A photo of a UNRWA school in Gaza after it was shelled by Israeli forces. Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons.
The UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) agency is mandated to lead and co-ordinate international action to protect refugees and resolve refugee problems worldwide. UNHCR defines a refugee as someone who, “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.” UNHCR currently works in over 125 countries continues to help some 33.9 million persons seek asylum.
Then, there are the Palestinian refugees, a stateless people. For them, the status of “refugee” is passed down to their children. For them, enduring refugee status perpetuates anguish and discontent. And for them, there is a specialized UN agency to reinforce and sustain this status.
The UNRWA (UN Relief and Works Agency) is an organization that was established by the General Assembly in 1949. UNRWA’s contemporary mandate is to “provide relief, human development and protection services” to Palestinian refugees. UNRWA defines refugees as “persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine during the period 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948, and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict.” One is eligible for refugee status if they have lived in areas affected by the 1948 Arab-Israeli war for a minimum of two years, was displaced by the Arab-Israeli conflict of 1967, or can prove lineage from a male Palestinian. UNRWA insists that two million people who have been given full citizenship in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon are nevertheless still classified as refugees, and encourages them to act on a “right of return” to current-day Israel.
UNRWA separates itself from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the political circumstances that have generated these refugees. While the UNHCR highlights the “well-founded fear” and need of “protection” that generates a population of refugees, UNRWA skirts around direct language of victimization. Palestinian refugees are defined by heritage rather than history, as to seem entirely apathetic towards their relations with Israel. Yet despite its humanitarian mandate, UNRWA’s very existence is political. The Palestinian people, according to a recent study by the Jerusalem Institute of Justice, have received per capita, adjusted for inflation, 25 times more aid than did Europeans to rebuild war-torn Western Europe under the Marshall plan after the Second World War. Since World War II, over 50 million across the globe have been displaced from their homes, yet only the 700,000 displaced Palestinian people have received this focused service.
UNRWA claims to provide a range of humanitarian, human rights, and development work, with vaguely designated efforts to improve “education, health care, relief and social services, camp infrastructure and improvement, and microfinance.” UNRWA’s aims are to help Palestinian refugees achieve their so-called “full potential in human development, pending a just solution to their plight.” With all of the broad and diplomatic language, both the real intentions and impact of their work remains questionable and ambiguous. Beyond the focus on immediate humanitarian relief, however, it seems probable that the UNRWA has a political bent. So the question becomes – whose agenda does aid serve?
The allocation of its funds reflects the political nature in contrast to an emphasis on providing humanitarian goods and services. While refugee “Camp Improvement” receives 2% of donations, “Education” is allocated 57%, perhaps suggesting a more long term vision for rising generations of disgruntled youths rather than improving current refugee conditions. Additionally, UNRWA has set up various infrastructure projects. A current plan for development in Gaza will cost $19.7 million and comprise 600 houses and a school together with water, sewage and electricity systems. Though this may indeed be of service to Palestinians, the gesture is as apolitical as Israel’s settlements in the West Bank.
One aspect that may elucidate political natures and interests is surveying who benefits from supporting the UNRWA. The total 2012 UNRWA budget was $907,907,371. Although the permanent supportive rhetoric for the “Palestinian case” from the Muslim world might lead one to expect that UNWRA is funded mainly by Muslim countries, UNRWA is almost entirely funded by Western nations such as the US, EU, UK, Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands and Japan, who pay $644,701,999, or 71% of the annual UNRWA budget. The United States was the largest single donor in 2011 with a total contribution of over $239 million, followed by the European Commission with over 175 million.
So where do Muslim states rank? The highest donating Muslim country is Saudi Arabia, who gives 15th most in the world; in other terms, this wealthy country provides less than half of the funds flowing in from the Netherlands. Second, at #18, is Turkey, who contributes only $8,100,000, and Qatar, which is now spending millions on the construction of high end soccer stadiums, contributed exactly $0 to UNRWA. Richard Behar, an investigative journalist for Forbes magazine, wrote that “Arab oil-rich nations could have long ago transformed the Palestinian territories (where their brethren live) into a model of what a modern state would look like. Instead, they let Western donor nations foot most of the bills with money that has largely gone down the drain or been squandered corruptly.”
It seems counter-intuitive for the US to work to improve a situation that it has politically and economically sustained. However, funding seems to be an enabler of the current situation. UNRWA’s humanitarian work relieves both Hamas and Israel of the responsibility to provide services and governance for over five million Palestinians. Israel’s presence is becoming less costly by the day thanks to the efforts of international aid organizations such as UNRWA. This dynamic exemplifies the subversive tendencies of humanitarian aid and development programs to indirectly harm the people which they claim to help.