For many years, UNRWA has been struggling with an ever more serious financial crisis, one resulting in part from a funding model that appears to represent a mismatch between what the UN General Assembly expects the agency to deliver—education, health care, relief, and social services for the 6.7 million Palestine refugees and other registered persons in Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and the West Bank—and the mostly voluntary nature of Member State contributions. Even after the resumption of US funding to the agency by the Biden administration, UNRWA’s financial woes have continued. 2021 saw an international conference attempt to step up support for UNRWA which was by and large inconclusive. The annual funding shortfall materializes ever more early in the year, with acute cash flow problems reported almost from the onset of 2023.
UNRWA continues to operate against the backdrop of the dichotomy between the two diametrically opposed visions for a durable solution to the question of the Palestinian refugees expressed by the UN General Assembly in a period of less than 12 month: (1) a solution based on voluntary repatriation of the refugees to their original home as expressed in UNGA res. 194 (III) of 11 December 1948 and (2) a solution based on local integration (in the Arab host countries) and resettlement (in third countries) of the refugees as reflected in UNGA res. 302 (IV) of 7 December 1949. These conflicting premises, and the fact that the first represents not only the preference for most of the refugees but also their inalienable rights—to return, restitution and compensation—whilst the other solutions are subject to sovereign decisions of the concerned (Arab) UN Member States, constitute an important explanation why 75 years after the Nakba the refugee question remains unresolved.
Against this backdrop, and facing a multitude of other humanitarian crises, UNRWA’s donors appear less and less committed to increase funding as required by population growth and inflation. ARDD calls on donor to arrest this decline and provide the agency with adequate funding and political support in the pursuit of its mission. Here are five reasons why.
- The discourse around UNRWA and Palestine refugees has become exclusively humanitarian, devoid of any consideration of the origins of the refugee question and their consequences for the pursuit of durable solutions. As such, humanitarian actors have lost sight of the fact that the United Nations, dominated at the time by Western Member States, played a major role in setting the stage for the Nakba, the ‘catastrophe’ that saw the forced displacement and exile of three quarters of the Palestinian people as Israel was established. The UN has subsequently recognized that as a result it has a “permanent responsibility” for the Question of Palestine, including the refugee issue, a responsibility that it exercises, in part, through UNRWA. For many Middle Eastern States and others, this responsibility represents a colonial legacy for which Western nations should bear the financial consequences. This explains the reluctance of Middle Eastern States to contribute significantly to the agency’s program budget, even though Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon have contributed very significantly to the refugee’s upkeep as principal host states for 75 years, and donors in the Gulf have contributed to infrastructure projects in the occupied Palestinian territory, both through UNRWA and the Palestinian Authority.
- UNRWA has enabled Palestinian refugees to escape the poverty that accompanied their initial flight (and subsequent crises) and become a flourishing part of the Middle East. As such, the agency has been a major catalyst for development in a region overcoming the legacy of centuries of foreign domination and colonization. Through strategic partnerships with UNESCO and WHO, UNRWA shifted its initial focus from relief to a pioneering human development strategy with education, including vocational and technical training, and comprehensive primary health care services at its center, paving the way to economic self-sufficiency for most of the refugees. Well ahead of the recent discourse on localization of humanitarian aid, and unlike any other organizations of the UN system, the agency’s workforce comprised for 99% of Palestinian refugees and small numbers of host country nationals, with only a very small complement of international personnel. UNRWA has been a catalyst for community-based services for persons with disabilities, young people and women and its award-winning microfinance program continues to be the largest non-bank financial intermediary in the region. UNRWA’s recent introduction of the highly successful e-UNRWA registration app is another example of how the agency is constantly innovating service delivery for the benefit of the refugee community.
- UNRWA is providing very good value for money. The agency’s health program—developed and delivered in partnership with the WHO—has been acknowledged as one of the world’s most cost-effective high quality comprehensive primary health care systems and its education program is delivering basic education of significantly higher quality than that of the host countries at the same or less cost. As mentioned earlier, UNRWA has the lowest ratio of international to national staff and the latter are paid significantly less than locally recruited personnel of other UN agencies in the same countries. Since the mid-2000s, the agency has implemented two comprehensive reform programs, the first directed towards the planning and support functions and the second focusing on the programs, as a result of which UNRWA can be said to be one of most efficient humanitarian organizations in the UN system.
- UNRWA remains a critical instrument of the international community as it adjusts from the discourse of the MEPP to the one state reality. Even though the power balance is currently not in its favor, the obvious failure of the Middle East Peace Process, Israel’s further slide to the extreme right, global efforts to pursue justice by Palestinians and allies, as well as Zionism’s inner contradictions—between prioritizing Jewishness and democracy—are bound to eventually tip the balance in favor of a just and democratic resolution of the Palestine question. This profound transition calls for a fundamental change in vision and approach of the international community, including through the UN, something ARDD’s Global Network on the Question of Palestine has called for, earlier this year. These proposals include a new approach to the Palestinian refugee questions, reintroducing the pursuit of durable solutions and taking advantage of opportunities offered by the 2016 New York Declaration on Refugees and Migrants. Whilst UNRWA’s focus remains on the provision of humanitarian and development assistance, it is also uniquely placed to advise and support, where possible, necessary efforts by other actors towards achieving and implementing a solution to the refugee question.
- A continuation of underfunding and current austerity measures will result in a consequent deterioration of services. As a recent study commissioned by a major donor argues, “[t]his scenario harms the refugee population in a highly insecure and volatile region. And it raises the question as to when a gradual deterioration of UNRWA’s services will no longer be possible and instead becomes an actual collapse of operations. Above all, this most-likely scenario carries high political risks and uncertainty for the international community in a fragile region and at a time when, globally, there is little capacity to manage major new crises.” At a time when the role of international organizations in “containing” refugee situations is increasingly acknowledged, a collapse of UNRWA may well result in renewed armed conflict and mass displacement.
International law and the unique, permanent responsibility of the UN for the question of Palestine make the international community legally, politically, and morally obligated to continue providing adequate funding to UNRWA that would allow it to respond comprehensively to the needs and rights of the refugees. 75 years after the Nakba, this is the minimum Palestinian refugees should expect.