Some Thoughts on Donor Funding and the Sustainability of UNRWA Services – Part I

Towards the end of its seventy-third session this past year the UN General Assembly adopted a series of resolutions on Palestinian refugees and displaced persons. Revised and tabled annually, the resolutions address the operations of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), assistance and protection for Palestinians displaced during the 1948 and 1967 Arab-Israeli wars, and the right of refugees to their properties and revenues derived by the state of Israel therefrom.

Expressing concern about the lack of adequate funding for refugee assistance in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, the Assembly once again

Call[ed] upon all donors to continue to strengthen their efforts to meet the anticipated needs of [UNRWA], including with regard to increased expenditures and needs arising from conflicts and instability in the region and the serious socioeconomic and humanitarian situation, particularly in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, and those needs mentioned in recent emergency, recovery and reconstruction appeals and plans for the Gaza Strip and in the regional crisis response plans to address the situation of Palestine refugees in the Syrian Arab Republic and those Palestine refugees who have fled to countries in the region.

While ensuring sufficient, predictable and sustainable funding of UNRWA’s human development, humanitarian assistance and protection programmes has been a persistent challenge over the Agency’s nearly seven decades of operations, as the Working Group on the Financing of UNRWA noted in its most recent report, the scope and scale of the challenge assumed new proportions last summer when the Trump administration decided to terminate funding of UNRWA operations.

The decision followed an initial suspension at the beginning of 2018 of nearly 85 percent of pledged US contributions for the year which in total comprised around a third of the funds needed to run the Agency’s regular operations providing among others education, health and welfare services for Palestine refugees. The sudden termination left UNRWA with a projected deficit of USD 446 million including a USD 49 million deficit carried over from 2017. Describing 2018 as a “tumultuous year”, Pierre Krähenbühl, the Agency’s Commissioner-General, observed that “[a]t every level and on every front we have been been in crisis mode […] exacerbated by the largest funding shortfall [UNRWA] has every faced”.

This first in a series of commentaries examines the rationale behind the administration’s decision to terminate funding of UNRWA’s human development, humanitarian assistance and protection operations. Part two will explore the potential impact of the decision on Palestine refugees and others eligible to receive Agency services while part three reviews UNRWA efforts to reduce its projected deficit this past year. This is a somewhat round-about way of getting to the central issue of this series of commentaries, namely, UNRWA’s sustainability in the absence of a political solution to the long-running struggle over Palestine/Israel. The fourth and final part offers a few thoughts on ways forward as UNRWA, hosts and donors, as well as refugees themselves, look towards the current fiscal year.

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Capping the Number of Palestinian Refugees?

According to recent press reports, the Trump administration’s plan for a solution to the long-standing Palestinian-Israeli conflict includes a “cap” on the total number of Palestinian refugees. At the end of 2017, there were approximately 5.4 million Palestine refugees, registered with the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), in need of durable solutions to their situation. It is important to note that these refugees comprise only a sub-set, albeit the largest, of the total Palestinian refugee population. Refugees are commonly afforded three basic solutions to their situation, repatriation, local integration and resettlement, all of which depend on the consent of refugees themselves. It seems that the administration’s approach is to try to dissolve the problem by declaring that only 500,000 Palestinians or roughly 10 percent of those registered with UNRWA are bone fide refugees. The administration has yet to reveal the fate of these “remaining refugees”.

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Why a Separate Agency for Palestinian Refugees?

One of the more frequent criticisms directed at the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) is that it is the only UN organization dedicated to a specific refugee group. All other refugees fall under the auspices of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Many of UNRWA’s critics, though not all, further argue that in order to rectify this apparent anomaly in the UN system, UNRWA should be dissolved with eligible Palestinians placed under UNHCR’s protection and care.

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Does UNRWA Really Perpetuate the Palestinian Refugee Problem?

Among the increasingly shrill criticisms directed against the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) is that the Agency perpetuates or prolongs the so-called Palestinian refugee problem. Critics argue that UNRWA does this in two ways: first, through its registration practices; and, second, as a result of its alleged failure to resettle the refugees. The first issue has been dealt with elsewhere; the focus here is on the second allegation which brings to fore issues concerning UNRWA’s mandate along with local integration and resettlement as durable solutions to forced displacement.

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Defining Palestinian Refugees – Making Sense of the Debate

Recent months have witnessed a steady stream of criticism directed towards the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees and how it defines persons falling under its mandate. Among the charges leveled against UNRWA is that it prolongs the Palestinian refugee situation through its registration practices. This includes the registration of the children of refugees along with refugees accorded citizenship in one of the Agency’s areas of operation, primarily Jordan, which hosts more than two million refugees from the 1948 Arab-Israeli war along with hundreds of thousands of refugees from the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

Such criticisms have spawned a rather curious initiative by a handful of US congressmen for the declassification of a State Department report which allegedly puts the number of Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war at around 20-30,000. The assumption or rather conclusion drawn is that these elderly Palestinians comprise the actual number of refugees rather than the 5.4 million registered with UNRWA. The initiative is curious in part because estimates of first generation refugees from the 1948 war are part of the public record while their number is far from headline news given that the state of Israel has opposed the return of refugees to their places of origin, apart from a small number through family reunification, for some seventy years.

It is further alleged in this context that UNRWA’s registration criteria are not in line with global policy and practice, in particular, the refugee definition found in Article 1A(2) of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. In recent years, some members of the US Congress have also introduced bills that aim to replace UNRWA’s definition of a Palestine refugee with “the definition used by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)” based on the apparent assumption that this will not only bring UNRWA in line with international standards, but will also help to resolve the Palestinian refugee situation, one of the core issues that stands in the way of a comprehensive solution to the long-standing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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