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UN Palestinian refugee agency short of funds

Emmanuelle Chaze
February 18, 2022

UNRWA chief Philippe Lazzarini visits Germany to shore up long-term financial commitments. After the US stopped funding the agency, Germany became one of its most important donors.

Palestinian refugee children, sit in their UN school for the first day of the new scholastic year in Gaza City.
Around 58% of the UNRWA's funds are spent on educationImage: Ismael Mohamad/UPI Photo/Newscom/picture alliance

At the outset of 2022, the cash-strapped United Nations organization tasked with supporting Palestinian refugees in the Middle East put out yet another call for funding. Over the year it would take $1.6 billion (around €1.4 billion) to make ends meet, the UN Relief and Works Agency said.

Commonly known as the UNRWA, the agency has previously spoken of an "existential crisis" due to a lack of funding.

The UNRWA takes care of the educational, health and welfare needs of close to 6 million Palestinian refugees living in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Funded almost completely by voluntary donations from UN member nations, it has been in financially straitened circumstances since 2018.

In August that year, the US government, then headed by Donald Trump, said it was cutting all funding to the UNRWA. Until then, the US had been the agency's biggest donor, making up about a third of its annual budget.

Palestinian employees at the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) prepare food aid rations for refugees.
The UNRWA employs around 30,000 staff, most of whom are Palestinian refugeesImage: Ashraf Amra/APA Images via ZUMA Press Wire/Zumapress/picture alliance

Germany steps up

"[The] UNRWA is perceived as a lifeline by Palestinian refugees," the agency's head, Philippe Lazzarini, told DW during a three-day visit to Germany this week.

"For example, we have nearly 600,000 girls and boys in 700 schools," he explained. "We provide primary health care to more than 2 million people across the region and we also provide a social safety net. ... In places like Gaza and Lebanon and Syria, we provide cash and food for the most destitute Palestinian refugees." The UNRWA also offers micro-financing loans.

Lazzarini was in Berlin to discuss Germany's long-term financial and strategic support for the UNWRA. After the US halted funding in 2018, the agency appealed to other countries to make up the shortfall.

"Germany significantly stepped up its contribution to the organization in 2018," Lazzarini told DW's Emmanuelle Chaze.

Germany is now one of the agency's largest donors, supplying €150 million ($170 million) in 2021 and €210 million ($238 million) in 2020.

"We will continue to do so in the future," Germany's Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock confirmed after a visit to an UNRWA-run refugee camp in Jordan last week.

Annalena Baerbock sits in a room with refugees in Jordan.
On a visit to the Jordanian camp, Annalena Baerbock (far left) said it was important to keep giving, "within the framework of the UN"Image: DW

The US, under President Joe Biden, also started funding the UNRWA again in 2021, donating around $240 million by the end of last year.

Financial struggles 

The UNRWA has a core budget of around $800 million, about half of which goes on education. It uses the rest of its funding for emergencies that impact Palestinian refugees, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, the Syrian civil war or the Lebanese economic crisis. Its international staff are paid out of a different UN budget.

But, as Lazzarini pointed out during his visit, despite donations from the US and Germany, the agency has been in debt since 2019. 

The UNRWA was founded by the UN in 1949 to provide relief to Palestinians who left their homes in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, when five Arab states invaded the newly established state of Israel. During the ensuing war, an estimated 700,000 Palestinian Arabs fled their homes. The reasons for the mass departure are complex. While many left their homes voluntarily in anticipation of war or in response to the call of Arab leaders promising them safety after a quick victory, many others fled to avoid being caught in the crossfire or were forced to flee by groups fighting for Israel.

Financial struggles are nothing new to the UNRWA. The UNRWA has regularly run a deficit since 1950. But thanks to factors such as changing donor priorities and other humanitarian crises, donations have been dropping for around a decade.

For example, the UK recently cut donations by more than half and donations from Arab Gulf countries have also plummeted. 

Not political

The donations are decreasing, even as the Palestinian refugee population has grown. This is because, until a long-term solution is found, descendants of refugees can also claim refugee status under international law.

"The organization keeps struggling to deliver its services … because of financial challenges, which most of the time are also an expression of political challenges," Lazzarini told DW.

In an open letterto Palestinian refugees, published in December last year, Lazzarini explained what he meant.

"Since 2018, [UNRWA] and its mandate have come under increased political attacks," he wrote. "These attacks are based on the foolish and wrong idea that by closing UNRWA, they will erase 5.8 million Palestine refugees."

Critical opinions

The UNRWA has been criticized by former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, among other Israeli politicians, and ex-US President Donald Trump because of how it defines who can be called a Palestinian refugee.

It defines them as "persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine during the period 1 June 1946, to 11 May 1948, and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict.” Descendants of those people may also sign up with the UNRWA.

Netanyahu argued that the UNRWA should be disbanded, calling it a "refugee perpetuation agency" and suggesting other UN agencies take care of Palestinian refugees in the region.

"It also perpetuates the narrative of the so-called ‘right of return' with the aim of eliminating the state of Israel," Netanyahu said in 2018.

No solution in sight

Israel has always rejected the right of Palestinians to return. If millions of Palestinians returned, the demographic change would make Israel a Palestinian-majority state, rather than a Jewish-majority one.

However, as the UNRWA itself explains on its website, even if it were dissolved, Palestine refugees "would still be Palestine refugees and retain their rights under [UN] General Assembly resolution 194, pending a just and lasting solution to their plight."

The same UN resolution incorporates the right of Palestinian refugees and their descendants to return to the homes from which they were displaced.

Palestinians receive medicine from a pharmacy run by the agency for Palestinian refugees, UNWRA, in Lebanon.
Close to 3 million Palestinian refugees use the UNRWA's health servicesImage: Hussein Malla/AP Photo/picture alliance

At the moment, any kind of solution to one of the Middle East's longest-running conflicts does not appear to be in sight. And many political experts, including Israelis, warn that closing the UNRWA without an alternative could result in deepening poverty and maybe even more violence.

"The root causes of the conflict remain," Lazzarini said at a press conference in Gaza, following fighting there in May 2021. "These must be resolved."

Until then, the UNRWA will be needed, he concluded.

Edited by: Nicole Goebel

This article was corrected on February 20, 2022, to reflect the context of Israel's foundation and the different factors contributing to Palestinian refugees.