Center for Migration and Refugee Studies

Author's Department

Center for Migration and Refugee Studies

Document Type

Research Article

Publication Title

Migration and Refugee Movements in the Middle East and North Africa

Publication Date



There has historically been a great divide at the heart of refugee policy and scholarship in the Middle East, between Palestinian refugees and all others. This intellectual and policy divide runs throughout political discourse, governmental and United Nations administration, and civil society activism. It poses a challenge to the coherency of forced migration studies in the Middle East. There is now a significant and growing inter-disciplinary literature about refugees of many nationalities in the region, but the largest and most visible refugee group in the region has been traditionally treated as “a case apart,” to borrow a phrase used recently in the Forced Migration Review (Couldrey and Morris 2006). Any scholarly attempt to synthesize this expanding knowledge into a coherent theoretical or research agenda – especially if one aims for this research to have practical application – will likely founder so long as this remains the case. The division between Palestinian and non-Palestinian refugees has been driven by the assumption – what Michael Dumper has called an “orthodoxy” -- that the Palestinian refugee case is unique, and should be treated as such (Dumper 2007, 347). But this assumption has always been questionable, and (more important) it is increasingly being questioned.1 In this paper, I argue that while the Palestinian refugee case does indeed bear some unique characteristics and thus should be treated separately in some ways, the predicament of Palestinian refugees also bears much in common with other refugees. My goal is to observe what I believe is a longstanding but accelerated trend: the decline of Palestinian exceptionalism. I then attempt, in brief form, to highlight some of the implications of this trend, especially for forced migration studies. I should state from the outset that there is an autobiographical – and hence highly subjective – aspect to my observations here. Nearly all of my career in refugee law has been in the Middle East, dating back to 1998. For the first five years, I dealt almost exclusively with non-Palestinians, both as a practitioner developing legal aid programs and as a teacher and writer in an academic vein. But more recently, I have worked extensively on issues relevant to both Palestinians and non-Palestinians, including occasionally with the Badil Resource Centre in Bethlehem, a Palestinian organization that has been at the forefront of applying international law and comparative research to the Palestinian case. It should be obvious that in this paper I am taking the risk of assuming that my own career trajectory reflects a larger trend. But I believe, and will try to make the case, that this career path could be possible only because of longstanding division between Palestinian and non-Palestinian refugees, and that my personal bridging of this divide is neither unique nor accidental.

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