It is again the time when the nearly 30,000 mostly Palestinian employees of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) wonder whether they will receive their salaries for the remainder of the year. For many years, UNRWA has been struggling with an ever more serious financial crisis, one resulting from a funding model that represents a mismatch between what the UN expects the agency to deliver—education, health care, relief, and social services for the 6.4 million Palestine refugees and other registered persons in Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and the West Bank—and the mostly voluntary nature of Member State contributions. Last year saw an international conference attempt to step up support for UNRWA which was largely inconclusive. In the lead-up to the development of a new medium-term strategy by UNRWA and the upcoming renewal of the agency’s mandate at the end of the year, several studies have been commissioned, including by the agency, by a major donor—both regrettably not yet published—and by MAS, a Palestinian thinktank.
As former UNRWA officials and/or authors of several of these and other studies on Palestinian refugees (here, here, here and here) and UNRWA (here, here, here and here), we believe that overcoming UNRWA’s recurrent financial woes is possible, but this requires a gradual yet radical evolution of the way the agency interprets and implements its mandate, and in how the international community renders its support in response to its obligations. At the center of this is the dispelling of a persistent myth, one that has cemented Palestinian exceptionalism and held the agency hostage in a situation where it is significantly constrained in the delivery of critical services to the refugees.
The myth stems from the way UNRWA has interpreted its mandate amidst political and financial concerns. The agency sees itself as a humanitarian agency providing human development and humanitarian services, including protection, but, as articulated in official pronouncements, including on its website, believes that it has no authority to seek durable solutions for the refugees under its mandate. This interpretation is not in line with what the UN General Assembly (UNGA) originally mandated the agency to do and with what it has in fact been doing. It is also one of the key factors that has made it so hard to change the agency’s approach and, by extension, to move it onto a sounder financial footing.
How did this come about? UNRWA was established upon the initiative of a UN body that had been created a year earlier to deal with the aftermath of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War: the UN Conciliation Commission for Palestine (UNCCP). The establishment of the UNCCP by the UNGA in December 1948 was the UN’s principal response to the war and the way it had been conducted. The war resulted in the forcible displacement, dispossession, and mass-denationalization of approximately 750,000 Palestine Arabs (not including the internally displaced persons in what became the state of Israel). Under the applicable norms of international law at the time, these actions were the result of a host of internationally wrongful acts, including war crimes and crimes against humanity. In the resolution creating the UNCCP, the UNGA stated that the refugees were entitled to return to their original homes or to resettlement elsewhere if not willing to return, as well as to compensation. The UNCCP was to seek a comprehensive resolution of the conflict in accordance with the UNGA’s directives, including with respect to the refugee issue.
Comprised of France, Turkey, and the US, the UNCCP attempted to persuade the Israeli government to agree to the repatriation of the refugees. When it was unable to advance this objective, it less than a year later shifted gears and started exploring opportunities towards local integration of the refugees in the countries and territories where they had found initial refuge. This coincided with the decision of the international NGOs that had provided the initial emergency response to the refugee influx, to end their missions. To address both issues, and upon the UNCCP’s recommendation, the UNGA established UNRWA with the dual mandate of continuing humanitarian assistance (“relief”) and providing support for local integration and limited resettlement (“works”) as an alternative—though formally without jeopardy to return and compensation (see the resolution’s preamble). As such, both the UNCCP and UNRWA were provided with mandates to seek durable solutions of the refugee question (voluntary return, local integration, and third country resettlement are the principal durable solutions to refugee problems).
The UNCCP subsequently concentrated its efforts on collecting Palestinian property records with a view to facilitating restitution and compensation whenever this would become possible. In 1964, having completed its meticulous work on these records, the UNCCP suspended its operations. Since then, it has been effectively inoperative.
In the meantime, political constraints had critically shaped UNRWA’s mandate. Only a few years after its establishment, the agency was forced to abandon the works programs, owing primarily to the objections of Arab host governments and the refugees themselves to any attempt to pursue de facto local integration, which was seen as undermining the right of return. By the mid-1960s, UNRWA had refrained from filling the void left by the UNCCP, due to opposition from Israel and its main supporters. The agency was accused of fueling the hopes of the refugees to return to their original homes and properties, thereby ostensibly perpetuating the Israeli-Palestinian and broader Arab-Israeli conflicts. For the accusers, there was an underlying acceptance that Israel would never allow such a return—despite the requirements of international law that it do so. This explains why the agency maintains that its mandate does not include seeking durable solutions for the refugees.
Thus, the Palestinian refugees became the only category of refugees with no institution considering itself responsible for the promotion of durable solutions to their plight. As a result, the refugees, the Palestinian leadership, and host governments see in UNRWA’s existence and the services it provides evidence that the refugee’s unresolved plight remains an international responsibility. Therefore, any discussion around the agency’s mandate and functions that may result in a possible reduction or change in the provision of services has been opposed by refugees (and host governments), who see it as undermining their right of return and the UN’s responsibility. At UNRWA’s governance level—donors, the host governments, and the Government of Palestine (GOP)/Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO)/Palestine Authority (PA)—this means that no significant proposals for adjustment of the agency’s programs or modus operandi have been considered.
To break the stalemate, we propose a radical yet gradual evolution of UNRWA’s strategic direction, from providing support for humanitarian needs and basic human development, to a comprehensive response on all aspects of the Palestinian refugee question, including a more expanded focus on protection and the pursuit of durable solutions. By doing so, UNRWA would:
- Operate under the general mandate that the UNGA has conferred on both the UNCCP and UNRWA to assist and protect Palestinian refugees, including through the pursuit of durable solutions. With the demise of the UNCCP, it is incumbent on UNRWA to take over some of its functions in compliance with the humanitarian imperative to close the protection/durable solutions gap. Importantly, the Agency need not wait for direction from the UNGA to do so. Its mandate is flexible and the Agency has in the past taken action on its own initiative that has been given ex post facto approval by the Assembly;
- Align itself more closely with its original mandate and some of its solutions-related practices over the years, including continued support for socio-economic participation of the refugees in the host countries; ‘placement services’ helping refugees access a better life in Gulf countries; and ad hoc support for refugee resettlement, including for family reunion;
- Build on its existing role in protecting the rights of the Palestinian refugees by supporting the protection of their most critical rights, including civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights, as well as those related to return, restitution, and compensation. In this context, UNRWA’s registration system has the potential to become the central repository of evidence of the refugees’ historic claims. This would have a huge symbolic and practical impact for the refugees, especially once the registration system gets harmonized and synchronised with UNCCP records. The latter would connect property loss and damages in 1947/1949 to individual refugees and their families/descendants;
- Align itself more closely with the global refugee regime as articulated in the 2016 New York Declaration on Refugees and Migrants (NYD) and the 2018 Global Compact on Refugees (GCR), ending Palestinian exceptionalism. The NYD, unanimously adopted by the UNGA and applicable to all refugees, including Palestinian refugees, asserts that any response to refugee situations needs to include a combination of humanitarian assistance, international protection, and durable solutions. Furthermore, the NYD recommends for each refugee situation, including protracted ones, the elaboration of a Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF) elaborated through a multi-stakeholder approach. We believe that a CRFF for Palestinian refugees should be developed. It would have the potential to reenergize the discourse in support of unmet Palestinian refugee rights and to revive a common front among host countries, refugees, and the Palestinian leadership. The GCR elaborates this in greater detail, including by making clear that assistance to refugees should be provided through national and local service providers and that “parallel systems”—such as the UNRWA education and health programs—should be avoided; and
- Fill the durable solutions gap left by the UNCCP’s effective demise. Palestinian refugees need and deserve, like all other refugees, an international entity engaged not only in supporting their humanitarian needs but also in upholding their human rights, including to return, restitution, and compensation, as well as facilitating such other durable solutions that refugees may want to pursue. These are inalienable and non-derogable rights and have only become stronger with the passage of time and the further advancement of international law.
International law and the unique, permanent responsibility of the UN for the question of Palestine make the international community legally, politically and morally obligated to support a reinterpretation of UNRWA’s mandate that would allow it to respond comprehensively to the needs and rights of the refugees. Implementing this shift could also pave the way for a broader reconsideration of the Agency’s modus operandi, moving away from parallel delivery of some services, thereby reducing the gap between income and expenditure.
The plight of Palestinian refugees, displaced in 1947/49 and in 1967 and still without a just and durable solution, is fundamentally a political issue involving civil, political, national, economic, social, and cultural rights. It requires resolution in line with international law which will indirectly advance the prospects for a wider peaceful resolution. Approaching Palestinian refugees and UNRWA solely through humanitarian and human development frameworks, as the UN has done for the majority of its engagement with the issue, is immoral and unjust. It is a betrayal of the UN’s continuing responsibility for the question of Palestine until it is resolved in all of its aspects in accordance with international law.