By Kjersti G. Berg, CMI, and Jørgen Jensehaugen
On 9 November 2020 Philippe Lazzarini, the Commissioner General of UNRWA, tweeted: “I am pained to announce that despite all efforts to raise the resources for @UNRWA 2020, I informed our 28,000 staff that we do not have enough funds to pay their salaries in full this month”. This is a desperate situation for the Agency serving 5,7 million Palestinian refugees in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, West Bank and Gaza. How will restored aid levels under the Biden administration affect the organisation, and what is the wider context of international aid to UNRWA?
The economic shortfall was a direct consequence of United States President Donald J. Trump’s policy of defunding UNRWA in 2018. The US, a major donor since the creation of the Agency, cut approximately 30 percent of UNRWA’s budget. The decision to defund UNRWA reflected both the Trump administration’s attitude towards international engagement generally, as well as its intention to undermine the Palestinian refugees’ established rights and existence as a political problem.In addition to the funding crisis, UNRWA operations – and refugees – struggle under the combined weight of Covid-19, civil war in Syria, economic collapse in Lebanon, the entrenched occupation of the West Bank and the Israeli-Egyptian siege of Gaza.UNRWA is a humanitarian “quasi-state” providing basic services like education and health services to Palestinian refugees.
Half a million children attend the 700 UNRWA-run schools and 3,1 million refugees access Agency health services. With its programs, UNRWA provides a basic social security net in a context where, by virtue of being stateless, the refugees are often disfavored compared to the local nationals. Poverty rates among the refugees vary. Around 25 percent of the refugees live in overcrowded refugee camps, characterized by dilapidated infrastructure and higher levels of poverty. Some common features are unemployment, insecure employment and lower wages.
Critics of UNRWA often promote a myth of UNRWA turning refugees into helpless, passive aid recipients by providing “perpetual” relief assistance. Relief, however, is limited to the poorest segment of the refugees only, and to emergency operations, like currently running in Syria and Gaza. One result of strict criteria is that refugees who do not qualify may also find themselves in dire straits. Moreover, the Israeli occupation has created conditions of severe hardship, and international aid seeks to alleviate that. While urgently needed, aid may also be claimed to subsidize the occupation. The blockade of Gaza alone has resulted in losses of USD 16,6 billion to Gaza’s economy.
International aid to UNRWA
In November 2019, the UN General Assembly supported the renewal of UNRWA’s mandate, like it has every third year since 1949. But such support does not reflect states’ willingness to fund the Agency. In fact, UNRWA has struggled for decades to cover its budgets, as it depends on annual voluntary funding from states. This has made operations vulnerable to donor fatigue, to shifting donor priorities and to competition from other humanitarian crises. As a result, UNRWA must expend a great deal of effort to raise funds. Moreover, as each year passes without a solution to the refugee issue, the need for services (like schooling) increases due to population growth, leading some critics to label UNRWA’s efforts as “unsustainable”.Aid to UNRWA does not come without strings. It is often contingent on reforms: for example, measures to cut expenses and cost efficiency. US aid to UNRWA has had a high degree of conditionality. A prime example has been the demand for Palestinian staff “neutrality”, referring to their political affiliations. Most donors have funded UNRWA because it is seen as helpful to upholding regional stability and because they have traditionally funded it. At the same time, UNRWA risks losing funding if it moves too far into what is considered political terrain and away from the core of its mandate.Initially, after the US 2018 aid cut, other donors stepped up to fill the gap. But already in 2019 contributions dropped again. Currently, in pure numbers, Germany is the largest donor, while Sweden and Norway are highest per capita. Generally, the funding trend from Europe has been downward. In addition, the sudden defunding by Gulf countries in 2020 appears related to the US-driven normalization deals with Israel (EuMEP policymaker update, UNRWA crisis special, 18 Dec. 2020). Recently, a French newspaper leaked rumors that UAE is plotting with Israel against UNRWA to remove the organization without a solution to the refugee problem. These trends illustrate insecurities for the future. The Agency will most likely face demands for further reforms, tighter budgets, operating in a crisis mode affecting both employees and refugees. Some observers suggest that regional destabilization could occur if services are cut.More than 70 years after the establishment of the Israeli state and the well-documented forceful displacement of Palestinians, Israel has never admitted any responsibility for the refugees’ displacement, and fiercely rejects any talk of their return. The refugees have not had access to any voluntary durable solution, restitution, reparations, or compensation based in international law or UN resolutions. It is a situation of violated rights and protracted injustice. The refugee question has been marginalized in political negotiations, most recently in the Oslo framework. This points to the dilemma of using humanitarian assistance as a substitute for politics, as a painkiller rather than a cure. This dilemma is real, but marginalizing or closing down UNRWA does not help solve it. Rethinking refugee relief and international aid is however overdue, as is strengthening UNRWA’s mandate and refugees’ access to rights.
Palestinian refugee camp, Kjersti G. Berg