Law of the land
BU law professor says legal rights of Palestinians are lost in confusion
Susan Akram, an associate professor at the BU School of Law, has been studying the legal aspects of the Palestinian refugee problem for 10 years and has published many articles on the subject. She will spend the next year working at the Forced Migration and Refugee Studies Program at the American University in Cairo, where she hopes to complete research for a book she is writing with Palestinian historian Terry Rempel. Akram will also teach two seminars at AUC: International Refugee Law and Litigating Human Rights.
On the eve of her departure, Akram discusses her work and the Middle East with BU Today.
BU Today: What drew you to issues about the legal status of Palestinian refugees?
Akram: I began working in the area of asylum and refugee law as a pro bono lawyer with the Lawyers’ Committee in San Francisco early in my career, when I first started private practice. I left private law practice in the mid-’80s to direct a refugee project at the public interest law firm Public Counsel in Los Angeles. During the 1980s, refugee/asylum lawyers in the United States were primarily representing the hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing the civil wars in Central America. At some point, I began working with refugees from the Middle East, and I discovered that Palestinian refugees were unique in a number of important ways in terms of the application of the usual legal rules. In representing Palestinians and advocating for them, I began more in-depth and systematic research into the legal instruments and principles that had a bearing on their situation. What I learned led me to obtain a Fulbright fellowship to spend a year in Palestine teaching, researching, and beginning to write on the particular legal regime applicable to Palestinians as refugees and stateless persons. From the perspective of a refugee lawyer, the Palestinian refugee question is one of the most fascinating: it is the largest and one of the longest-lasting refugee populations in the world.
What difference does it make to be studying the Palestinian situation from a legal perspective rather than a political perspective?
Examining protracted refugee problems and the conflicts that inevitably provoke them within a legal rather than political framework provides a more objective set of principles that highly contended political ‘values’ cannot. If one agrees on an objective set of legal principles, then it becomes more difficult to set those principles aside just because one or the other party does not ‘like’ them. In other words, contending parties may not agree to a political framework because it may be seen as the politics of the powerful — yet might more readily agree on a legal framework because it is perceived as more ‘neutral,’ with universally applicable principles. Legal principles — if widely applied — can provide guidelines that are mutually respected despite their adverse impact on the claims of one or the other party.
Could you sketch the Palestinian refugee situation and how it is woven into current affairs in the Middle East?
Some 7 million persons out of a global population of 9.7 million Palestinians are refugees or internally displaced today. This refugee figure includes 5.7 million of the original 1948 refugee population, of which 4.1 million are registered with the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) for assistance; 780,000 refugees from the 1967 conflict; 838,000 Palestinians displaced after 1967; another 325,000 of the 1948 population internally displaced within Israel proper; and another 38,000 internally displaced within the 1967 occupied Palestinian territories.
Approximately 1.3 million Palestinian refugees are residents of 59 official refugee camps scattered throughout the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria established and run by UNRWA. The majority of the camp populations are 1948 refugees and their descendants, while the rest are 1967 refugees and their descendants. UNRWA also operates another dozen ‘unofficial’ camps to house Palestinian refugees who can no longer be accommodated in the existing official camp locations.
UNRWA’s figures give its registered refugee populations as of March 2005 as 1,780,701 in Jordan; 400,582 in Lebanon; 424,650 in Syria; 687,542 in the West Bank, 961,645 in Gaza. However, not all Palestinian refugees live in camps — for example, in Jordan the majority do not live in camps. Conditions for Palestinian refugees in each host state and area vary substantially based on the laws and policies of each country and change frequently depending on the political climate and attitudes towards the refugees by the host populations.
As you can see from this brief description, the large numbers of refugees, the length of their displacement, their concentration in a few countries of the Middle East, and the ongoing destabilizing nature of the protracted conflict that continues their displacement show how critical a solution of the problem is to a lasting peace in the entire region.
What are some of the myths about the Palestinian refugee situation that you’d like to debunk?
The most important of the myths that I have tried to challenge are:
• that there is no such thing as a Palestinian ‘refugee’; that they are people who simply fled their homes on their own or because they were told to do so by Arab leaders.
• that Palestinian refugees have no right to return to their homes and properties within what is now Israel (there are many arguments made to support this claim, from the legal to the political).
• that Palestinians have no right to restitution of their properties expropriated by Israel from 1948 onwards.
• that Palestinian refugees were legitimately ‘exchanged’ between Arab states and Israel for Jewish refugees from the Arab states in the 1948 conflict. Palestinians remain displaced due to the intransigence of the Arab states, whose responsibility it is to resettle them and grant them citizenship, as Israel has done for Jewish refugees from Arab countries.
What contribution do you hope to make with the articles you’ve published?
What any author hopes for, I suppose: setting the record straight. I also hope to argue for the importance of a legal framework to the Middle East conflict, persuading that there is no likelihood of a lasting peace in the region unless basic legal principles are respected and implemented in any framework agreement. Most important in terms of the refugee question, I am trying to emphasize that once it is possible to debunk the myths, it is possible to see how legal principles have helped to provide lasting solutions to other mass refugee flows and the conflicts surrounding them. I do not believe that the current political-power paradigm will lead to peace in the region.
How did you and Terry Rempel become collaborators, and how does your collaboration affect your work?
Terry Rempel is a historian and the head of research at the Badil Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights. Badil, based in Bethlehem, is the largest and best-known NGO working exclusively on Palestinian refugee issues. Terry has done original archival research at the Red Cross and UN institutions to shed light on the early history of the creation of the refugee problem. His work and my research into the drafting history of the legal instruments affecting the Palestinian refugee question have been very complementary for the long-term project we are working on. Collaboration with Badil has also given me special access to the Palestinian refugee populations and credibility in my own work as it remains connected to the voices of the refugees themselves.
What are your hopes and expectations for the work you’ll be doing this year in Cairo?
My main goal is to complete the book with Terry Rempel that will pull all of our research together and propose a framework for a durable solution for the refugee problem. I’m also pleased to be hosted by AUC’s Forced Migration and Refugee Studies Program, as it is one of the few academic programs with a primary focus on refugees and displaced persons in the Middle East region. I will be teaching two graduate seminars and will have the opportunity for closer interaction with academics and practitioners focusing exclusively on the issues of most interest to my work.
What challenges will you face?
I suspect that I will have the usual constraints of limited time and many competing demands for it. Being in Egypt at this time will have its own challenges, since the situation on Egypt’s border, in Gaza, has been rapidly deteriorating. The Egyptian people are very sympathetic to the Palestinians, and there is increasing tension between the demands of the populace and the response of the Egyptian government to the Palestinian-Israeli situation. I suspect that the AUC campus will reflect those tensions as other college campuses in Egypt do.
How will the current conflict between Israel and Lebanon affect your work?
It is already creating new waves of internally displaced and refugees. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees reports that 700,000 to 800,000 are now displaced in Lebanon, with 200,000 refugees from the conflict now in Syria. The Palestinian refugees will be hard-hit yet again because the majority of them are in camps in South Lebanon. I expect that there will be new issues and new dynamics to take into account with these tragic developments.