(28 June 2018) UNRWA’s essential services under threat


The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) is currently facing one of the worst financial crises of its history. In the face of such severe financial problems, donor countries are advocating for serious cuts, instead of increasing the funding given to the Agency or encouraging third countries to donate. This policy is not only prolonging the crisis, but will have a direct impact on the rights and future of Palestinian refugees.
The UNRWA Advisory Committee met on 18 June 2018 to discuss international support for the Agency. At this meeting, UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krähenbühl stated that the Agency requires more than $250 million in further support if UNRWA’s budget for core and emergency assistance is to be preserved for the second half of this year.[1] One week later, at the Pledging Conference for UNRWA held in New York on 25 June, Krähenbühl reiterated his concern that given the current shortfall “we do not have income to ensure the schools will open on time in August.”[2] This deepening UNRWA crisis is directly affecting the 5.9 million Palestinian refugees the Agency services, who continue to suffer from Israel’s ongoing denial of reparations, including return to their homes and homeland, restitution of their properties, compensation and guarantees of non-repetition.
While the ongoing displacement of the Palestinian people continues, political pressure by donor countries to implement cuts is increasing. This austerity policy is happening together with the Israeli and US attempts to dismantle UNRWA. Saeb Erakat, Secretary-General  of the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s (PLO) Executive Committee, said on 25 June 2018 that, "They [the US government]approached the host countries of the Palestinian refugees to ask how much UNRWA used to spend there and offered to give it directly to them."[3] Israel is very keen to limit the capacity of UNRWA in order to see the gradual transfer of services, and eventually refugees, to host countries, in turn imposing involuntary integration and putting an unjust end to the Palestinian refugee issue.
BADIL has learnt that some of the main donor countries are imposing significant pressure on UNRWA to make cuts that would directly affect the way the Agency is administered, the rights of refugees and the services it provides, which directly affect the essence of UNRWA’s mandate.
The following are some of the measures that main donor countries are trying to impose on UNRWA. If passed, these measures will have a severe impact on UNRWA employees and beneficiaries and their rights. They would also impede the fulfillment of UNRWA’s mandate, rendering the Agency ineffective.
1-    Putting an end to new recruitments. Permanent staff will gradually be replaced by temporary staff from the job creation program.  
2-    Cutting education services to include only primary education. Currently UNRWA provides education until ages 15-16, both primary and secondary education. The suggested measure would mean transferring the responsibilities of secondary education to the host countries.
3-    Eliminating coverage of internal transportation for all UNRWA staff, except those in the highest positions.  
4-    Limiting the medical services offered in UNRWA’s clinics to maternal and child healthcare and chronic diseases, and to stop all medical transfers to external hospitals either private or governmental specialized hospitals.
5-    Terminating the provision of urgent relief to Palestinian refugees in crises and emergencies.
6-    Ending the higher qualification allowance for UNRWA employees.
7-    Cancelling child allowances in cases both parents work for UNRWA.
8-    Passing an early retirement law, making it possible for employees to retire at age 50 years.
9-    Halting registration of new children as refugees in the records of UNRWA if either one of the parents is not a refugee.
This escalation of pressure by donor countries, the ongoing attempts by Israel to dismantle UNRWA and the direct targeting of basic Palestinian rights should trigger a serious and immediate reaction by the PLO to confront this policy. The PLO’s role is especially relevant considering that the cuts to URNWA’s budget and services are going hand in hand with an increased emphasis on transferring these responsibilities to host countries, including the Palestinian Authority (PA). These attempts at forcibly integrating Palestinian refugees in host countries should be addressed by the PLO as the representative of all the Palestinian people, since they constitute a direct threat to the fundamental rights of Palestinians, including the inalienable right to self-determination.
Moreover, all concerned actors should challenge these policies and reject the proposed changes. The following measures should be advocated for by all those working on Palestinian refugee issues, including the PLO, PA, popular committees in refugee camps, civil society and community-based organizations.
  1. Call on the international community to guarantee that UNRWA receives enough funds to cover its budget, as it is as responsible for starting the conflict in Mandate Palestine and for the protection of Palestinian refugees.
  2. Call on the international community to expand UNRWA’s mandate to include the provision of protection to Palestinian refugees.
  3. Call on the international community to adopt a rights-based approach. The fundamental rights of the Palestinian people should not be compromised or limited by any political deal, and UNRWA and any other Agency or organization concerned with these rights should not be subjected or affected by political decisions.
  4. Defend the existence of UNRWA, and its services and programs.
  5. Refuse the transfer of services or other responsibilities of UNRWA’s mandate to host countries.
  6. Refuse the cuts that UNRWA may take because of the financial crisis and political pressure, and challenge them by supporting UNRWA and carrying out political and popular work to pressure the UN and donor countries to take responsibility for the protection of Palestinian refugees.
[1] UNRWA, “Advisory Commission meets to discuss global support for UNRWA and unprecedented financial crisis,” 19 June 2018, available at: https://www.unrwa.org/newsroom/press-releases/advisory-commission-meets-discuss-global-support-unrwa-amid-unprecedented [accessed 26 June 2018].
[2] UNRWA, “Strong support for UNRWA at its annual Pledging Conference,” 26 June 2018, available at: https://www.unrwa.org/newsroom/press-releases/%E2%80%9Cstrong-support-unrwa-its-annual-pledging-conference%E2%80%9D [accessed 26 June 2018].
[3] “Erekat: Kushner offered money to Arab governments instead UNRWA,” Ynet, 25 June 2018, available at:  https://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-5296271,00.html [accessed 26 June 2018].