Cash-strapped UNWRA seeks $211 million from donors

The U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees is urging supporters to make up its $211 million shortfall.

By Tsivya Fox, World Israel News

After the U.S. cut off funding for UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, the group has gone searching for charitable givers to make up its $211 million budget gap.

According to Agence-France Presse, the agency’s commissioner general, Pierre Krahenbuhl, announced the move at a June 17 news conference in Jordan. He said the group’s budget stands at $1.2 billion for 2019.

The Jordan Times reported that the meeting was part of larger efforts to create a unified Arab stance regarding UNRWA.

Jordan’s Palestinian Affairs Department Director General Rafiq Khirfan called UNRWA the “symbol and testament of the Palestinian refugees’ case” and Jordan will never accept its dissolution before Palestinians receive all their legitimate rights as stipulated in international resolutions.

UNRWA’s Financial Struggles

The agency’s financial shortfall was expected. Until last year, the U.S. was UNRWA’s largest supporter, furnishing a third of its budget.

Al Jazeera reported that Trump envoy Jason Greenblatt said that the U.S. had given $6 billion to the agency since its founding. The U.S. has since stopped a full $300 million dollars per year of support under President Trump’s leadership, noting that the agency is “irredeemably flawed.”

Several European Union countries have said they will donate to assist the struggling organization. These include Canada, Switzerland, Turkey, New Zealand, Norway, Korea, Mexico, Slovakia, India and France. Arab countries also say they will contribute.

The Arab daily Ashraq Al-Awsat reported that Jordan and Sweden were working to narrow UNRWA’s deficit through pleas to international communities. The Peninsula, Qatar’s Daily Newspaper, reported that Krahenbuhl credits the State of Qatar for its support of the organization.

Why U.S. cut funding

When the U.S. announced on August 31, 2018 that it would stop funding UNRWA, State Department’s spokeswoman Heather Nauert explained, “… the fundamental business model and fiscal practices that have marked UNRWA for years – tied to UNRWA’s endlessly and exponentially expanding community of entitled beneficiaries – is simply unsustainable and has been in crisis mode for many years. The United States will no longer commit further funding to this irredeemably flawed operation.”

Nauert added, “We are very mindful of and deeply concerned regarding the impact upon innocent Palestinians, especially school children, of the failure of UNRWA and key members of the regional and international donor community to reform and reset the UNRWA way of doing business.”

UNRWA’s stated mission

UNRWA was established in 1949 by the U.N. General Assembly. Its original mandate was to provide assistance and protection to the approximately 700,000 Arab refugees created by the founding of the State of Israel in 1948.

Though the organization claims to help some 5.4 million Palestinian refugees today, the Washington Free Beacon disclosed in 2018 that a U.S. State Department puts the actual number of Palestinian refugees at 20,000.

In May, the U.S. and Israel called for an end to UNRWA operations. “It is time to face the reality that the UNRWA model has failed. Palestinians in refugee camps were not given the opportunity to build any future; they were misled and used as political pawns,” Greenblatt said.

Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Danny Danon said, “UNRWA has been empowering the refugee problem for years, instead of trying to solve it while adopting a unilateral political position.”

“The organization’s schools have been transformed into terror and incitement infrastructures, with textbooks distributed on the ground denying Israel’s existence, and underground tunnels dug by Hamas,” Danon said.

Unique refugee status

Palestinians are the only refugee population in the world that have their own U.N. agency dedicated to their welfare. UNRWA’s 30,000 person staff is responsible for administering humanitarian aid and social welfare to Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the Gaza Strip and Judea and Samaria. Yet, it does not have a mandate to resettle these refugees, as is done with all other refugees around the world.

In fact, UNRWA encourages Palestinians to accept their “right of return” to Israel. Additionally, though the organization has an enormous budget, it has not solved Palestinian poverty.

In contrast, from 2003-2018, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees organization (UNHCR), which handles the rest of the world’s refugees, reports that it resettled about 1,015,644 refugees from 130 countries, with a staff of only 11,000 people.

UNRWA’s definition for refugees is different from that of UNHCR. UNRWA’s Palestinian refugees are a constantly growing population, as the organization permits refugee status to be passed down from generation to generation.

UNRWA’s critics say that by doing so the organization perpetuates the Arab-Israel conflict.

“Instead of resettlement and repatriation within refugee populations, the unique definitions and infrastructures put in place maintain the cycle,” says Asaf Romirowsky, executive director for Scholars for Peace in the Middle East.

UNRWA has twice expanded its eligibility requirements for refugee status.

In 1965, the organization allowed third-generation descendants to be considered refugees and in 1982, it expanded its definition to include legally adopted children. It also considers those who have citizenship in other countries to be considered “Palestinian refugees.”