The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) was established December 8th, 1948 to assist refugees created during the 1948 Palestine War. The UNRWA operates in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Gaza and the West Bank where it assists about 4.4 million Palestinian Arab refugees. It is one of two United Nations refugee agencies in operation today, the other being the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).
The UNRWA is only concerned with assisting Palestinian Arab refugees in the Middle East while the UNHCR handles the rest of the world's refugees, displaced, and stateless persons. The reason the UNRWA is tasked with only one specific ethnic group in one specific part of the world is a remnant of how adhoc refugee organizations were set up in decades past, each concerned with a particular ethnic group turned refugees by a particular conflict.
Soon after the UNRWA was established to help Palestine's Arab refugees, the UNHCR was created on December 14, 1950 to serve as all-encompassing refugee agency that normalized how refugees were identified and solved. The foundational text for these issues was drafted on July 28, 1951 known as the 1951 Refugee Convention, with an additional protocol in 1967 to expand its reach beyond Europe. It has served as the operational framework for the UNHCR's handling of the world's refugees ever since.
The UNRWA for Palestinians is a fundamentally unique refugee agency. It deviates from the agencies preceding it as well as those that came after in matters ranging from its continued existence alongside the capable UNHCR, to how it identifies refugees, to what its goal is for them.
On the surface it would appear rather encouraging that the Palestinian refugees, who remain one of the largest impediments for a resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, have their own United Nations organization dedicated to their solution. Despite being created as a temporary refugee agency, the UNRWA has been with us for 60 years with no end in sight. Unfortunately, during this 60 year period the UNRWA has not resettled or repatriated any significant number of these refugees, and the refugee population under its jurisdiction has exploded in size. This is not due to any failures on the UNRWA's part; this outcome is by design.
Since the earliest international efforts to solve refugee problems, a fundamental requirement for refugee status was that a citizen fled from his/her home country into a different country:
For whatever reason, this longstanding requirement for refugee status was avoided where the Palestinian UNRWA is concerned. Included in the UNRWA's refugee population are Palestinian Arabs who never left Palestine along with many who never even left the territory that became Israel:
In a totally unprecedented move, the UNRWA has also included within its refugee population all the descendants of the original refugees; their children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, etc. We are currently on the fourth generation of refugee descendants, each one exponentially increasing the refugee count:
Another peculiar deviation from the common practice of historic and contemporary refugee agencies is UNRWA's ignoring what is known as a cessation clause. Such clauses dictate the termination of refugee status and are very important in preventing prolonged refugee problems. The particular cessation clause the UNRWA disregards is the acquisition by a refugee of a new nationality. Normally in this scenario, the refugee loses their status and simply becomes a citizen of the new country.
Created in 1946, the International Refugee Organization (IRO) included in its constitution specific cessation clauses including either a "return to the home country" or the "acquisition of new nationality ..."31 Likewise, the UNHCR cancels refugee status "if (s)he willingly returns home or obtains a passport or residency in another state."32 In the words of the 1951 Refugee Convention that all modern refugee organizations adhere to, refugee status is terminated if the refugee "has acquired a new nationality, and enjoys the protection of the country of his new nationality ..."33
But when it comes to the UNRWA:
To underscore the implications in ignoring just this one cessation clause we must look at the refugees in Jordan. According to the UNRWA's own statistics, there are now 1.7 million registered Palestinian refugees living in Jordan. Every single one of them "whether they live in camps or outside camps, are eligible for UNRWA services."39 With the exception of 120,000 refugees that came from Gaza, "All Palestine refugees in Jordan have full Jordanian citizenship ..." This means that if the UNRWA would cancel refugee status with the acquisition of a new nationality, over a quarter of the bloated 4.7 million Palestinian refugees figure would be instantly solved.
"The most important change, the one most required and least subject to rational disagreement, is the removal of citizens from recognized states - persons who have the oxymoronic status of “citizen refugees”—from UNRWA’s jurisdiction. This would apply to the vast majority of Palestinian “refugees” in Jordan, as well as to some in Lebanon."53
The UNRWA has generated criticism for the very specific timeframe included in their operational definition for refugees. While the UNHCR and other refugee organizations require that a citizen had to have fled from their "habitual" place of residence, the UNRWA counts "... persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948 ..."40 Removing this clause and replacing it with the specific date range mentioned above is argued to have broadened the refugee population to many recent immigrants. This criticism appears unjustified because if someone's "normal place of residence" was in Palestine for two years, it is also their "habitual" place of residence, thus qualifying them as refugees either way.
Also, complaints that the UNRWA caters only to Palestinian Arabs are common. As briefly touched on earlier, however, refugee organizations were often created to assist one particular ethnic or national group. Nansen Passports that allowed undocumented refugees to travel internationally were at first issued only to Russians. Soon afterward, Armenian and Syrian refugees had conventions established just for them. The HCRFG focused only on refugees coming from Germany, and while unofficial, some accused the IGCR of being "set up to deal almost exclusively with Jewish refugees."41
The issue here should not be that the UNRWA was tasked with assisting only Palestinian Arabs, but that it continues with this antiquated modus operandi in the face of the rest of the world's refugees. In any case, the UNRWA acknowledges they have "a unique role as it is the only UN agency ... whose beneficiary population stems from one nation-group."51
Goals and Methods
Throughout the history of international refugee agreements, organizations, agencies, and conventions the goal of these groups has been to solve refugee problems. The solution is achieved when the refugee population in question has been either repatriated back to the country from which it fled, or resettled to new countries. Success was measured by refugee populations declining in size and ultimately disappearing. Repatriation was always the preferred method, but when it was not feasible the refugees were resettled instead.
"... refugee status in the post-World War period is linked to the need to provide individuals with places of residence other than their own countries on account of war, natural disaster, internal conflict, fear of persecution, and general instability. This is the basis of refugee identification as it appears in the 1950 Statute of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the 1951 Refugee Convention, and the 1967 United Nations Refugee Protocol."8
Standing alone once again is the UNRWA as the only refugee agency currently, or in history, that has not been mandated with repatriating or resettling the refugees under its care. This model that was successfully applied to literally tens of millions of European and Asian refugees was apparently not worthy of being adopted by the UNRWA for Palestinian Arabs. It instead exists only to provide aid, indefinitely, until someone else finds the solution. According to the UNRWA's Website, the differences between it and the UNHCR are as follows:
“UNRWA is only responsible for providing services to one group of refugees, the Palestine refugees, in its areas of operation. UNHCR is responsible for refugees worldwide. UNRWA is mandated to provide the Palestine refugees with humanitarian assistance, whereas UNHCR has the mandate to provide international protection to refugees who fall within the scope of its Statute and to seek permanent solutions for the problem of refugees by assisting Governments.”6
Here is a comparison of basic facts between the UNHCR and UNRWA worth looking over:
|Founded||Dec. 8, 1949||Dec. 14, 1950|
|# of countries operated in||3 + Gaza and West Bank 21||116 7|
|Annual budget||US$ 470.9 million 8||Over $1 billion dollars|
|Sources of funding||UNRWA operations are financed almost entirely by voluntary contributions from governments and the European Union, which account for 96 per cent of all income. 9
Four per cent of income is from United Nations bodies to cover staffing costs, including the funding of 113 international staff posts by the United Nations Secretariat. 10
|UNHCR is almost entirely funded by direct, voluntary contributions from governments, non-governmental organizations and individuals. There is also a very limited subsidy from the regular budget of the United Nations, which is used exclusively for administrative costs. 11|
|Refugees resettled or repatriated||N/A: The UNRWA is not mandated with permanent resettlement or repatriation. The UNRWA’s goal is simply to provide aid until other parties find the solution. 12||50 million 13|
|Number of dependents assisted||4.4 million 14||32.8 million15|
|Methods of resettlement||N/A: The UNRWA is not mandated with permanent resettlement or repatriation. The UNRWA’s goal is simply to provide aid until other parties find the solution.||The organization seeks long-term or so-called 'durable' solutions by helping refugees repatriate to their homeland if conditions warrant, or by helping them to integrate in their countries of asylum or to resettle in third countries.
In the aftermath of World War II, UNHCR concentrated on resettling the bulk of the refugees under its mandate in new countries. 17
When it is sometimes impossible for civilians to go home, UNHCR helps them either to integrate in countries where they first sought asylum or to go to one of some 16 states which regularly accept refugees for permanent resettlement. 18
The UNRWA maintains a staff size of over 4 times more than that of UNHCR and requires half the budget, but only operates in a measly 4% of the countries UNHCR does and is concerned with only 13% of the number of people the UNHCR handles. The UNHCR has already settled 50 million refugees and is currently responsible for over 32 million people while the UNRWA is focused only on 4.4 million; a population that not only should have been resettled three or four generations ago, but is exponentially increasing in size.
“All other cases of refugees in the world came under the jurisdiction of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR); for the Palestinian Arabs, the UN established a completely separate agency, the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). The agencies had different missions. UNHCR was supposed to find permanent homes for refugees and thus solve refugee crises. In contrast, UNRWA was designed only to support the Palestinian refugees within the refugee camps that the Arab states created.”4
The UNHCR does not offer assistance to Palestinian Arabs where the UNRWA operates and the UNRWA is not tasked with finding a solution … so what about the refugees? Sure they get aid in the forms of food, shelter, education, etc, but the question needs to be asked, is perpetual refugee status with aid better or worse for the Palestinians than permanent resettlement? From both humanitarian and financial points of view, the answer is completely negative.
From the humanitarian perspective, "Ironically, since the refugees are considered to be 'at present receiving [protection and assistance] from organs or agencies of the United Nations other than the United Nations High Commission for Refugees,' namely UNWRA, the Palestinians are not subject to the protections and safeguards of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees or the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees."5
The financial burden of perpetual refugee status is obvious. The UNRWA's budget is grossly dispoportionate to the UNHCR They are also a status-based agency as opposed to need-based meaning the economic abilities of its registered refugees are not taken into consideration when dispersing aid. This means a Palestinian refugee could be living in Amman, Jordan making 40,000 dinar annually (equivalent to about $56,000) and still receive aid from the UNRWA by virtue of his refugee status. "No justification exists for millions of dollars in humanitarian aid going to those who can afford to pay for UNRWA services."54
Certainly the refugees of the 1948 Palestine war required humanitarian assistance just like other refugee groups from other wars. The United Nations was right to give it. The key phrase, however, is "just like other refugee groups" of which the UNRWA is not. After an examination of its numerous departures from traditional refugee administration, it is difficult to believe those who created this agency were ever sincere about solving the Palestinian refugee problem in the first place. Every attempt to sustain and exacerbate a refugee problem, instead of solving it, has been enshrined in the UNRWA's operating procedures. Those mistakes have been preserved, repeatedly, with each vote to renew the UNRWA's status quo.
4 Gold, Dore. Tower of Babble: How the United Nations Has Fueled Global Chaos. New York: Crown Forum, 2004. 54.
5 Wadie, Said E. "Palestinian Refugees: Host Countries, Legal Status and the Right of Return." 6 UNRWA Overview <http://www.un.org/unrwa/overview/qa.html> (Site accessed June 27, 2007)
7 UNHCR Basic Facts <http://www.unhcr.org/basics.html> (Site accessed July 10, 2007)
8 UNRWA Finances <http://www.un.org/unrwa/finances/index.html> (Site accessed July 6, 2007)
9 UNRWA Finances <http://www.un.org/unrwa/finances/index.html> (Site accessed July 6, 2007)
10 UNRWA Finances <http://www.un.org/unrwa/finances/index.html> (Site accessed July 6, 2007)
11 UNHCR. How UNHCR is Funded <http://www.unhcr.org/publ/PUBL/3b5443c04.html>
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13 UNHCR Basic Facts <http://www.unhcr.org/basics.html> (Site accessed July 10, 2007)
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15 UNHCR. Protecting Refugees and the Role of UNHCR 2007-2008
16 UNHCR Basic Facts <http://www.unhcr.org/basics/BASICS/420cc0432.html>
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18 UNHCR Basic Facts <http://www.unhcr.org/basics/BASICS/420cc0432.html>
22 Soguk, Nevzat. States and Strangers: Refugees and Displacements of Statecraft. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999. 151.
23 Soguk, Nevzat. States and Strangers: Refugees and Displacements of Statecraft. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999. 148.
24 Kourula, Pirkko. Broadening the Edges: Refugee Definition and International Protection Revisited. Refugees and human rights, v. 1. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1997. 25 Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. 1951 26 Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa, 1969 27 Cartagena Declaration on Refugees, Colloquium on the International Protection of Refugees in Central America, Mexico and Panama. 1984.
28 Gottheil, Fred. "UNRWA and Moral Hazard." Middle Eastern Studies. 42. 3 (2006): 413.
29 Morris, Benny. 1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War. New Haven [Conn.]: Yale University Press, 2008. 490-491
30 Yehoshua, A.B. Ending the Palestinians' Circle of Misery Ha'aretz, April 2, 2000.
31 Kourula, Pirkko. Broadening the Edges: Refugee Definition and International Protection Revisited. Refugees and human rights, v. 1. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1997. 53.
32 UNHCR. CESSATION: When is a Refugee not a Refugee?
33 Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. 1951
34 Kushner, Arlene. UNRWA: The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East - A Hard Look at an Agency in Trouble 11-12.
35 Gold, Dore. Tower of Babble: How the United Nations Has Fueled Global Chaos. New York: Crown Forum, 2004. 54.
36 Morris, Benny. 1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War. New Haven [Conn.]: Yale University Press, 2008. 490-491
37 Gold, Dore. Tower of Babble: How the United Nations Has Fueled Global Chaos. New York: Crown Forum, 2004. 54.
38 Gottheil, Fred. "UNRWA and Moral Hazard." Middle Eastern Studies. 42. 3 (2006): 413.
39 UNRWA. Jordan Refugee Camp Profiles
40 UNRWA. Who is a Palestine Refugee?
41 Soguk, Nevzat. States and Strangers: Refugees and Displacements of Statecraft. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999. 152
42 Soguk, Nevzat. States and Strangers: Refugees and Displacements of Statecraft. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999. 148
43 Soguk, Nevzat. States and Strangers: Refugees and Displacements of Statecraft. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999. 151
44 Soguk, Nevzat. States and Strangers: Refugees and Displacements of Statecraft. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999. 153
45 Soguk, Nevzat. States and Strangers: Refugees and Displacements of Statecraft. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999. 153-154
46 University College Cork. What is a Refugee?
47 Soguk, Nevzat. States and Strangers: Refugees and Displacements of Statecraft. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999. 158
48 United Nations. A/RES/62. Constitution of the International Refugee Organization. 15 December 1946
49 Epp, Frank H., and T. D. Regehr. Mennonites in Canada. Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1974. 88
50 "International Refugee Organization." Encyclopedia Britannica. 2009. Encyclopedia Britannica Online. 05 Jan. 2009
51 UNRWA Overview <http://www.un.org/unrwa/overview/qa.html> (Site accessed June 27, 2007)
52 Zureik, Elia. "Palestinian Refugees and Peace". Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 24, No. 1 (Autumn, 1994). 5-17
53 Lindsay, James G. Fixing UNRWA: Repairing the UN's Troubled System of Aid to Palestinian Refugees Policy Focus #91. January 2009.
54 Lindsay, James G. Fixing UNRWA: Repairing the UN's Troubled System of Aid to Palestinian Refugees Policy Focus #91. January 2009.