The Politics of Refugee Relief: UNRWA and the Ongoing Funding Crisis

On 9 November 2020 Philippe Lazzarini, the Commissioner General of UNRWA, tweeted: “I am pained to announce that despite all efforts to raise the resources for @UNRWA 2020, I informed our 28,000 staff that we do not have enough funds to pay their salaries in full this month”. This is a desperate situation for the Agency serving 5,7 million Palestinian refugees in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, West Bank and Gaza. How will restored aid levels under the Biden administration affect the organisation, and what is the wider context of international aid to UNRWA?

Jenin camp 2009, Kjersti G. Berg

Funding crisis

The economic shortfall was a direct consequence of United States President Donald J. Trump’s policy of defunding UNRWA in 2018. The US, a major donor since the creation of the Agency, cut approximately 30 percent of UNRWA’s budget. The decision to defund UNRWA reflected both the Trump administration’s attitude towards international engagement generally, as well as its intention to undermine the Palestinian refugees’ established rights and existence as a political problem.

In addition to the funding crisis, UNRWA operations  and refugees – struggle under the combined weight of Covid-19, civil war in Syria, economic collapse in Lebanon, the entrenched occupation of the West Bank and the Israeli-Egyptian siege of Gaza.

UNRWA is a humanitarian “quasi-state” providing basic services like education and health services to Palestinian refugees. Half a million children attend the 700 UNRWA-run schools and 3,1 million refugees access Agency health services. With its programs, UNRWA provides a basic social security net in a context where, by virtue of being stateless, the refugees are often disfavored compared to the local nationals. Poverty rates among the refugees vary. Around 25 percent of the refugees live in overcrowded refugee camps, characterized by dilapidated infrastructure and higher levels of poverty. Some common features are unemployment, insecure employment and lower wages.

Critics of UNRWA often promote a myth of UNRWA turning refugees into helpless, passive aid recipients by providing “perpetual” relief assistance. Relief, however, is limited to the poorest segment of the refugees only, and to emergency operations, like currently running in Syria and Gaza. One result of strict criteria is that refugees who do not qualify may also find themselves in dire straits. Moreover, the Israeli occupation has created conditions of severe hardship, and international aid seeks to alleviate that. While urgently needed, aid may also  be claimed to subsidize the occupation. The blockade of Gaza alone has resulted in losses of USD 16,6 billion to Gaza’s economy.

International aid to UNRWA

In November 2019, the UN General Assembly supported the renewal of UNRWA’s mandate, like it has every third year since 1949. But such support does not reflect states’ willingness to fund the Agency. In fact, UNRWA has struggled for decades to cover its budgets, as it depends on annual voluntary funding from states. This has made operations vulnerable to donor fatigue, to shifting donor priorities and to competition from other humanitarian crises. As a result, UNRWA must expend a great deal of effort to raise funds. Moreover, as each year passes without a solution to the refugee issue, the need for services (like schooling) increases due to population growth, leading some critics to label UNRWA’s efforts as “unsustainable”.

Aid to UNRWA does not come without strings. It is often contingent on reforms: for example, measures to cut expenses and cost efficiency. US aid to UNRWA has had a high degree of conditionality. A prime example has been the demand for Palestinian staff “neutrality”, referring to their political affiliations. Most donors have funded UNRWA because it is seen as helpful to upholding regional stability and because they have traditionally funded it. At the same time, UNRWA risks losing funding if it moves too far into what is considered political terrain and away from the core of its mandate.

Initially, after the US 2018 aid cut, other donors stepped up to fill the gap. But already in 2019 contributions dropped again. Currently, in pure numbers, Germany is the largest donor, while Sweden and Norway are highest per capita. Generally, the funding trend from Europe has been downward. In addition, the sudden defunding by Gulf countries in 2020 appears related to the US-driven normalization deals with Israel (EuMEP policymaker update, UNRWA crisis special, 18 Dec. 2020). Recently, a French newspaper leaked rumors that UAE is plotting with Israel against UNRWA to remove the organization without a solution to the refugee problem. These trends illustrate insecurities for the future. The Agency will most likely face demands for further reforms, tighter budgets, operating in a crisis mode affecting both employees and refugees. Some observers suggest that regional destabilization could occur if services are cut.

More than 70 years after the establishment of the Israeli state and the well-documented forceful displacement of Palestinians, Israel has never admitted any responsibility for the refugees’ displacement, and fiercely rejects any talk of their return. The refugees have not had access to any voluntary durable solution, restitution, reparations, or compensation based in international law or UN resolutions. It is a situation of violated rights and protracted injustice. The refugee question has been marginalized in political negotiations, most recently in the Oslo framework. This points to the dilemma of using humanitarian assistance as a substitute for politics, as a painkiller rather than a cure. This dilemma is real, but marginalizing or closing down UNRWA does not help solve it. Rethinking refugee relief and international aid is however overdue, as is strengthening UNRWA’s mandate and refugees’ access to rights.

Changing of the guard

The overall aim of the Trump administration’s aid cut was not just to remove UNRWA. It was to deny the existence of the Palestinian refugees and the right of return, and to remove them from the political equation – in accordance with Israel’s stated interests. The Trump administration has also targeted other core political issues, such as the status of Jerusalem and the ongoing Israeli annexation of the West Bank. While the Biden administration will not undo policies on Jerusalem and normalization agreements, the new administration has moved quickly to renew US aid to UNRWA.

With the Biden administration, it appears that the US will return to multilateral politics and to the role as a major aid actor worldwide. While the resumption of aid to UNRWA is important in alleviating dire needs, it is unclear what the terms and conditions of funding will be. Even with Trump gone, right wing politicians in Israel and Republican members of Congress will continue to seek to remove UNRWA, delegitimize it, and argue that UNRWA is perpetuating false refugee claims (one report by the US Congress suggested that only 20,000 of them are refugees).

Biden is expected to continue the United States’ longstanding support to Israel and not leverage its USD 38 billion, decade-spanning defense package to Israel for policy changes with respect to the Palestinians. While some will celebrate resumption of the peace process as a positive development, it provokes little optimism in Palestinians. This is a return to the old game, where Israel under the guise of the said process was able to undermine the two-state solution by accelerating land grabs, deepening violations of international law, and entrenching the occupation.

Debunking misconceptions UNRWA and Palestinian refugees

Due to its close relation to the unsolved Palestinian refugee question, ideologically and politically-motivated misconceptions abound about UNRWA and its mandate. UNRWA was established in 1949 as a temporary mechanism for humanitarian assistance and “works” projects (i.e. projects aiming to integrate the refugees into the host countries by way of employment. These projects were closed shortly after) for the newly-made Palestinian refugees. It was part of a dual system, where UNRWA would cater to refugees’ humanitarian needs, while their political rights were covered by UNGA Resolution 194, enshrining their Right of Return and compensation for the material losses they suffered in 1948. The UN Conciliation Commission for Palestine (UNCCP) was mandated to facilitate “repatriation, resettlement and economic and social rehabilitation of the refugees and the payment of compensation”. However, the push to solve the refugees’ predicament through negotiations faded. The UNCCP became inactive and the international community would gradually see the refugee problem mainly as a humanitarian problem. UNRWA’s mandate has evolved over the years, but the core of its mandate is to provide essential education, health, and relief services while the Palestinians wait for a just solution. The mandate does not include searching for political solutions.

One common misconception is that removing UNRWA will do away with refugees’ status as refugees, including their right of return. The Right of Return is well established in international law: it is not unique to the Palestinian refugees, and it does not depend on UNRWA’s existence. Another repeated misconception is that UNRWA is unique or fundamentally different from the UNHCR. It is not. It is an overlapping system to the UNHCR, and an integral part of the international refugee regime. UNRWA’s generational definition of Palestinian refugees, registering descendants of those who fled in 1948, is often a selected target of critics of UNRWA. Today, 5,7 million, and counting, Palestinian refugees are registered with UNRWA, as many are both stateless and refugees, and the political question remains unsolved. Their registration is fully in line with UNHCR practices. Palestinian refugees are refugees as per international law, and they have the right to protection just like other refugees. As UNRWA only registers the 1948 refugees and their descendants,  one can add that UNHCR would also have registered displacements of Palestinians after 1948 and until current days, making for even higher numbers of refugees and internally displaced persons. The argument that UNHCR would have solved the refugee question is fictious. Destroying UNRWA, which is the result of cutting aid, does nothing to alter the political reality, it only increases suffering in an already dire situation.


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