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United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Today the world is experiencing the largest humanitarian crisis since the end of World War II and the Holocaust.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimated that by the end of 2015 more than 65 million individuals had been forcibly displaced from their homes. Some 16 million of these people are refugees. The others remain displaced within the borders of the country as internally displaced persons. Three countries, Syria, Afghanistan, and Somalia, account for more than half of all refugees.

Since the outbreak of the Syrian uprising and civil war in 2011, more than half of all Syrians have been displaced from their homes. Almost 5 million of these have fled the country due to war crimes and crimes against humanity including persecution, torture, the besieging of communities and aerial bombardment at the hands of the Syrian regime and of extremist forces, including the In addition to Syria, large numbers of displaced persons have fled atrocity crises in recent years in Burma, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, and South Sudan, among others. Since 2014, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have fled the campaign of religious persecution and mass murder waged by ISIS in northern Iraq. In November 2015, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum published its findings that ISIS had committed genocide against the Yezidi and widespread crimes against humanity against other religious communities, including both Christian and Muslim groups.


Recognizing its moral failure to help Jews and others fleeing Nazi persecution before World War II, and faced with hundreds of thousands of displaced persons at the war's end, the international community made important commitments to assist and protect refugees.

In 1948, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which recognizes the right of every individual to seek and enjoy asylum from persecution. In 1951, the UN established the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and adopted the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. The latter established the basic international obligation not to return people to countries where their life or freedom might be threatened. The United States accepted this obligation in 1968.

The Refugee Convention defines refugees as persons who are outside their native country or country of habitual residence and who cannot return to their country or call on its protection because they fear that they will be persecuted on the basis of their “race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.” The convention guarantees refugees a wide range of civil and human rights, including freedom of association, the right of legal redress, and protection from discrimination.

These landmark commitments by the UN established the plight of refugees as a responsibility of the international community. They continue to shape policy today.


Not all persons forcibly displaced from their homes are refugees under international law. “Internally displaced persons” are those who have fled their homes, perhaps for the same reasons as refugees, but have not left the country in which they have been living. Under international law, they still technically fall under the protection of their own government, even if that government is responsible for their displacement.

At the end of 2015, over 40 million people were classified as “internally displaced persons.” Individuals who have crossed an international border fleeing economic misery, civil war, or natural disasters, such as floods, earthquakes, and drought, also do not qualify for refugee status. As a result, such persons do not receive the same legal protections as refugees.


Today's refugee crisis is the product of conflicts that involve mass atrocities and human rights violations. The vast majority of current refugees are in countries neighboring their homelands. For example, 97% of registered Syrian refugees in 2017 are in the neighboring states of Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq.  Such large inflows of refugees put serious strains on the host countries' resources. Uprooted from their homes, communities, and cultures and often traumatized by their experiences, most refugees live in crowded conditions, unable to find work or provide for their families. Some refugees are seeking to move on to more distant countries where they hope for the opportunity to lead safe and productive lives.

In addition to straining resources, large inflows of refugees can raise national and regional tensions that may have far-reaching consequences. The refugee flow created by Rwanda's genocide contributed to the igniting of two international wars and ongoing insurgencies that have led to more than 5 million deaths in neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo.

In Europe today, the influx of refugees and an even larger number of migrants has sparked political backlash and contributed to a rise in racism and xenophobia.

Preventing and responding to conflicts before they put populations at risk and providing adequate support and protection for refugees are key requirements for preventing future genocides.



1948 Palestinian exodus: 711,000 (estimated)

1948 refugees still alive (2012): 30,000 to 50,000 (estimated)

1967 Palestinian exodus:[4] 280,000 to 325,000

Descendants (2012): 4,950,000 (estimated)


Total (2015): 5,149,742

For the basis of this figure also see the UNRWA definition

Regions of operation: Gaza Strip, West Bank, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan


Estimate (2015): 1,049,848–1,380,714

Assumes approximately one-quarter of 1948 refugees are unregistered


Total (2014): 97,212

Regions with significant populations:[6] Gulf States, Egypt, Iraq, Yemen, as well as Australia, Europe and America


Jordan 2,117,361

Gaza Strip 1,276,929

West Bank 774,167

Syria 528,616

Lebanon 452,669

Total 5,149,742

The term "Palestine refugees" originally referred to both Arabs and Jews whose normal place of residence had been in Mandatory Palestine but were displaced and lost their livelihoods as a result of the 1948 Palestine war.The UNRWA definition of the term includes the patrilineal descendants of the original "Palestine refugees", but is limited to persons residing in UNRWA's areas of operation in the Palestinian territories, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria.In 2012, there were an estimated 4,950,000 registered patrilineal descendants of the original "Palestine refugees",based on the UNRWA registration requirements, of which an estimated 1.5 million lived in UNRWA camps. The number of original refugees "who meet UNRWA's Palestine Refugee criteria" was 711,000 in 1950of which approximately 30,000–50,000 were still alive in 2012. The term does not include internally displaced Palestinians.

During the 1948 Palestine War, around 85% (720,000 people) of the Palestinian Arab population of what became Israel fled or were expelled from their homes, to the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and to the countries of Lebanon, Syria and Jordan.They, and their descendants, who are also entitled to registration, are assisted by UNWRA in 59 registered camps, 10 of which were established in the aftermath of the Six-Day War in 1967 to cope with new Palestinian refugees. Being the only refugees in the world to be mainly inherited, including unregistered, displaced persons and refugee descendants, the Palestinian Arab refugee and displaced population has grown to be the second largest in the world, after an estimated 11,000,000 Syrians displaced by the Syrian Civil War. They are also the world's oldest unsettled refugee population, having been under the ongoing governance of Arab states following the 1948 Arab–Israeli War, the refugee populations of the West Bank under Israeli governance since the Six Day War, and the Gaza Strip administered by the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) since 2007. Citizenship or legal residency in host countries is denied in Lebanon where the absorption of Palestinians would upset a delicate confessional balance, but available in Jordan where approximately 40% of UNWRA-registered Palestinian refugees have acquired full citizenship rights.

On 11 December 1948, the UN General Assembly in non-binding Resolution 194, Article 11 resolved that the refugees who wish to "live at peace with their neighbors … should be permitted" to return to their homes at the "earliest practicable date" This forms one basis for the Palestinian political claim for a 'Palestinian right of return'.

An independent poll conducted in 2003 with the Palestinian populations of Gaza, West Bank, Jordan and Lebanon showed that the majority (54%) would accept a financial compensation and a place to live in West Bank or Gaza in place of returning to the exact place in modern-day Israel where they or their ancestors lived (this possibility of settlement is contemplated in the Resolution 194). Only 10% said they would live in Israel if given the option.

The Tower Asaf Romirowsky

Who are these refugees? How many actual refugees from 1948 are alive today? How is it possible that while other refugee populations shrink, the Palestinian refugees only grow? Why do they have their own UN agency separate from the other refugees around the world? A sobering look at the hijacking of humanitarian concepts for political ends.

Perhaps the most insurmountable and explosive issue in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the so-called “right of return”—the demand that millions of Palestinians must be allowed to “return” to the State of Israel under any peace agreement. While Israel has made clear that it cannot agree to this, since it would effectively destroy Israel as a Jewish state, the Palestinians have steadfastly refused to compromise on the issue. This has made the “right of return” the primary obstacle to any peace agreement.

Despite the latest round of peace talks, there is little sign that the Palestinians are willing to change their stance. Indeed, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has unequivocally stated,

“Let me put it simply: the right of return is a personal decision. What does this mean? That neither the PA, nor the state, nor the PLO, nor Abu Mazen [Abbas’ nom de guerre], nor any Palestinian or Arab leader has the right to deprive someone from his right to return.”

Abbas is by no means alone in this. In fact, whenever it appears that Abbas might waver, the reaction tends to be swift and ferocious.

At one point, for example, Ali Huwaidi, director of the Palestinian Organization for the Right of Return (“Thabit”) in Beirut, lashed out at Abbas, saying,

Regardless of Abbas’ statements, the right of return is guaranteed, individually and collectively, through UN resolutions. The refugees will not give up their right no matter where they are living today. Abbas is worried about flooding Israel with five million refugees while Israel has brought one million people from the former Soviet Union and no one complained about this. Our refugees will not accept any alternative to their right to return to their homeland and we do not care what Abbas’ position is.

But how many actual refugees are there? Surely over the years, many of those displaced have passed away, and such status does not normally transfer from generation to generation.

The issue is so emotive because, in many ways, Palestinian identity itself is embodied in the collective belief in a “right of return” to “Palestine.” Along with the belief that resistance to Israel is permanent and holy, Palestinian identity is largely based on the idea that the Palestinians are, individually and communally, refugees; that they have been made so by Israel; and that the United Nations should support these refugees until they can return to what is now Israel.

This belief is passionately safeguarded by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). The organization was established in 1949 following the failure of the Arab war against Israel’s independence, and its original mandate was to provide services to the approximately 650,000 Arabs displaced by the conflict. Today, it is essentially a massive social welfare system serving millions of Palestinians, primarily in the West Bank, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan. At the same time, its activities go well beyond simple humanitarianism. It plays a distinctly political role in Palestinian society, working to further the cause of Palestinian nationalism through politicized education, activism, anti-Israel propaganda, and other activities.

In effect, UNRWA has come to depend on the refugee problem itself. While the refugees benefit from its services, the organization benefits even more from the refugees. They are, of course, the organization’s raison d’être. UNRWA has no incentive whatsoever to resolve the Palestinian refugee problem, since doing so would render it obsolete. As a result, the agency not only perpetuates the refugee problem, but has, in many ways, exacerbated it. In doing so, it has made Israeli-Palestinian peace all but impossible.

UNRWA’s role in perpetuating and even expanding the refugee problem is a complex one; but, more than anything else, it is the result of the agency’s own definition of a Palestinian refugee—which is unique in world history. The standard definition of a refugee, which applies in every case except that of the Palestinians, includes only those actually displaced in any given conflict. UNRWA has defined a Palestinian refugee as anyone 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.”

But it has also continually expanded this definition, now stating

“the children or grandchildren of such refugees are eligible for agency assistance if they are (a) registered with UNRWA, (b) living in the area of UNRWA’s operations, and (c) in need.

As a result, the number of official Palestinian refugees—according to UNRWA— has expanded almost to the point of absurdity. The best estimates are that perhaps 650,000 Palestinians became refugees in 1948-1949; but UNRWA now defines virtually every Palestinian born since that time as a refugee. That number now reaches well into the millions. This is quite simply unprecedented. In no other case has refugee status been expanded to include subsequent generations over a period of decades.

UNRWA’s involvement in Palestinian society is equally unique. Its role there has expanded from simple refugee relief to one of the most important and influential Palestinian institutions. In particular, the agency now employs nearly 30,000 people, most of whom are Palestinian. This makes UNRWA the single largest employer in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and indispensable to the Palestinian economy. As such, there is a strong economic incentive to keep the prosperous organization afloat.

Palestinian children perform with parachutes during summer camp activities supervised by UNRWA in Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip, June 30, 2011. They attempted to break the Guinness world record for most parachutes bounced simultaneously. Photo by Abed Rahim Khatib / Flash90

Palestinian children perform with parachutes during summer camp activities supervised by UNRWA in Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip, June 30, 2011. They attempted to break the Guinness world record for most parachutes bounced simultaneously. Photo: Abed Rahim Khatib / Flash90

It cannot be said that the agency is ungenerous to its subjects. When the world hears words like “refugees” and “refugee camps,” it instinctively pictures desperate people living in tents or shantytowns. This generates automatic sympathy and financial support for organizations like UNRWA, which regularly receives monetary contributions amounting to millions of dollars. All this is due to the belief that these funds provide humanitarian aid and help with the assimilation of Palestinian refugees. In many cases, the reality is entirely different. UNRWA-administered refugee camps are often fully-functioning suburbs of Palestinian cities, with water, electricity, and even satellite television.

UNRWA’s role as a jobs machine and a pillar of the Palestinian economy has led to institutional bloat on a huge scale. Its 30,000 employees, for example, dwarf the approximately 5,000 who work for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), whose remit is the rest of the entire world. The UNHCR mandate, moreover, is clearly focused on the resettlement and rehabilitation of refugees, not on providing services that maintain the status quo. The role played by economic incentives in these organizations is very telling. While UNHCR—forbidden by its mandate to work with Palestinians—has worked to decrease the number of refugees in the world, UNRWA has worked to increase the number of Palestinian refugees, prolonging and exacerbating the problem rather than solving it.

The result of this over-60-year-long process is that incentives for the refugees to resettle in Arab countries or elsewhere are minimal, and practically none exist for UNRWA to end its operations. UNRWA states that the Palestinians are an occupied people, and will remain so until the General Assembly declares an end to the conflict; so as long as the Palestinians are refugees, UNRWA is in business. The minute they are not, it disappears.

UNRWA’s flaws have not gone unnoticed, even by members of the organization itself. Indeed, the most important critique to appear in recent years was that of James Lindsay, a former legal advisor and general counsel to the organization. Lindsay worked for UNRWA from 2000-2007 and, after leaving, produced a 2009 monograph for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy that caused a firestorm.

Lindsay concluded to much controversy that “the vast majority of UNRWA’s registered refugees have already been ‘resettled’ (or, to use the UN euphemism, ‘reintegrated’),” and that the “only thing preventing citizens from ceasing to be ‘refugees’ is UNRWA’s singular definition of what constitutes a refugee.” Accordingly, Lindsay recommended that UNRWA responsibilities be handed over to Jordan. He acknowledged that legal restrictions on Palestinians being resettled in Syria and Lebanon were difficult, but not impossible to overcome given time and effort.

He also recommended that UNRWA move to a need-based model:

Some might question whether scarce international aid should be used to fund relatively sophisticated programs for Palestinians—not just education and health care, but also microfinance, urban planning, and so forth—rather than, say, food for starving Africans in places like Darfur. Even putting that question aside, why should such services be provided for free to those who can afford to contribute at least a portion of the cost?

Finally, Lindsay suggested that the United States

“urge UNRWA to limit its public pronouncements to humanitarian issues and leave political speeches to the political echelons of the United Nations.”

Lindsay’s fairly modest suggestions for reform were not well-received by the organization and its supporters. A press release issued by Andrew Whitley, director of the UNRWA representative office at United Nations headquarters in New York, said,

“The agency is disappointed by the findings of the study, found it to be tendentious and partial, and regrets in particular the narrow range of sources used.”

It added,

“The study ignores the context in which UNRWA operates and the tight line the agency walks due to various pressures…. Someone reading this paper with no background would assume that the Israeli government was a benign actor. No mention is made of the occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.”

Responses from other UNRWA officials were equally harsh. Chris Gunness, UNRWA’s spokesman in Jerusalem, said that Lindsay

“makes selective use of source material and fails to paint a truthful portrait of UNRWA and its operations today.”

John Ging, head of UNRWA operations in Gaza, attempted to deflect Lindsay’s criticism of negative depictions of Israel and Jews in UNRWA textbooks. In effect, he blamed the Palestinian Authority for the problem, saying Lindsay had

“no basis to say that it is UNRWA’s decision because our mandate is given to us. I agree that it is a political failure, but we don’t set up the mandate, we are only the implementers.”

This echoed previous UNRWA responses to similar evidence as far back as the late 1960s.

Critiques like Lindsay’s have had some political effect, but attempts at forcing institutional reform have tended to be undertaken piecemeal, rather than tackling the overall problem. Since the 1960s, for example, American lawmakers have tended to focus specifically on one of UNRWA’s darkest legacies: Its relationship with terrorism. As far back as Section 301(c) of the 1961 Foreign Assistance Act (P.L. 87-195), as amended, Congress decreed,

No contributions by the United States shall be made to [UNRWA] except on the condition that [UNRWA] take[s] all possible measures to assure that no part of the United States contribution shall be used to furnish assistance to any refugee who is receiving military training as a member of the so-called Palestine Liberation Army or any other guerrilla type organization or who has engaged in any act of terrorism.

This was certainly an important issue. Unfortunately, UNRWA’s relationship with Palestinian terrorism has been a long one, particularly after the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) achieved both international political status and practical authority over the UNRWA refugee camps. Through agreements with the government of Lebanon in 1969 and its eventual UN status as a formal observer, the PLO gained a quasi-governmental role in local and international Palestinian affairs. In his article, “UNRWA and the Palestinian Nation-Building Process,” Jalal al-Husseini wrote that the PLO soon began using UNRWA facilities as terrorist bases.

This continues to be a problem today. Lindsay himself noted,

UNRWA has taken very few steps to detect and eliminate terrorists from the ranks of its staff or its beneficiaries, and no steps at all to prevent members of terrorist organizations, such as Hamas, from joining its staff. These failings have occurred not because UNRWA consciously supports terrorism, but rather because it is not particularly concerned about the issue, its main focus being the provision of services and protection of Palestinian refugees.

The American government has not ignored this issue. Since the 1970s, a number of Congressional resolutions have sought to limit or cut off funding to UNRWA; and Congress regularly introduces language into appropriations bills requiring UNRWA to promote transparency, self-policing, and accountability with regard to vetting employees for terrorist connections, as well as eliminating the promotion of terrorism in educational materials. Similar provisions are regularly written into United States Agency for International Development budgets—administered by the State Department—in regard to the Palestinian Authority.

High-ranking members of Congress have also taken the problem up directly with the UN. In 2002, for example, a letter from U.S. Representative Tom Lantos—then the ranking Democrat on the House International Relations Committee—to then-UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, complained, “UNRWA officials have not only failed to prevent their camps from becoming centers of terrorist activity, but have also failed to report these developments to you.” Annan simply replied, “The United Nations has no responsibility for security matters in refugee camps, or indeed anywhere else in the occupied territory.”

Perversely, UNRWA now claims to have solved the problem by checking its employees against watch lists of al-Qaeda and Taliban suspects; yet it remains unwilling to use lists of Hamas, Hezbollah, or other Palestinian terrorist groups provided by Israel. There seems to be a good reason for this. Rashid Khalidi, the Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies at Columbia University—and a ferocious advocate of the Palestinian cause—has written,

Humanitarian and charitable institutions throughout Palestine employ personnel regardless of sectarian or political affiliation and offer services on a similar basis. Thus, UNRWA, NGO-run and public hospitals and clinics, for example, employ members of different political groups such as Fatah, the PFLP [Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine], Hamas, and Islamic Jihad, without reference to their belonging to a specific group.

A serious obstacle to effective action on the issue is that Congressional stipulations are regularly circumvented by presidential waiver, in which the president decrees that continuing aid to UNRWA and other Palestinian entities is in the national security interest of the United States, regardless of terrorist connections or structural concerns.

But this may no longer be enough. As pointed out in Congressional Research Service Report RS40101, concerns about UNRWA-connected terrorism have increased dramatically since the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip in 2007. It seems likely that, with the recent unity agreement between Hamas and Fatah, these concerns will only increase. Indeed, as U.S. funding of Palestinian institutions has escalated in recent decades, American lawmakers have repeatedly questioned members of the executive branch about possible diversion of U.S. funds to terrorism and the presence of terrorists in U.S.-funded entities.

As a result, Congress has taken several initiatives to hold UNRWA accountable. In 2009, Congressmen Mark Kirk and Steve Rothman introduced provisions for UNRWA accountability into relevant appropriations bills. They called for transparency and responsibility, and sought to ensure that the monies UNRWA receives do not fund terrorism in any way. This would finally have brought UNRWA funding into compliance with the 1961 Foreign Assistance Act. The bill also underscored the need to evaluate textbooks used in UNRWA schools in order to ascertain that they do not contain “inflammatory and inaccurate information about the United States and the State of Israel, anti-Semitic teaching, as well as the glorification of terrorists.” The amendment died in committee. In the five years since, direct U.S. funding of UNRWA has only increased.

A new proposal from now-Senator Kirk, however, might go a long way toward bringing about real reform; in particular, because it goes well beyond the specific issue of terrorism. It proposes a more precise definition of refugee status, to be specified in a Memorandum of Understanding with UNRWA. Under the proposal, if UNRWA wishes to continue receiving American aid, it would have to agree that “a Palestinian refugee is defined as a person whose place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948, who was personally displaced as a result of the 1948 or 1967 Arab-Israeli conflicts, who currently does not reside in the West Bank or Gaza, and who is not a citizen of any other state.”

This would mean that only those displaced by war could be considered refugees, and the status would no longer be heritable, bringing UNRWA into compliance with the international definition of refugee status. The amendment would also require the Secretary of State to report to Congress about the notoriously slippery number of refugees and the measures being taken to enforce the new definition (this wouldn’t necessarily mean that those accurately classified as refugees would be the only ones eligible for UNRWA services). There is no doubt that, while it would not solve all of UNRWA’s problems, it would be an excellent start.

For over six decades, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East has been a unique and uniquely troubled institution. It has unilaterally redefined the international definition of a refugee, expanded its mandate to include the construction of a massive social welfare and employment system, made itself the basis of at least one economy and an essential part of another, and allowed itself to become part of several terrorist movements, some dedicated to the destruction of a UN member state. Rather than being part of any conceivable solution, in other words, UNRWA sustains the problem it was supposed to help solve.

But more than anything else, UNRWA is the institutional foundation of one of the most persistent obstacles to peace in the Middle East. In its relentless defense of its own unique definition of a Palestinian refugee and its complete refusal to reconsider its demand for the “right of return,” it buttresses and perpetuates the Palestinians’ eternal sense of victimhood and the refugees’ narrative. This narrative accepts no responsibility whatsoever for the refugee problem, blaming it entirely on Israel, regardless of the decisions and actions of Palestinians and their leaders. Due to its economic and institutional interests in doing so, UNRWA must continue to maintain and even expand the refugee problem until the refugees’ complete and total repatriation and compensation. This demand for the “right of return” is clear and absolute and has not changed to this day. Over and over again, it has torpedoed any possibility of an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.

Palestinian students in an UNRWA college training  program test their Formula 1-style racecar in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip. Photo: Abed Rahim Khatib / Flash 90

Palestinian students in an UNRWA college training program test their Formula 1-style racecar in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip. Photo: Abed Rahim Khatib / Flash 90

It seems clear that the UN erred when it created a UN institution devoted exclusively to one population, with a policy and structure in contradiction to those of all similar institutions. This mistake, however, can be rectified.

The simplest solution would be to eliminate UNRWA and immediately subordinate all its agencies to the UN High Council on Refugees. This would be equitable and efficient–but since the prospects of such a decision being effected by the UN are slim to none, it is probably more sensible to look for solutions that can be implemented directly by the United States.

Enacting Congressional demands for greater accountability and, especially, bringing UNRWA’s refugee policies into line with those of the rest of the world, would be essential steps toward meaningful reform. At the same time, we must strive to decrease UNRWA’s hold on Palestinian society. The services UNRWA currently provides should be slowly handed over to parallel agencies within the UN, which already provide these services to others, but which have no financial or political interests in perpetuating the problem. In particular, the ultimate goal should be to wean the Palestinians off UNRWA’s largesse completely, and shift the responsibility for providing services and employment to the Palestinian Authority. Doing so would not only be good for the Palestinians, but also for the peace process. It appears that peace cannot be achieved without compromise on the “right of return,” and there can be no such compromise until UNRWA is either substantially reformed or entirely dismantled.

The Legal Position of Palestine Refugees

Refugee Crisis 2015

How many Palestinian Refugees are there?

The Real Palestinian Refugee Crisis