Jan 27 2010

Lessons from the World’s Most Successful Refugee Camp

We learned this week that Canada is the first Western nation to pull the plug on UNRWA, the United Nations-run relief operation for Palestinian refugees of the West Bank and Gaza. The government has been quick to clarify that relief is still on the way. It will now be dedicated to specific projects like food aid; hopefully with enough oversight to prevent mismanagement and inadvertent support to a terrorist organization.

The government’s move is also a not-so-subtle indictment of a broken refugee support program that has arguably only perpetuated Palestinian misery and held up the Middle East peace process. As we look forward, the international community might take a lesson from the other side of the border from the UNRWA camps to Israel, which may fairly take the title of most successful refugee camp in modern history.

The Forgotten Refugees
When someone uses the phrase, “refugees” in the context of the Middle East, we typically think of the Palestinian refugees who lost their homes during the Arab-Israeli wars of 1948 and 1967. The common narrative also holds that when we talk of Jewish refugees, we’re talking about white, European Jews who escaped the Holocaust to seek some measure of safety not only in the Holy Land, but also in the USA, Canada and elsewhere. But these narratives overlook a movement of nearly one million Jewish refugees from Arab countries during those same years, roughly equivalent in number to the original Palestinian refugees. They were largely persecuted, second-class citizens set upon by their neighbors and governments.

“We call these people the forgotten refugees,” says Regina Waldman, founder of JIMENA, an organization seeking recognition for these people in the context of an overall settlement in the Middle East. Waldman was herself a refugee from Libya in 1967, surviving anti-Jewish riots and other violence that claimed the lives of her friends and neighbors before escaping the country. Waldman wants to see a regional peace deal that puts Palestinians’ claims “on an equal footing with the Middle Eastern and North African Jews”.

“When the Six-Day-War broke out between Israel and its Arab neighbors, I was 19 year old,” Waldman remembers. “My mother called me at work to tell me that thousands of people had taken to the streets rioting and burning Jewish properties… Killing people, rampaging and burning Jewish properties went on for days. I lived in hiding for a month before returning home.”

A Jewish community that had lived in that country for over 2,000 years, albeit under second-class Dhimmi status, was wiped out as Jews fled lynchings, mob violence and torture and imprisonment by the government. This process was repeated across the region in Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon and Iran.

One Group Finds Haven, Another is Rejected
Most of the refugees were resettled in Israel. For many, their first stop looked much like refugee camps elsewhere: a sprawling tent city in the middle of a wasteland. But these traumatized survivors would have a vastly different outcome than their counterparts elsewhere, particularly the Palestinians. The refugee tent cities were way-stations, not permanent residences. “All of these people were absorbed into Israel and became part of the society, and without even taking a nickel from the United Nations,” Waldman noted. Israelis ignored the obvious difficulties for a tiny relatively poor state to take in so many refugees at once, understanding that the priority was to give people with a common heritage a home and a chance for better life.

In contrast, where Palestinians attempted to find homes among their Arab neighbors, they were nearly always turned back, despite the ancient links of culture, ethnicity, religion, trade and even close family ties that formerly bound them to other countries in the region. Notably, many Palestinian refugees have migrated quite successfully to countries well outside the Arab world such as Canada. But for the Palestinians who remain in the camps, they have inherited a United Nations welfare state. They’ve received billions of dollars since 1948. Meanwhile, conditions in the Palestinian territories remain atrocious.

Canada’s decision on changing its funding vehicle for Palestinians works as a wake-up call to the international community that we don’t want to keep reinforcing failure. We want to see better outcomes. Hopefully, when a solution does come, it will recognize the claims of all the refugees, including the forgotten ones.

NEW MEDIA EDITOR’S NOTE: If you are a Jewish refugee from the Arab world, the people at JIMENA would be grateful if you would share your personal story with them. They have a growing collection of personal stories of the refugees who immigrated to Israel and other countries. You can contact them here.

A Record of the Forgotten Refugees

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5 responses so far

5 Responses to “Lessons from the World’s Most Successful Refugee Camp”

  1. DimLampon 31 Jan 2010 at 7:13 am

    Excellent video. Thanks for sharing it.

  2. David Zeglenon 01 Feb 2010 at 3:16 am


    I know this is beside the point you’ve made, but what do you make of UNRWA? Are you convinced they’ve been mis-managed and given inadvertent support to Hamas? What do you make of ‘Setting the record straight?’


  3. Dan Hilbornon 01 Feb 2010 at 10:41 am

    (Sorry for the idealism, but … 😉

    Wouldn’t a successful refugee camp be one that closes, after all the people go to new, safe homes, away from a war zone?

  4. jnarveyon 01 Feb 2010 at 11:09 am

    Hey David. I’m afraid I’m no expert on UNRWA. I just know what I read. From what I have read, it seems as though they make no effort at all to prevent Hamas members from joining their staff — in effect, subsidizing a terrorist organization. I also feel that any humanitarian organization operating in a territory officially run by known terrorists in effect underwrites these psychos’ operations — though I don’t see a viable alternative to offering aid to a population that can’t fend for itself, whether or not their economic problems may be considered self-inflicted.

    Hey Dan. Well, perhaps I didn’t make myself clear. Absolutely, I agree that a successful refugee camp is a way-station to a better life. My point was that Israel resettled the Jewish refugees from Arab lands. But where Palestinian refugees attempted to resettle, at least as a temporary solution until the formation of a Palestinian state, into Arab lands, they were almost uniformly rejected. The Arab states and Palestinians might take their cue from the Israelis, who did not hesitate to let in their brethren in desperate need.

    I understand the logic that Palestinians are afraid their claim to the land will diminish if they try to make a better life somewhere else (eg. if a bunch of Gazans decided to settle in Egypt or Jordan, they might be seen as giving up any ties to villages in Israel they used to claim as a home). But in the meantime, about 4 million Palestinians have been stuck in limbo as stateless, impoverished refugees for decades — and the vast majority of these people weren’t even alive during the initial conflict of 1948, or even in 1967. I propose that the humane thing to do to relieve this suffering is to resettle at least some of these people into the Arab world, where they do share links of culture, religion, tradition, and even blood ties. Wait for a final and lasting peace in the Middle East for a resolution to this situation and these poor people might just be there for decades longer — or indefinitely.

  5. Markon 16 Mar 2010 at 10:44 am

    “In contrast, where Palestinians attempted to find homes among their Arab neighbors, they were nearly always turned back, despite the ancient links of culture, ethnicity, religion, trade and even close family ties that formerly bound them to other countries in the region. ”

    That is the only thing I need to know. This fact is not further examined by you or by the MSM.

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