UNRWA’s Legal Importance and its Impact on Refugees’ Future: Seminar Held by Association 302

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On September 9, 2020, the Association 302 to Defend Refugee Rights held a legal seminar on "the legal importance of UNRWA and its impact on the future of the Palestinian refugee issue," moderated by journalist Fatima Al-Qadi, as part of the its seminar series that tackles political, humanitarian and legal dimension of the refugee cause.

The "Association 302" hosted a number of experts and specialists in international law and the work of UNRWA, who addressed several themes relating to UNRWA and its legal status.

The Director General of "Association 302", Ali Hweidi, spoke about the international protection of Palestinian refugees, and related services which are provided under three labels: "humanitarian, legal and physical protection."

He said:

“A refugee is a legal status whereby a person acquires the right to international protection, that is, from the United Nations itself. This protection is an obligation, it is not a grant. It is an international responsibility that remains in place until the asylum status ends under the provisions of international law and the return is achieved.”

Hweidi added that one of the reasons for the US-Israel led strategic targeting of UNRWA is seeking to end the legal status of the Palestinian refugee in order to exempt and absolve the international community of legal responsibility for the emergence and continuation of the tragedy of Palestinian refugees.

Heading and managing the seminar, the former Palestinian Minister of Health and Chairman of the Council for International Relations in Palestine, Dr. Basem Naeem, said:

“One of the most important elements contained in the Trump plan and the current US administration’s vision for peace for the Middle East region is the issue of the refugees. The US administration and before it the Israeli occupation stated that the refugee problem constitutes the core of the conflict in the region.”

He added:

"When we talk about UNRWA, we are talking about the material, political and legal manifestation of this fundamental problem in the context of the struggle with the occupation."

The UNRWA, he stressed, is facing a strong attack, so as to "undermine its foundations and paralyze its ability to work in the service of refugees and protect their political and legal rights.”

"Legally fortifying the agency at this stage is the most prominent action in the battle to protect it from its demise,” he said.

For her part, the official of the Legal Aid Unit within the Protection Department at UNRWA - Lebanon Region, Carol Mansour, spoke about the assistance and legal services provided by the Agency to Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.

She stated that the legal services project for refugees in Lebanon was launched in 2010 after the establishment of the Protection Department in the Lebanese region, with the aim of raising awareness among refugees about their legal rights.

She explained that this project provides four types of services, namely, "awareness sessions in the camps about the different rights of refugees, legal advice services, direct legal aid, in addition to a judicial representation service."

Mansour necessitated that the number of project workers in Lebanon be increased due to the need, as it is limited to four employees, compared to similar projects provided by international organizations with about 200 employees, demanding that council offices in Lebanon be at the heart of the agency’s budget and that they be generalized in other areas, instead of leaving the project to be a temporary enterprise.

Dr. Anis Fawzi Kassim, an expert in international law, approached the issue of UNRWA and its legal role regarding Palestinian refugees.

He said:

"The decision to establish UNRWA was a decision issued by the United Nations, and as it was issued by the United Nations, it is an international agency and has a stable legal status for more than 70 years."

He explained that the basis for UNRWA was the employment of refugees in preparation for their resettlement.

Kassim indicated that the second Commissioner-General of UNRWA tried to expand the scope of operation at the expense of relief and to develop several programs that would resettle refugees, allocating them a large budget. Nevertheless, these programs failed because of the Palestinian refugees' resistance to any project intended for resettlement or cancelling the decision to compensate or return refugees to their homes.

Professor Shafiq Al-Masri, an expert in international law and a former professor at the American University and the Faculty of Law at the Lebanese University, also addressed the General Assembly’s decision to establish UNRWA and its link to the right of return.

He stressed that UNRWA is important when speaking of its existence and contribution to achieving the return, indicating that it was established mainly to help Palestinian refugees for a temporary period until they return to their homes.

He accentuated the need to adhere to this agency to promote the refugees’ right to return and self-determination.

For his part, the founder and head of Law for Palestine, Ihssan Adel, stressed the importance of legalizing relations between UNRWA and the host countries, and explained that what is meant by the word legalization is that there are legal agreements between the organization and the country in which it is located, which is legally called "the headquarters agreement.”

Adel stated that all agreements and memoranda of understanding between UNRWA and the host countries did not rise to the level of treaties, but rather aimed more at dealing with a temporary asylum situation.

He emphasized that the relationship between UNRWA and the host countries always takes place in a general context far from legalizing the relationship.

He stressed the importance of having a headquarters agreement between UNRWA and the host countries for various reasons, the most important of which is "the long-term refugee status of Palestinians, which has spanned more than 70 years, and the absence of an agreement that defines the image of the relationship, which has pushed UNRWA to occupy a leading position in the relationship with refugees in the host countries and make it play the roles of governments.”

He pointed out that the services provided by states to refugees need coordination between them and UNRWA so that refugees can benefit from them.

The lawyer and member of the legal committee at the People's Conference for Palestinians Abroad, Enas Zayed, spoke about the legal consequences and effects in the event that the work of UNRWA is terminated, and stated that it will have an impact on more than one level such as refugees, host countries, and contracts between UNRWA and countries, in addition to its impact on the occupation itself.

She said:

"The abolition of UNRWA's work will have a major impact on the refugees because of the relief and legal services it provides to them, in addition to its role in implementing their right of return.”

Zayed described UNRWA as a "legal umbrella for refugees" in the countries in which they are located that protects them from being deprived of some rights such as education, housing, life and others.

She added that the absence of UNRWA may lead to the lack of knowledge of the number of refugees inheriting the status of asylum, as it operates periodic statistics for the number of refugees.

She emphasized that ending the legal presence of UNRWA would lead to "obliterating the occupation's crimes since the beginning of the Palestinian refugee movement to this day, because it is considered an eyewitness to the crimes of the occupation seven decades ago."

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