UN refugees official wrong about refugees

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, has bought into a false narrative which holds that Palestinian Arab refugees were the largest single displaced group in the Middle East until the current Iraqi turmoil. He is wrong, says the media watchdog CAMERA. There were more Jewish (and Christian) refugees.

‘The current exodus [of Iraqis] is the largest long-term population movement in the Middle East since the displacement of the Palestinians following the creation of Israel in 1948,’ said the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.” – “Saddam’s Voice, Aura Still Fill Courtroom,” by Lauren Frayer, Associated Press, in the Washington Times, Jan. 9, 2007.

“No, it is not, and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees – currently Antonio Guterres – could be expected to know better. So could news media that unquestioningly reported Guterres’ declaration, including CNN.com; the Voice of America; Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency, on January 8; the Associated Press, United Press International and the Guardian (U.K.) on January 9, and the San Francisco Chronicle, January 16.

“How many Palestinian Arabs became refugees following the creation of Israel? Palestinian sources claimed 800,000 to 1 million, and more recently insist on from 3.5 million to 5 million refugees and descendants. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), itself heavily staffed by Palestinian Arabs and long close to the Palestine Liberation Organization, parrots these assertions. (…)

“But reputable sources put the range much lower, from 472,000 to 650,000. The lower number is from a 1948 progress report by the U.N. Mediator on Palestine. The higher figure represents the difference between the number of permanent Arab residents in that part of Mandatory Palestine that became Israel, 809,100 according to the last census by British Authorities, and the number of Arabs counted in the first Israeli census, 160,000.

“Yet a larger Middle East population displacement occurred in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Approximately 820,000 Jewish refugees fled ancestral homes in Arab countries. Of them, 586,000 settled in Israel.

“The U.N. High Commissioner on Refugees may not know, or remember, this history, but the U.N. Security Council does. That is why Security Council Resolution 242, the keystone of successful Arab-Israeli diplomacy since its adoption shortly after the 1967 Six-Day War, calls for, among other things: “achieving a just settlement of the refugee problem.” Not “the Palestinian refugee problem” but, understanding that those displaced included both Jews and Arabs, “the refugee problem.”

“Another larger “long-term population movement in the Middle East” has been the migration of Christian Arabs. According to Jonathan Alderman and Agota Kuperman, senior fellows at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, “there has been a great – and little reported – Christian exodus from the Middle East, with some 2 million fleeing in the past 20 years alone.” The “single greatest cause of this emigration is pressure from radical Islam.”

“Whatever the reason for High Commissioner Guterres’ mistake, and its uncritical repetition by news outlets, the 1948 flight of Arabs from Israel was not the largest such population movement until the current Iraqi turmoil. The flight of Jewish refugees, and Christian migrants, both have been greater. Once again, tunnel vision about the Palestinian Arabs – the tendency to see them not just as victims but as the Middle East’s most newsworthy victims – misinforms.


  • —This is in response to the article “Exodus is largest since the creation of Israel” in the London ‘Telegraph’ on February 3, 2007, where they discussed Iraqi refugees.—

    Arab refugees have been streaming out of Iraq over the last few years. This is a sad realization on how the war has effected the population. While the story of the Muslim refugees of Iraq is certainly compelling, the plight of the Jews of Iraq who were made refugees is also compelling and must also be acknowledged.

    Prior to 1948, Iraqi society was one with a business community that was made up in large part by Jews—Jews that had lived in Iraq for over 2,600 years. However, after the establishment of Israel in 1948, Zionism became a capital crime and attacks and hatred toward the Jews mounted. Jewish property was expropriated; Jewish bank accounts were frozen; Jews were dismissed from public posts; businesses were shut; pensions were confiscated; trading permits were cancelled.

    Jewish life and society in Mosul, Iraq of 1940, was not unlike the Jewish life and society of New York City of the same era. These were not poor people, these were Jews that owned business, buildings, commercial warehouses filled with merchandise, hospitals, synagogues, cars and homes. Over 100,000 Jews were displaced between 1949-1951, taking nothing with them. Jews wanting to leave could do so after having their citizenship
    revoked. Another 20,000 were smuggled out through Iran. Iraq’s government issued multiple discriminatory decrees and perpetrated violations of human rights against the Jews through a series of laws that expanded on the confiscation of assets and property of Jews. Because of repressive measures against them, and fearing for their lives, Jews fled Iraq as refugees taking nothing with them.

    On two separate occasions the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) ruled that Jews fleeing from Arab countries were ‘bona fide’ refugees who “fall within the mandate of (the UNHCR) office”. Yet, there was virtually no international response to the plight of close to 900,000 Jews who, since 1948, have been displaced from Arab countries such as Iraq.

    Little has been heard about these Jewish refugees that resettled around the world, and there was never any compensation provided by the Arab governments that confiscated their possessions. We must remember, that as a matter of law and equity, no just, comprehensive Middle East peace can be reached without recognition of, and redress for, the uprooting, under Islamic regimes, of centuries-old Jewish communities in the Middle East and North Africa.

    Shelomo Alfassa
    Director, US Campaign
    Justice for Jews from Arab Countries


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


This website is dedicated to preserving the memory of the near-extinct Jewish communities, of the Middle East and North Africa, documenting the stories of the Jewish refugees and their current struggle for recognition and restitution.

Point of No Return

Jewish Refugees from Arab and Muslim Countries

One-stop blog on the Middle East's
forgotten Jewish refugees - updated daily.