These are dire times for UNRWA, the UN agency established to care for refugees displaced from Palestine at the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. As the Agency approaches its seventieth anniversary, with its mandate up for renewal by the UN General Assembly in the autumn, recent allegations of misconduct and abuse of power by senior UNRWA staff have brought renewed criticisms and a volley of polemical attacks against it. This has made the task of caring for 5.5 million refugees even more difficult and hijacked the space for informed and level-headed debate on both the challenges and opportunities ahead.
Allegations of misconduct and abuse of power made worse
Pending the results of a UN headquarters investigation into allegations of wrongdoing, several European donors have suspended their contributions to UNRWA. Reports that New Zealand may soon do the same have heightened concern among refugees and others about UNRWA’s financial stability, after the US – hitherto UNRWA’s largest donor – withdrew its funding last year. Similar investigations of staff of other UN organisations have not provoked a comparable donor response. As others have rightly noted, it is the refugees who will ultimately pay the price for the current quagmire.
Vigilant against the misuse of public funds and accountable to their domestic constituencies, donors are at the same time reasonably expected to withhold judgement until the UN Secretariat has completed its investigation. Lost in the political invective is the fact that it was UNRWA’s internal oversight mechanisms that identified and reported the allegations to the UN Secretary-General in the first place. UN regulations and rules do provide means to address the situation without the need to suspend funding.
Citing the recent allegations as more evidence that UNRWA is “irredeemably flawed”, longstanding critics have redoubled their attacks against the Agency. Unsubstantiated claims of inefficiency and charges of incitement and terrorism have been recycled for more than a decade. Never is it mentioned that UNRWA staff who are found to be in violation of UN rules and regulations are dismissed immediately.
These critics claim that UNRWA perpetuates the refugee “problem” and that getting rid of the Agency will somehow solve it. Dissolving the Agency, in this misguided view, is the easiest way to rid themselves of the refugee issue. Yet, the reality is rather that only when there is a just solution to the refugee question will UNRWA no longer be required.
The need for informed and level-headed debate
Relying almost entirely on voluntary donations, the Agency’s ability to meet the needs of the growing number of Palestine refugees is further strained by humanitarian emergencies in areas where it operates, downturns in the global economy and the seven-decade-long absence of durable solutions. In the spirit of international responsibility sharing, both the New York Declaration on Refugees and Migrants, adopted by all 193 members of the General Assembly in 2016, and the UN Secretary-General, have called upon states to ensure that UNRWA has “sufficient, predictable and sustainable” funding pending a just and durable solution to the refugee question. While the Agency has undertaken measures to broaden its donor base, explore additional funding streams and establish new partnerships at both corporate and private levels, primary responsibility for funding UNRWA remains with UN member states.
The prospect for just and durable solutions for Palestinian refugees remains a chimera seventy years on. Israel’s adamant denial of their right of return has in turn rendered local integration in the Arab host countries and resettlement in third countries politically impracticable. The responsibility for a political solution of the refugee situation, as well as of the unresolved question of Palestinian self-determination, lies with states. There is little that UNRWA can do by itself to help the refugees out of the current impasse until political conditions allow refugees to make free and informed choices about their future. Meanwhile, UNRWA can neither be blamed for the lack of a political solution nor should be seen as a substitute for the lack of political will within the international community.
Like Palestine refugees cared for by UNRWA, about 16 million refugees worldwide (seventy-eight per cent of the global refugee population) find themselves in a “protracted refugee situation”. The similar absence of a political solution makes UNHCR’s mandate for them no less compelling. Whether UNRWA could do more within its existing mandate or whether this should explicitly include the promotion of durable solutions raises difficult and politically sensitive questions, requiring careful and objective examination.
Moving beyond uncertainty
When it considers UNRWA’s mandate in November, the General Assembly has an opportunity to better serve Palestine refugees by helping remove the uncertainty and air of perpetual crisis that surrounds them and the Agency. Discussions about how to achieve a just resolution to the refugees’ plight can no longer be postponed.
Meanwhile, UNRWA must be enabled to continue to care for the refugees, armed with a new institutional vision and strategy, one that fully involves refugees in discussions concerning their future. After decades of broken promises, it is time for the international community, through the United Nations, to translate declarations of support for the refugees into concrete action.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.