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Awash In Refugees, Whose Needs Come First?

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We are awash in refugees, today, especially with the disaster taking place in Syria. We have limited resources -- human and financial. We must prioritize the needs of all these people; caught in a world not of their making.

There are currently 43-million uprooted victims of conflict and persecution worldwide. More than 15 million of them are refugees who've fled their countries; another 27 million are displaced by conflict inside their own homelands, "internally displaced people," who outnumber refugees by nearly two to one. UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported last year 23,000 people per day were forced to leave their homes due to conflict and persecution. Unfortunately, the burden falls on developing countries who host more than 80 per cent of the world's refugees.

There are two distinct groups of refugees and service providers: The UNHCR overseeing 10.4-million refugees worldwide; and the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) caring for 4.8-million registered Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the "occupied" Palestinian territory, 2 per cent of which is Jewish.

UNHCR defines a refugee as someone who's fled his or her country "owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion." They face loss of their home, livelihood and community. You are a refugee for one generation after which time you lose refugee status.

The definition of "refugee" for Palestinians is significantly different because it includes descendants of Palestinian refugee males, including legally adopted children. Numbers are declining under UNHCR (people assimilate and the numbers go down) whereas in UNRWA there's an inflation: between 5-6 million.

In 2005 UNRWA had a staff of 24,300, and $339 million to support 4.1-million Palestinian refugees in just five territories (or $83 per refugee), while UNHCR, with a staff of 6,450 had $992 million to support 19.2-million refugees and asylum seekers in 116 countries (or $52 per refugee).

Here are some financial numbers from multiple sources. I find them confusing. They agree on one thing: enormous amounts of money going to one specific group, Palestinian refugees, the bulk of which comes from the West.

According to the Palestinian Authority of Finance, UNRWA received $3.95 billion in international funding between 1993 and 2004. In 2011 UNRWA received $1.23 billion, roughly half of it provided by the U.S and the European Commission -- its two largest donors, followed by Sweden, Britain and Norway.

The budget for the Palestinian refugees in 2012 was $644,701,999 in contributions of which the U.S., EU, U.K., Sweden, Norway, Germany, the Netherlands and Japan pay 71 per cent of the annual UNRWA budget.

The other 29 per cent is shared up by countries including Saudi Arabia (15th) $12,030,540, less than half the contribution of a tiny country like The Netherlands, and in 18th place, Turkey which contributes only $8,100,000. Qatar, which spent millions on obtaining the 2022 soccer World cup, contributed exactly $0 to their Palestinian brothers.

Richard Behar of Forbes magazine wrote:

"Arab oil-rich nations could have long ago transformed the Palestinian territories (where their brethren live) into a model of what a modern state would look like. Instead, they let Western donor nations foot most of the bills with money that has largely gone down the drain or been squandered corruptly."

Canada stopped its core funding of roughly 10 million dollars annually for UNRWA in 2010.

September 23, Canada has pledged $30 million to the Palestinian Authority.

More than half the refugees for whom the UNHCR is responsible have been in exile for more than five years. There are currently 25 of these so-called "protracted situations" in 21 countries worldwide. UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness confirmed "at the end of 2006, over half of the 9.9-million refugees worldwide were living in exile in protracted situations."

"The 10 largest populations living in protracted situations are: 1. More than 1 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan; 2. Nearly 1 million Afghan refugees in the Islamic Republic of Iran; 3. 350,000 Burundians in the United Republic of Tanzania; 4. 215,000 Sudanese in Uganda; 5. 174,000 Somalis in Kenya; 6. 157,000 Eritreans in Sudan; 7. 132,000 Angolans in the Democratic Republic of Congo; 8. 132,000 refugees from Myanmar in Thailand; 9. 128,000 Congolese (DRC) in the United Republic of Tanzania; 10. 107,000 Bhutanese in Nepal."

Roma refugees from Kosovo, 1999, live in Konik camp, one of the biggest settlements for Roma refugees in Montenegro, built near a garbage dump; no electricity, cooking facilities, running water or sanitation.

Doctors Without Borders reported about the dangerous conditions for Zimbabweans fleeing and now living at the edges of South Africa where they lack access to health care. In 2010 they still lacked health care, shelter, safety, and faced violence, police harassment and xenophobic attacks. I don't remember reading or hearing about their plight.

In Mali, the citizens dealing with drought and famine face clashes with rebels and government forces resulting in hundreds of thousands of people fleeing their homes. There are human rights violations, no basic services because Mali doesn't provide access for humanitarian aid. This situation triggered the internal displacement of an estimated 204,000 while more than 200,000 Malians have found refuge in neighbouring Mauritania, Niger and Burkina Faso, all needing the help of UNHCR.

As of the end of May, Ethiopia is hosting 71,833 Eritrean refugees in four camps in Tigray region and two others in the Afar region in north-eastern Ethiopia. Transfers to the new camp are taking place every second day.

According to UNHCR, there are 3.7-million Somalis now "who are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance" as a result of conflict or food insecurity.

UNHCR reported during the first six months of 2013, more than 46,000 refugees and migrants arrived in Yemen a country that has received close to half a million refugees since 2006.

More than 2.7-million Afghans continue to live in exile in neighbouring countries while 5.7-million refugees have voluntarily repatriated to Afghanistan in the last 10 years. UNHCR repatriated more than 4.6 million.

Refugee camps are to be generally set up spontaneously for a short time to meet basic human needs. Hundreds of thousands of people may live in any one single camp.

On the other hand, almost one third of Palestinian refugees live in concrete blockhouses and neighbourhoods, camps "indistinguishable from their surroundings" like Baqa'a refugee camp (pop 80,000) in Jordan, celebrating its 50th anniversary, older than most Israeli towns, is block after block of residential homes, stores and markets, multi-story office buildings, schools, hospitals and infrastructure.

Ramallah, 20 minutes from Jerusalem is thriving from the aid money, while according to a Palestinian CEO, the rest of Palestine has a lower living standard.

"Because there's so much aid money flowing in that people become sort of nonchalant to everything, and people are a bit lazy." He added that most of that aid money stays in Ramallah, creating "a huge difference in lifestyle" between his city and the rest of the Palestinian territories. "People are very angry about that."

Unfortunately, Palestine refugees in Lebanon remain excluded from key aspects of social, political and economic life in the country. They're barred from owning property or practising in more than 30 professions. The Lebanese army controls access to Palestine refugee camps restricting refugees' mobility.

Gaza is no longer "occupied." The West Bank is under the care of the Palestinian Authority. Some might wonder why they are still supported by UNRWA. Like the host governments of Jordan, Lebanon and Syria the Palestinian Authority falls under the same category which means providing services (money) to the refugees in these areas in accordance with its mandate from the General Assembly. Needless to say, the Palestinian Authority strongly supports the continuation of UNRWA's operations in support of the refugees.

It does give one pause to wonder about the refugees elsewhere who have faced rape and torture, genocide, horror and live in squalor-without basic needs, let alone infrastructure.

Where will we spend our limited resources? On refugees worldwide, in terrible conditions or on Palestinian "refugees" who have not made any attempt to move on in 65 years?