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The PLO is counting its expatriates

The PLO is launching a comprehensive census of Palestinian expatriates to obtain a qualitative database.

RAMALLAH, West Bank — The PLO's Palestinian Expatriate Affairs Department (PEAD) is gearing up for the first-ever census of Palestinian expatriates in the world. The census is expected to launch at the beginning of April, director general of PEAD Nihad Abu Ghosh told Al-Monitor.

The PLO had announced that it was conducting the largest census in its history. The census includes comprehensive documentation of Palestinian expatriates, said Nabil Shaath, President Mahmoud Abbas’ adviser for international relations and head of the PLO’s Refugee Affairs Department, in an interview with Palestinian al-Ayyam newspaper on Jan. 27.

The newspaper reported that Abbas had issued a presidential decree to form the higher committee for the census of expatriates to be headed by Shaath. The committee includes the minister of foreign affairs, the head of the PLO Refugee Affairs Department, the head of the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PBCS), and the head of the Palestinian Academy for Science and Technology (PALAST). This committee will be in charge of conducting the census. According to Shaath, the census will complement the data provided by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).

Shaath, who took office five months ago, told al-Ayyam that comprehensive census will cover Europe, North America, South America, Australia, the former Soviet Union countries, Egypt, North Africa, the Gulf, Iraq and other regions of the world.

According to the head of the PCBS, Ola Awad, the PLO will allocate funds from its budget to finance this census, in addition to financial support from the group of financiers funding the PCBS. 

Abu Ghosh, who is following up on the census execution plan, told Al-Monitor, “PEAD and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs will handle coordination and communication for the implementation of this census, while the PCBS will carry out the technical and operational steps with the help of PALAST. The PLO Refugee Affairs Department will provide the records of Palestinian refugees in the world.”

He noted that within the scope of the current preparations that started since the announcement of the census on Jan. 27, frequent meetings are being held between the partners to allocate the required steps and procedures. The meetings aim to set a starting date and timeline for the completion of the census and determine the method of publication of the obtained information.

“The census will include all Palestinians wherever they are and document their social, economic and educational status. This census will not only be quantitative; it will also mention where the expatriates originally hail from and how they immigrated," Abu Ghosh said, adding, "The objective is to have a database to be relied on for drawing the required expatriate policies and interventions of the PLO and the PA presidency. This will define the relation to Palestinian communities abroad. Large and powerful Palestinian communities, such as the one in South America, play an important role in supporting the Palestinian cause.”

He also noted that there are duties that the PLO and the Palestinian Authority (PA) must assume toward Palestinian communities in difficult situations, such as the Palestinian community in Libya. He continued, “The idea of a census for expatriates is not new, but it has become necessary in light of the large discrepancy of the number of Palestinian communities abroad. Some of these communities have doubled in number following the flow of migrations from Syria and Lebanon and the wars in Gaza. This is the case of the Palestinian community in Italy and Europe in general.”

In addition to the importance of the census data for the implementation of cooperation projects aimed to introduce Palestinian communities abroad to their homeland, PEAD is currently engaged in two projects. Abu Ghosh explained that the first is hosting youth camps for the children of expatriates in Palestine in cooperation with local organizations to introduce them to Palestine. The second is offering educational programs for expatriate students in Palestinian universities. The data provided by the census can facilitate communication and coordination in all of these projects.

Abu Ghosh is aware of the difficulty of the work required for conducting this census. Many refugees and expatriates left the Palestinian territories with non-Palestinian passports, mainly the Jordanian passport. Most of the Palestinian expatriates in the Gulf countries carry a Jordanian passport. Other refugees and expatriates used Syrian or Egyptian travel documents.

He noted that some Palestinians abroad, particularly those who emigrated from the refugee camps in Syria from 2011 to 2017, hide their Palestinian identity since aid was mainly limited to Syrian refugees. “Add to this the difficulty of counting expatriates who emigrated during the Ottoman Empire,” Abu Ghosh said.

Awad and her team in charge of the technical steps for the execution of this census are seeking to overcome these difficulties. She said the team is currently identifying preliminary indicators to be used to obtain information, most notably the UNRWA record, which is the only available source. This record, however, does not include all expatriates and is not updated.

Awad spoke to Al-Monitor about a roadmap for the execution of the census and the design of the necessary tools that take into consideration the sensitivity of obtaining personal data from expatriates. She also highlighted the role of Palestinian embassies and their activities and relations with Palestinian communities.

“A pilot experience is now being envisaged, most probably in Peru, where the Palestinian community is organized and can understand the importance of this census. This pilot will allow testing the tools designed for this census,” Awad said, adding, “The obtained results will determine whether these tools are valid for this census or should be replaced or changed. This pilot will also help to detect the possible obstacles and challenges and find relevant solutions.”

She said the PCBS looks forward to introducing in this census the artificial intelligence technique for the first time in Palestine by designing a research program based on Palestinian family names as an indicator. Awad said, “Family names are known and cannot be changed. The program will count Facebook accounts of persons holding Palestinian family names. The numbers obtained, however, are not accurate, but will serve as indicators.”

While admitting the magnitude of efforts required for this census, Awad asserted that it could be completed within five years at the latest. “This, of course, requires a commitment by all partners,” she added.

In turn, former Palestinian Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Rafat Badran and current head of the Expatriates and Refugees Sector at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs believes that relying on Palestinian embassies to conduct this census will not be easy. He told Al-Monitor, “Palestinian embassies do not have an accurate database. Some Palestinians hold Syrian identity documents and do not require any services from the Palestinian Embassy. Meanwhile, the Palestinians who hold a Jordanian passport or Egyptian identity documents have to resort to Palestinian embassies when they need to renew their residency permit application.”

Badran highlighted the central role of Palestinian embassies in strengthening the federations of Palestinian communities and building trust with these communities abroad to get Palestinian expatriates to disclose their personal information. He said. “Embassies ought to provide logistical support and allocate offices for the technical teams conducting the census.”

Just like Badran, all partners involved in this census aspire to see federations of Palestinian communities abroad united. In this context, Abu Ghosh affirmed that the PEAD is trying to achieve this unity through the global conference for Palestinian diaspora expected to be held before the end of 2019.

Head of the Union of Palestinian Communities and Organizations - Europe Ali al-Qadi asserted that the unification of the Palestinian unions of communities abroad is the means to obtain an accurate result of this census. “This will only be done by encouraging these unions and activating the work of their branches in all cities where Palestinians are located around the world, so as to fully engage all of the members of Palestinian communities,” Qadi said.

He told Al-Monitor that this requires great effort and assistance by the communities and embassies. “The Union of Palestinian Communities and Organizations in Europe established in 2013 is still unable to give an exact number of the Palestinian population in Europe in light of financial and logistic difficulties,” he said, adding, “After the Syrian crisis, our estimates of Palestinians in Europe range between 1.1 million and 1.4 million.”

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