As a followup to my post about UNRWA and defining refugees, it looks like the reality is a bit simpler than I thought.
I asked an international legal scholar about UNRWA's definition of refugees, and he responded simply "There is only one treaty that defines refugees – the 1951 convention."
Reading the Refugee Convention more carefully, this is in fact the case. It doesn't say that Palestinians are or aren't refugees; it merely says that they are not eligible for protection under the Refugee Convention because UNRWA already existed. Their refugee status is simply not addressed in the Convention - because there is only one definition.
Any person who...owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.
The first article of the Convention then lists people for whom the Convention doesn't apply, for example those who are guilty of war crimes or those who become citizens of another country. And Palestinian Arabs are excluded as well. This was done at the request of Arab countries. Since UNRWA was considered temporary, the Convention says that Palestinian Arabs will fall under the provisions of the Convention as soon as UNRWA no longer can be responsible for them. Then they would only be considered refugees if they fit under the Refugee Convention definition and not under the rest of its exclusions.
Likewise, in their carefully written policy documents, UNRWA doesn't define the people registered with UNRWA as "refugees." They refer to them almost invariably as "Palestine Refugees." sometimes with the word "refugees" capitalized, but that is nomenclature, not descriptive.
UNRWA also takes pains to say that they are using the term only for the purposes of determining who is eligible for services, not as a legal term. It is a working definition.
UNRWA is not trying to define the term "refugee," because it cannot do that: the Refugee Convention is the only place the term can be defined. All UNRWA can do is decide who they want to provide services to, and the main (but not only) category of those people is what they name "Palestine Refugees." It doesn't mean that they are real refugees any more than the UN calling Gaza "Occupied Palestinian Territory" means that Gaza is legally occupied - something the UN essentially admitted.
It is simply a word game.
Let's look again at UNRWA's definition in its "Consolidated Eligibility and Registration Instructions" with this in mind:
Persons who meet UNRWA’s Palestine Refugee criteria
These are persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine during the period 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948, and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict. Palestine Refugees, and descendants of Palestine refugee males, including legally adopted children, are eligible to register for UNRWA services. The Agency accepts new applications from persons who wish to be registered as Palestine Refugees. Once they are registered with UNRWA, persons in this category are referred to as Registered Refugees or as Registered Palestine Refugees.
Notice how UNRWA capitalizes "Palestine Refugees" but doesn't capitalize the "r" in "descendants of Palestine refugee males." This is because the descendants are also "Palestine Refugees" but they are not real refugees.
On UNRWA's website, capitalizing the R in refugees is not standard - but the phrase "Palestine refugees" is ubiquitous. Only rarely do they refer to "refugees" without a qualifier of "Palestine refugees" or "registered refugees." Once you are aware of that fact, it is honestly irritating to read their literature. They are trying hard to make the causal reader think that "Palestine refugees" are refugees, but as my lawyer friend points out, they cannot.
So for example this 2010 document that attempts to show the difference between UNRWA and UNHRC consistently says that UNHRC takes care of "refugees" while UNRWA takes care of "Palestine refugees" with the word "Palestine" italicized throughout. Once you understand that "Palestine refugees" is simply a phrase that has no legal meaning these paragraphs suddenly make much more sense.
Palestine Refugees as Defined by UNRWA
Anyone whose normal place of residence was in Mandate Palestine during the period from 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948 and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war qualifies as a Palestine refugee, as defined by UNRWA, and is eligible for UNRWA registration. Hence the reference to Palestine refugees, not Palestinian refugees, in UNRWA’s name and official documents.
Here they say explicitly that UNRWA defines what a "Palestine refugee" is but in no way are they saying that they are actual refugees - because only the Refugee Convention can do that.
On the other hand, when the same document refers to "Palestinian refugees" it refers to Palestinians who are real refugees under the Refugee Convention, and therefore (if they are outside UNRWA areas) they are eligible for UNHCR protection. Typically these are refugees from Syria or Iraq who happen to be of Palestinian descent.
UNHCR has a world-wide mandate to protect, assist, and seek durable solutions for refugees as well as for other people in need of international protection. UNHCR’s mandate covers Palestinians who are refugees within the meaning of the 1951 Refugee Convention, which could include Palestine refugees as defined by UNRWA. UNHCR normally takes up the case of Palestinian refugees only when they are outside UNRWA’s area of operations.
Notice how the document distinguishes between "refugees within the meaning of the 1951 Refugee Convention" and "Palestine refugees as defined by UNRWA." Only the former are real refugees under international law, because only the 1951 Refugee Convention defines what a refugee is. Only real refugees can apply for asylum in other countries, not "Palestine refugees" (again, unless they are fleeing persecution for other reasons.) UNRWA merely defines who is eligible for their services and, for most of them, they call the "Palestine refugees." They could call them Blurpies - it would be just as meaningful.
Other UN agencies will not be so particular and will mix up "Palestine refugees" with real refugees. Sadly, even UNHCR - which has an interest in inflating the number of refugees worldwide - will count UNRWA's "Palestine refugees" as real refugees in their annual reports and ignore the definitions in the Refugee Convention. Over the decades, the UN has happily pushed the myth of a growing number of Palestinian refugees - but UNRWA knows better by insisting on calling them "Palestine refugees." The media, of course, is often complicit with this.
The term "Palestine refugees" is meant to deceive. And UNRWA has done a brilliant job in doing exactly that.