one of the ten refugee camps set up after the war in 1948, which caused 700,000 Palestinians to flee their homes. Another 325,000 left in 1967 after the Six Day War. Almost half of the people in the camps live below the poverty line.

Most of the refugees don’t have social security numbers, because Jordan provided them with temporary passports. Strict Jordanian laws make it increasingly hard for Palestinians to work without a social security number. UNRWA said Palestinian refugees often have trouble renewing their temporary passports because of high fees.

UNRWA provides Palestinian refugees in the camps with health care, women’s centres and education. The agency hosts 171 schools with more than 121,000 students. The children go to school from age 6 to 16 and can get an additional two years of education from the Jordanian government. Higher education is not an option for most Palestinians growing up in the camps. Without a social security number, they’re charged the same as foreign students, which is almost double the price Jordanian students pay.

Since the budget cuts this year, UNRWA has been in the process of a “root-and-branch reform.” “We have saved tens of millions from the donor community,” said UNRWA spokesman Christopher Gunness, “but since the US decided to defund the organisation, we’ve had to cut our emergency programmes, which include food, cash for work and mental health services.”

If Jordan assents to Kushner’s request and removes the refugee status of Palestinians in Jordan, it could mean the end of UNRWA.

UNRWA, however, is not only a humanitarian organisation; it’s also political. The agency preserves the right of return granted to the Palestinians in UN Resolution 194, which states that refugees wishing to go home and live in peace with their neighbours will be allowed to do so as soon as possible.

Most Palestinian refugees, especially those living in dire circumstances, wish to someday return to their homes in Israel. “We believe that all UN resolutions must be implemented. How the right of return is implemented is up to the parties in the negotiations but it must be in accordance with international law and in consultation with the refugees,” said Gunness.

Aside from the emotional aspect of the right of return, removing the Palestinians’ refugee status, and with it the right of return, could be a positive development for the Palestinians in Jordan. Those living in refugee camps could move elsewhere in the country and build their lives in Jordan. However, this can only happen if Jordan accepts them as full Jordanian citizens.

The United States contemplates cutting all funding for UNRWA and providing aid to Jordan instead but Amman never wanted to accept Palestinians as its citizens and there’s no reason to believe it can take care of Palestinians in their current position as refugees. Even if Jordan could financially afford to take care of the refugees, its state institutions are weak and most likely incapable of providing the same support as UNRWA.

Unless Jordan changes its attitude towards Palestinians, putting full responsibility in the hands of Jordan instead of UNRWA would lead to chaos and fast deterioration of the situation.