The UN agency for Palestinian refugees needs to find about $350 million a year if the United States pulls all its funding, as threatened. With social services at risk for 5.4 million Palestinian refugees living in the occupied territories and the wider Middle East, including schooling for half a million children, IRIN took a look at the numbers and what they mean.
The UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, or UNRWA, was formed in 1949 to help Palestinians who fled at the time of the creation of the state of Israel.
The United States has been a major donor for 70 years and US funding to the agency averaged $348 million for the five years 2013-2017. But earlier this year President Donald Trump’s administration paid only $60 million, a fraction of the expected US contribution, and on Friday it ordered a complete halt to any further funding.
In a statement, the US State Department said it was tired of shouldering a “very disproportionate” share of the agency’s spending. However, the US contribution from 2013-2017 represented an average of 28 percent, the same percentage used as the country’s fair share of UN peacekeeping costs.
In a statement, the European Union said its members, which collectively represent the largest donor to UNRWA, will consult on how to fill the gap.
What reasoning was given?
The State Department said the model on which UNRWA operates is “irredeemably flawed”, and the policy change appears to protest the growth in numbers of Palestinian refugees. In 1950, UNRWA's first year, it dealt with some 900,000 refugees. However, their descendants are also refugees, and today’s population stands at about 5.4 million.
Previously, State Department policy agreed with the international consensus that refugee children are themselves refugees, something not unique to Palestinians. The United States and UNRWA signed a framework agreement in December 2017 that assured the UN agency of ongoing American support until a “comprehensive and lasting peace agreement [with Israel] is achieved”. And this long-lasting position on children being included as refugees was reiterated as recently as May 2018 in a congressional research paper.
In an open letter issued today, the head of UNRWA, Pierre Krähenbühl, says there are 5.4 million refugees who have “undeniable” rights that “cannot be wished away”. UNRWA can’t be blamed for perpetuating the refugee issue, he says, arguing that it’s the whole world that has failed to resolve the conflict between Israel and Palestine.
As the conflict is unresolved, UNRWA offers the following definition: Palestinian refugees are defined as “persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine during the period of 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948, and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict”, and “the descendants of Palestine refugee males, including adopted children”.
Past US funding of UNRWA was “hush money” – compensation given the lack of any political solution – a senior aid worker in the region told IRIN. The aid worker, who requested anonymity given the sensitivity of the issues, said the US move to undermine UNRWA is aimed to “kill the idea” of a Palestinian diaspora and any “right of return.”
With talk of a federation between the West Bank and Jordan, Trump’s move “throws a match” into the thicket of conventional thinking about the Israel-Palestine issue, the aid worker said. It also may provoke violent protests: UNRWA’s office in Gaza was occupied by protestors last week. Palestinian hopes of statehood used to face a series of “stabbings”, the aid worker said, now they face a “guillotine”.
(TOP PHOTO: Palestine refugees in Lebanon, 1948. Photo: UN)
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