Ever since its creation in 1949 by General Assembly Resolution 302, the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) has had to defend itself and the refugees it assists from critics, dissenters and others who wished to ignore or deny the rights of Palestine refugees.
In the early years, when UNRWA was perceived as a 'humanitarian' relief organisation, providing food, water and tents to the refugees, political and financial support was forthcoming in a fairly consistent manner. The Agency was seen to be offering services similar to those available to European refugees after the Second World War. There was no anticipation that the 800,000 Palestinians who fled their land in 1948 would lead, over the years, to the presence of nearly five million stateless persons in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and the occupied Palestinian territory of the West Bank and Gaza. There was even less expectation that another five million Palestinians in the Diaspora would be adding their voices to those still insisting on the right to their land and their independence and calling for justice in 2012.
Yet, the refugees who fled in 1948 were the origin of one of the most intractable political and humanitarian issues facing the international community in the second decade of the 21st century. The presumption (or delusion?) then, as now, was that Palestinians would, indeed should, make themselves 'at home' in the Arab lands where they initially took refuge, fleeing from the conflict in British Mandate Palestine.
Now, each passing year leaves Palestine refugees – and Palestinians generally – worse off in terms of being able to realise their aspirations, particularly those of the return to their land or independence in a viable geographical territory that would qualify as a nation-state.
Those who fear the growing numbers and demands of Palestine refugees often direct their criticisms towards UNRWA, particularly since the Agency moved from offering relief to providing basic public services of education and health and to dealing with periodic emergencies generated, in most cases, by conflicts with the occupying power in the occupied territory. Over the years, charges such as 'perpetuating the refugee existence' and 'keeping refugees in squalid refugee camps' have been lodged repeatedly against the Agency.
In truth, the 4.8 million Palestine refugees in the Near East are almost entirely self-sufficient. The only exceptions are those living under occupation. In Gaza, an increasingly severe Israeli blockade since the beginning of the second Intifada in 2000 has left 80 per cent of the population 'food insecure' and in need of emergency food aid. Only 6 per cent of the 4.8 million refugees are registered as 'vulnerable', individuals who receive a barely subsistence amount of aid four times a year. With regard to the 'squalid camps,' only one-third of the refugees live in 'camps'. The 'camps' are almost all within or adjacent to host country towns, in no way comparable to distinct refugee camps in other parts of the world.
Those who believe (or make use of) the 'perpetuation' charge go on to conclude that 'getting rid of UNRWA' will 'get rid of' the Palestine refugee 'problem'. This argument ignores the Palestine refugee definition, the 1950 Refugee Convention's solutions to which all refugees around the world are entitled and the basic right of the individual refugee to make a voluntary choice regarding her or his future.
A Palestinian refugee is defined as someone who lost both home and livelihood during the Arab-Israeli struggle in 1948. The Refugee Convention identifies three 'durable solutions' for refugees once the root cause of their flight has been overcome and agreement has been reached among the country of origin, the asylum country and the refugees. These are: repatriation (the preferred solution, by both refugees, asylum countries and usually the country of origin, one which obviously does not apply in the Israeli case); integration in the country of asylum (if voluntarily chosen by the refugee and agreed by the asylum country); and resettlement in a third country (in most cases available to only a few thousand refugees per year). Descendents of all refugees retain refugee status, on the basis of family unity, until a political agreement is reached among the parties to the conflict which prompted the flight and the refugees themselves.
Eliminating UNRWA would serve only to deprive Palestine refugees of the basic public services and human development opportunities offered by the Agency. Such services would then have to be provided by another body; in the case of West Bank and Gaza that would be the occupying power, Israel. This explains the official Israeli government support for the role of UNRWA, and the reason there is a modicum of cooperation in allowing basic provision of goods and services by UNRWA in the occupied Palestinian territory.
UNRWA is a voluntarily funded organisation, like most other UN humanitarian agencies. It benefits from the assessed budget of the UN only for the salaries of its small (130) international staff. For all its other activities, including the salaries of its 30,000 Palestine refugee staff (teachers, doctors, nurses, administrators, sanitation workers, etc.) it must raise its own funds, in most cases on an annual basis. Its budget today is just over one billion US dollars a year, roughly half for the basic public services (the human development aspect of UNRWA's work) and the other half for emergency assistance where warranted, particularly in Gaza and to a lesser extent in West Bank, and for other special programmes such as shelter repair in Gaza and rebuilding the Nahr el-Bared camp in Lebanon.
Around one quarter of the budget is funded by the United States (despite persistent threats to decrease or eliminate funding, from some members of the US Congress acting according to what they believe is the interest of Israel). Another quarter comes from the European Union, with most of the remaining half from individual European countries, Japan, the Arab Gulf countries (Saudi Arabia having become the number three donor in 2011), Australia and, more recently, Brazil, India and China along with Korea and other emerging market countries, such as Malaysia and Indonesia. Similarly to other voluntarily funded organisations, the ease with which funds are secured for the budget, which increases each year, depends to a great extent on the state of the world's economy and the overall foreign aid allocations of donor countries.
Some governments 'ring-fence' their donations, with the Arab Gulf countries, among others, preferring to fund food, so UNRWA meets resistance when it suggests that cash instead of food is a means to reach more vulnerable people more easily. Some donors have begun to question the need for an emergency budget for refugees in the West Bank, given the apparently healthy growth of the economy and improvement in living conditions there. UNRWA has reduced its emergency provisions significantly in the West Bank since the Intifada years, but not many refugees, especially those living in camps, benefit from the largely artificial economy centred on Ramallah. In any case, the camps and rural villages are cut off from each other by new and ever-enlarging Israeli settlements, security zones, the barrier/wall and checkpoints. These circumstances affect the ability of refugees to secure employment and to move easily to and from work opportunities.
It must be said that there are 'existential' or 'structural' problems for UNRWA's budget, in some ways more fundamental than those of other expanding humanitarian agencies. UNRWA serves a refugee population that grows each year with the addition of descendents, since they will continue to be refugees until a political solution is agreed between Palestine and Israel. Therefore, the future of the refugees, at this time, is in the hands of political actors, some of whom are content to see the conflict unresolved as it gives them time to alter the landscape of the eventual solution. Israel's creeping acquisition of West Bank land, which even under the untenable Oslo Agreement was supposed to be the Palestinian part of a two-state solution, is steadily eroding any possibility of creating a viable Palestinian state. The additional difficulties created by the non-contiguity of the two parts of the territory, the West Bank and Gaza currently under separate, competing authorities, further complicates the realisation of a viable state. Such 'facts on the ground' contribute to a growing body of opinion among some in and beyond Palestine that a one state solution is an inevitable alternative, with Palestinians and Israelis living side by side in one democratic polity. This is an idea increasingly to the liking of many Palestinians, but appreciated by very few Israelis. These, however, are thoughts to be explored on another occasion.
Until the refugees are given the opportunity to make their voluntary choices about their individual futures, UNRWA, as the United Nations agency responsible for serving them, must continue its efforts to raise more money for more refugees, who need more schools, more clinics and more shelters every year. With no end in sight, donors, predictably, ask when and how this cycle of dependency on international aid might end.
UNRWA has devoted a great deal of effort to expanding its donor base by securing new donors (as in a focus on the BRICS group and other emerging market countries this year and on private sector funding, including from 'high-worth' individuals). It has also been elaborating other 'flagship' efforts to help mobilise donors through, among other things, education reform and enhancing opportunities for technical education. A conference on 'Engaging Youth' in Brussels in March drew a large audience and strong, high level donor, host country and refugee support and enthusiasm.
Given the acknowledged role UNRWA plays in promoting human development and self-reliance of Palestine refugees, there is little actual threat to its survival as an agency. The constant complaints and criticisms about its mandate, however, do take a toll on the ability to continue to raise sufficient funds for its programmes and the growing population of Palestine refugees. Still, even those who scrutinise it most closely and challenge it most severely are those who also ensure that its programmes receive adequate funding. They, like others who view the agency more positively, realise that UNRWA makes a major contribution to stability in the Middle East.
Defenders and critics alike should welcome UNRWA's role in providing positive benefits to the Palestine refugees it serves and for its success in promoting conflict resolution, tolerance and human rights in the Middle East. These are the paths to peace in the region, and beyond, that deserve recognition and respect.
Karen Koning Abu Zayd is a former Commissioner-General of the UNRWA (the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, 2005-2009). Before joining the UNRWA, Karen worked for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees for 19 years. She began her humanitarian career in Sudan in 1981, dealing with Ugandan, Chadian and Ethiopian refugees fleeing from war and famine in their own countries. From Sudan she moved to Namibia in 1989 to help coordinate the return of apartheid era refugees, a successful repatriation operation which led to elections and independence. A year later the Liberian civil war erupted and Karen moved to Sierra Leone to head the UNHCR office in Freetown initiating a new emergency response that of settling 100.000 Liberians in 600 villages along the Liberian/Sierra Leone border.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.