20th Aug 2022


Palestine refugees: UNRWA's global responsibility

  • Displaced by airstrikes, Palestine refugee children sit in the school yard of the UNRWA Salah Eddin School, one of 58 shelters of its kind in Gaza (Photo: Mohammed Hinawi/UNWRA)
Listen to article

This week representatives of the global community gathered in Brussels to support the millions of Palestine refugees scattered across the Middle East. The governments of Jordan and Sweden, one host to the largest Palestine refugee community in the region, and the second a staunch advocate of refugee rights, sponsored a conference in support of one of the longest standing refugee communities, whose suffering primarily stems from the absence of a political solution that includes them.

UNRWA (the United Nations Relief and Works Agency) was established in 1948 in the wake of the Israeli-Arab conflict on what was assumed to be a temporary basis, anticipating the speedy return of Palestine refugees to their homes when fighting ended.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Become an expert on Europe

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

As the international community has failed to find a political solution for the conflict 70 years later, UNRWA has continued to provide life-saving humanitarian assistance and critical services such as health and education to generations of refugees created by the unsettled conflict.

Regional politics, competing global priorities and, sadly, a deliberate misinformation campaign that seeks to dismantle the agency jeopardise the critical mission of one of the United Nations' true success stories.

By mandate, UNRWA provides government-like services to a community that is displaced. UNRWA schools, healthcare clinics, and other social services are staffed almost exclusively by Palestine refugees, all of whom are hired directly and paid local wages that compare to those of their peers in government institutions.

UNRWA's quality services benefit millions of Palestine refugees across Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and Gaza.

For example, the agency operates one of the Middle East's most extensive educational systems: 708 schools educate over 540,000 girls and boys. A recent joint World Bank-UNHCR study empirically demonstrates that UNRWA's educational outcomes are among the best in the region and at lower unit costs than public education.

The UNRWA health programme, another flagship programme, delivers essential, life-saving, and comprehensive primary health care services to two million Palestine refugees who utilise the UNRWA system with about 8.5 million patient visits a year. Over the last year, the health program heavily supported COVID-19 vaccination rollout across the region.

UNRWA food and cash assistance prevents Palestine refugees from falling deeper into poverty and from having to resort to negative coping mechanisms, such as child labor, early marriage, or migration through dangerous routes.

But while the agency's existence is rooted in international law, its funding is neither stable nor predictable.

UNRWA is funded mostly through voluntary contributions from donor governments. This means that the amount of money that the agency receives every year is subject to the whim of governments. Funding can be slashed, if not cut off altogether, for reasons of political expediency.

Donor fatigue

Conflicts that have emerged since, the region's volatility, competing humanitarian priorities and donor fatigue have all worked against UNRWA and against the resources its health, education and social services require.

In 2021, UNRWA welcomed the resumption of its historic partnership with the United States of America. The over $318m [€281m] from this steadfast partner is a huge sign of faith that the US places in UNRWA, and in its ability to contribute to stability in a highly volatile region. It is the kind of support that has, to a large extent, allowed millions of Palestine refugees to access services over the years.

Sadly however, the return of the US has been offset by decreases by traditional donors and the timid or absence of financial engagement of countries in the Middle East. The cumulative level of fundings has stalled over the last 10 years whilst needs in a region hit by multiple crises have significantly increased.

It is mind-boggling that UNRWA must constantly beg for cash to maintain its critical operations. I urge the donor community to recognise that political and financial support are both key to the role of UNRWA and key to its ability to contribute to the region's stability. I urge the donor community to commit to multi-year financing, to allow UNRWA, similarly to a government entity, to plan, based on multi-annual budgets, the continuation, modernization and regular upgrading of its services.

The well-being and protection of Palestinian refugees is not a Middle Eastern problem – it's the world's responsibility.

And UNRWA is the only tool in the world's toolbox for meeting their needs. No other agency or combination of agencies can replace the holistic role that UNRWA plays, including in keeping hope for a better future for Palestine refugees.

UNRWA is irreplaceable in a region ripe with conflicts and crises. It is irreplaceable until there is a just and lasting political solution that includes a future for Palestine refugees.

Author bio

Philippe Lazzarini is commissioner-general of UNRWAthe UN Relief & Works Agency, responsible for the welfare of Palestine refugees


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

Israel's besmirching of Palestine NGOs must be reversed

The designation perfectly fits into Israel's long-conceived strategy to besmirch Palestinian civil society voices under false allegations of terrorism and antisemitism, while pressuring any international actor that grants them a hearing, and actively demanding their defunding.

Textbook hypocrisy: EU's new low point on Palestine

Brussels institutions are devoting time not to Israel's illegal settlements and the two-state solution, but to an entirely different, peripheral issue: an EU-funded study of Palestinian Authority schoolbooks, published in June by the Georg-Eckert Institute in Germany.


Israel/Palestine: how victims became aggressors

The relationship between Israel and the Palestinians is actually an oversized Stanford Prison Experiment. That 1970s experiment showed that if you give people power, they start to abuse that power very quickly.

The first anniversary of the Abraham Accords

More than 55 agreements between Israel, the UAE and Bahrain are currently underway. These lay the foundation for practical cooperation in almost all fields including: finance, communications, economy, culture, tourism, taxation, investment protection, freedom of movement, water, agriculture and energy.

Could the central Asian 'stan' states turn away from Moscow?

The former Soviet states of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan have retained close ties with Russia since 1989. Yet this consensus may be shifting. At the UN, none of them supported Russia in the resolution condemning the Ukraine invasion.


Is this strange summer a moment of change?

It is a strange, strange summer. The war in Ukraine continues, 60 percent of Europe is in danger of drought, and Covid is still around and could rebound in the autumn. At the same time, everyone is desperate for normalcy.

Russia puts EU in nuclear-energy paradox

There's unprecedented international anxiety about the safety of Ukraine's nuclear reactors, but many European countries are also turning to nuclear power to secure energy supplies.

News in Brief

  1. China joins Russian military exercises in Vostok
  2. Ukraine nuclear plant damage would be 'suicide', says UN chief
  3. Denmark to invest €5.5bn in new warships
  4. German economy stagnates, finance ministry says
  5. Syria received stolen grain, says Ukraine envoy
  6. Truss still leads in next UK PM polling
  7. UN chief meets Zelensky and Erdogan over grain exports
  8. Fighting stalls ahead of UN visit, Ukraine says

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic prime ministers: “We will deepen co-operation on defence”
  2. EFBWW – EFBH – FETBBConstruction workers can check wages and working conditions in 36 countries
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic and Canadian ministers join forces to combat harmful content online
  4. European Centre for Press and Media FreedomEuropean Anti-SLAPP Conference 2022
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic ministers write to EU about new food labelling
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersEmerging journalists from the Nordics and Canada report the facts of the climate crisis

Latest News

  1. European inflation hits 25-year high, driven by energy spike
  2. No breakthrough in EU-hosted Kosovo/Serbia talks
  3. Letter to the Editor: Rosatom responds on Zaporizhzhia
  4. Could the central Asian 'stan' states turn away from Moscow?
  5. Serbia expects difficult talks with Kosovo at EU meeting
  6. How scary is threat to Ukraine's Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant?
  7. Slovakia's government stares into the abyss
  8. Finland restricts Russian tourist visas

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us