UN agency for Palestinian refugees still short of funds | Middle East | News and analysis of events in the Arab world | DW


In early 2022, the cash-strapped United Nations organization tasked with supporting Palestinian refugees in the Middle East launched a new appeal for funding. Over the course of the year, it would take $1.6 billion (about 1.4 billion euros) to make ends meet, the UN Relief and Works Agency said.

Commonly known as UNRWA, the agency has previously spoken of an “existential crisis” due to a lack of funding.

UNRWA supports the educational, health and social needs of nearly 6 million Palestinian refugees living in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Funded almost entirely by voluntary donations from UN member countries, it has been in dire financial straits since 2018.

In August of the same year, the US government, then led by Donald Trump, declared that it was cutting all funding to UNRWA. Until then, the United States had been the agency’s largest donor, accounting for about a third of its annual budget.

UNRWA employs around 30,000 people, most of whom are Palestinian refugees

Germany steps up

“[The] UNRWA is seen as a lifeline by Palestinian refugees,” agency director Philippe Lazzarini told DW during a three-day visit to Germany this week.

“For example, we have nearly 600,000 girls and boys in 700 schools,” he explained. “We provide primary health care to over 2 million people in the region and we also provide a social safety net. … In places like Gaza, Lebanon and Syria, we provide cash and food to the neediest Palestinian refugees.” UNRWA also offers micro-finance loans.

Lazzarini was in Berlin to discuss Germany’s long-term financial and strategic support for UNWRA. After the United States halted funding in 2018, the agency appealed to other countries to fill the gap.

“Germany have significantly increased their contribution to the organization in 2018,” Lazzarini told DW’s Emmanuelle Chaze.

Germany is now one of the agency’s biggest donors, providing 150 million euros ($170 million) in 2021 and 210 million euros ($238 million) in 2020.

“We will continue to do so in the future,” confirmed German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock after a visit to an UNRWA-run refugee camp in Jordan last week.

Annalena Baerbock sits in a room with refugees in Jordan.

Visiting the Jordanian camp, Annalena Baerbock (far left) said it was important to keep giving, ‘within the framework of the UN’

The United States, under President Joe Biden, also resumed funding UNRWA in 2021, donating around $240 million late last year.

Financial struggles

UNRWA has a core budget of about $800 million, about half of which goes to education. It uses the rest of its funding for emergencies that affect Palestinian refugees, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, the Syrian civil war or the Lebanese economic crisis. Its international staff are paid from another UN budget.

But, as Lazzarini pointed out during his visit, despite donations from the United States and Germany, the agency has been in debt since 2019.

Financial struggles are not new to UNRWA. It was founded by the UN in 1949 to assist Palestinians who had fled or been displaced during the 1948 war that established the State of Israel. It has been steadily running a deficit since 1950. But thanks to factors such as changing donor priorities and other humanitarian crises, donations have been declining for about a decade.

For example, the UK recently cut its donations by more than half, and donations from Gulf Arab countries have also fallen.

Not political

Donations are dwindling, even as the Palestinian refugee population has grown. Indeed, until a long-term solution is found, descendants of refugees can also claim refugee status under international law.

“The organization continues to struggle to deliver its services…because of financial challenges, which are mostly also an expression of political challenges,” Lazzarini told DW.

In an open letterto Palestinian refugees, published in December last year, Lazzarini explained what he meant.

“Since 2018, [UNRWA] and his tenure have come under increased political attack,” he wrote. “These attacks are based on the stupid and mistaken idea that by closing UNRWA they will wipe out 5.8 million Palestinian refugees.

Critical Reviews

UNRWA has been criticized by former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, among other Israeli politicians, and former US President Donald Trump for how it defines who can be called a Palestinian refugee.

It defines them as “persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine during the period from June 1, 1946 to May 11, 1948, and who lost both their home and their means of subsistence as a result of the 1948 conflict” . Descendants of such persons may also register with UNRWA.

Netanyahu has argued that UNRWA should be disbanded, calling it a “refugee perpetuation agency” and suggesting that other UN agencies deal with Palestinian refugees in the region.

“It also perpetuates the narrative of the so-called ‘right of return’ with the aim of eliminating the State of Israel,” Netanyahu said in 2018.

No solution in sight

Israel has always rejected the Palestinians’ right of return. If millions of Palestinians returned, the demographic change would make Israel a Palestinian-majority state, rather than a Jewish-majority state.

However, as UNRWA itself explains on his websiteeven if it were dissolved, Palestinian refugees “would still be Palestinian refugees and retain their rights under [UN] General Assembly resolution 194, pending a just and lasting solution to their plight.”

The same UN resolution incorporates the right of Palestinian refugees and their descendants to return to the homes from which they were displaced.

Palestinians receive medicine from a pharmacy run by the Palestinian refugee agency, UNWRA, in Lebanon.

Nearly 3 million Palestinian refugees use UNRWA health services

At present, no kind of solution to one of the oldest conflicts in the Middle East seems to be in sight. And many political pundits, including Israelis, warn that closing UNRWA without an alternative could lead to deepening poverty and possibly even more violence.

“The root causes of the conflict remain,” Lazzarini told a press conference in Gazaafter fighting there in May 2021. “Those need to be resolved.”

Until then, UNRWA will be needed, he concluded.

Edited by: Nicole Goebel


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