From Relief Provider to Vector of Identity

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The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) was created in December 1949 by the United Nations General Assembly to provide relief for, and promote the socioeconomic reintegration of the 800,000 refugees of Palestine who found themselves in a situation of distress after having lost their homes and means of livelihood following the 1948 Palestine War.

UNRWA has become one of the most impressive organizations of the UN system. The five million Palestinian refugees and their descendants who are presently registered in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip (UNRWA’s areas of operation) constitute the largest refugee population in the world. UNRWA’s general programs and services, run daily by some 30,000 employees, encompass education (mostly primary, but also secondary in Lebanon) and vocational training, health care (both preventive and curative), social services, microfinance, and infrastructural improvement in fifty-nine refugee camps. This gives UNRWA the appearance of a civilian “quasi-government.” Furthermore, its emergency programs have provided direct protection to refugees during the many conflicts that have bloodied the Near East (e.g., during Israel’s assault on the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2014).

What makes UNRWA unique, however, is the political significance of its action. As the only UN agency whose mission is to support a single group of refugees, it has witnessed their plight and symbolized the international commitment to implement UN General Assembly Resolution 194, which resolves in paragraph 11 that the refugees return to their homes or resettle elsewhere with compensation.

Despite the importance that UNRWA has acquired over six decades, it remains a temporary body whose mandate has been regularly renewed since 1950 for periods lasting from three to five years. Moreover, it continues to be funded by voluntary contributions from members of the international community. This institutional precariousness has prevented UNRWA from making long-term plans.

UNRWA has had to manage competing pressures from its various partners: its principal donors, the Western powers, whose decisive involvement in the creation and the financing of UNRWA may be explained by their concern to safeguard regional stability for the sake of their geopolitical interests; the host countries, for which UNRWA’s programs have been instrumental in mitigating the impact of the refugee crisis on their economies; and, finally, the refugees themselves whose acquisition of a UNRWA  “Palestine refugee” card has represented not only a means for accessing humanitarian services but, even more important, proof of their entitlement to the rights of return and compensation. Consequently, UNRWA’s decisions have generally been interpreted, supported, or fought according to the extent to which they adequately uphold these rights.

The refugees’ attachment to their right of return is one of the major reasons for the failure of UNRWA’s initial mission: putting an end to the refugees’ material dependency by integrating them collectively into the host country economies, notably through their participation in infrastructure work projects. In the late 1950s, UNRWA redirected its mandate toward individual integration through primary education and vocational training. This approach has won the favor of the refugees, who see it as an opportunity for social mobility that does not threaten their right of return. Initially conceived as a secondary relief activity, UNRWA’s education program now takes up about half of its budget and involves two-thirds of its personnel. At the same time, the previously predominant relief program now only benefits some 5 percent of registered refugees (ranging from 11 percent in Lebanon to 2 percent in the West Bank). The effects of UNRWA’s education policy are remarkable: the percentage of refugees with a formal education has jumped from 27 percent in 1951 to almost 100 percent since the 1980s. In a matter of a few decades, an economically marginalized population was transformed into a workforce spearheading economic development in the Middle East, in particular in the Gulf countries.

Since the 1990s, UNRWA has supported the creation of small enterprises and the renovation of camp infrastructure. Refugee camps have traditionally been seen as a strong symbol of the Palestinian refugees’ suffering since 1948 (even though only a third of registered refugees now live in them; from 18 percent in Jordan to 50 percent in Lebanon), which explains why camp renovation was rejected as normalization of the refugees’ plight. Today, refugees participate in camp renovation projects pragmatically and do not view the improvement of living conditions in the camps as in any way jeopardizing their right of return. The marginalization of the refugee issue in Palestinian-Israeli negotiations has undoubtedly encouraged such pragmatism.

UNRWA’s unique proximity with the refugee communities it serves has created friction with its main Western donors and Israel. Functioning with more than 99 percent of local employees, for the most part refugees themselves, UNRWA appears to be a hybrid organization whose political neutrality has been called into question, especially since the rebirth of the Palestinian national movement in the 1960s. Over the years it has been accused of letting its teachers use their position to raise the political awareness of younger generations of refugees, and Israel has accused UNRWA of allowing its infrastructure to be used by “terrorist” organizations in Lebanon or in the occupied territories against Israel.

UNRWA’s efforts to maintain its neutral and humanitarian character have sometimes created tension with the refugees and their representatives. While UNRWA’s programs may have at times been used at different levels for furthering Palestinian political agendas, its policies have remained decided by its main donors in collaboration with its international staff. UNRWA education programs continue to be modeled on those of the host countries despite repeated pressures by the Palestine Liberation Organization to make these programs more Palestinian. Moreover, the relative (per capita) decrease of the agency’s budget since the 1970s has resulted in an erosion of the quantity and quality of its services, which some refugees view as a plan to do away with the refugee issue. Finally, some resent the subordinate status of its local personnel (who implement policies decided “above”), feelings that have been further exacerbated since 2000 by increasing restrictions on local staff union and political activities, as well as by acrimonious salary negotiations.

Nevertheless, the operational and political significance that Palestinian refugees attach to UNRWA should not be underestimated. Over the years UNRWA has somewhat become part of the Palestinian “family” even if at times it resembles a “contemptuous stepmother,” as the Palestinian writer Fawaz Turki has remarked tongue-in-cheek.

Selected Bibliography: 

Buehrig, Edward H. The U.N. and the Palestinian Refugees: A Study in Nonterritorial Administration. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1971.

Al Husseini, Jalal. “UNRWA and the Palestine Refugees: A Difficult but Lasting Marriage.Journal of Palestine Studies 40, no.1 (Autumn 2010): 6–26.

Schiff, Benjamin. Refugees unto the Third Generation: UN Aid to the Palestinians. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1995.

Takkenberg, Lex. The Status of Palestinian Refugees in International Law. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998.

Turki, Fawaz. The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestine Exile. New York: New York University Press, 1972.

“UNRWA and the Palestinian Refugees 60 Years Later” (Special issue). Refugee Survey Quarterly 28, no.2-3 (2010).

UNRWA, Public Information Office. UNRWA in Figures -- as of 1 January 2014. Jerusalem: Author, 2014.

UNRWA, Annual Report of the General Commissioner of the UNRWA (various issues).