4th Dec 2021


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)
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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.

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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.

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