UNRWA: Budget crisis or identity risk

The future of UNRWA is being discussed in diplomatic milieus.
by Ziad El Sayegh

18 May 2019 | 13:19

Source: by Issam Fares Institute-AUB

  • by Ziad El Sayegh
  • Source: Issam Fares Institute-AUB
  • Last update: 18 May 2019 | 13:19

In this August 23, 2018 photo, the head of United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) Pierre Kraehenbuehl speaks during an interview with The Associated Press in Jerusalem (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)

BEIRUT: Seventy-one years after the Palestinian Nakba and the 1949 UNGA Resolution No 302 on the establishment of UNRWA, voices are calling to put an end for the agency’s services.

How? By reducing then cutting the funding to the agency, following in the US footsteps, as whispered in private circles. In fact, UNRWA’s funding is a source of unease for donors especially in the absence of a political solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and amidst concerns about the Syrian refugee crisis raging since 2011; though Syrian refugees fall under the auspices of the UNHCR, the sources of funding are one.

The future of UNRWA is being discussed in diplomatic milieus. While budget cuts could result in daunting humanitarian consequences, these discussions are not purely financial. Discussions went even further, going past the rescue approach and totally undermining the political dimension related to the fundamental Right of Return.

Since the sixties, many have leaked information about a so-called “Century Deal” that boils down UNRWA to a mere rescue agency as previously mentioned. These attempts have succeeded in showcasing “Return” as a ghost from the past that will never materialize. It is, therefore, useful to continue supporting UNRWA not least for humanitarian reasons. The failed attempt necessitated a new quest on how to put pressure on Palestinian Refugees and host countries to ensure that these become a final destination, bidding farewell to the dream of Return.

How can the waves of extreme right succeed in beating down what is left from the center left or center right worldwide tapping into the cause of refugees - all refugees and migrants? The extreme right shouts out that the countries they represent must stop worrying about causes that are completely irrelevant to their people and stir nationalistic approaches using populist slogans such as: “They are not our problem, let them deal with themselves or let the host countries manage since they are living on their territories”.

Here, refuge on political or legal grounds ceases to exist. Some would say that the forcibly displaced, including Palestinian refugees, are the residents of the countries of refuge and they deserve full integration therein, it is not acceptable to talk about the Right to Return especially after 71 years of complete geopolitical changes that metamorphosed their main identity.

Plus, UNRWA is no longer productive; what negotiations failed to achieve could be rationally translated into drying the sources of rescue financing, obstructing its course of activity hence paving the way to its integration with the UNHCR or yet the abolition of its full services after which donor states are no longer committed to its funding at the expense of their citizens. Of course, Israel’s demographic obsession is omnipresent in this approach.

Some may say that the problem is conspiracy oriented or is driven by theories that lack the political existential components. For over 71 years, Palestinian Refugees, despite the challenges and suffering, insist on returning, regardless of the type of Return they aspire to; even for those who acquired foreign nationalities, Palestine still means a lot. However, where does UNRWA stand in all this? Why is it targeted? It is obviously clear that UNRWA reflects an International recognition of the Political Right of Palestinian Refugees to Return. And this is the point.

Based on the above, the UN headed by Antonio Guterres, a former UNHCR Commissioner, is required to discuss three fundamental issues related to UNRWA’s structure: first the shift from rescue to development, second bureaucratic hurdles, and third stressing on the political process that can solve the root cause of Palestinian Refugees.

UNRWA from Rescue to Development

All Palestinian Refugees camps have the components needed to build a local economy. This provides them with the capacity to survive until they return as much as it contributes to: first, alleviating the pressure on the budget allocated for primary services giving precedence to development services namely education and vocational training; second providing a safety net against dubious finances for the refugees which is remotely related to their cause. The rescue program requires an amendment of the vision and methodology.

UNRWA and Bureaucratic Hurdles

International investment in UNRWA is obviously giving precedence to western criteria, which reflects a serious commitment to the fair cause of the Palestinian Refugees. However, it is useful to lessen bureaucratic hurdles while maintaining harmonious strategic choices in the 30000 staffed organization that responds to the needs of around 4.65 million refugees.

UNRWA Fair Witness to the Return

The Palestinian Refugees cause is political; shifting it to a purely humanitarian crisis jeopardizes it. In fact, UNRWA is important insofar as it has kept a record of the individual and collective identity of this cause. Unavoidably, it has to develop a lobby that supports sustainable instead of temporary patchwork solutions. The Right of Return stands as a cornerstone in these solutions. The said lobby may group thousands of those who fled their countries to work at UNRWA. They understand the tragedy. The UNRWA diplomacy is a cornerstone to overcome the risk of assassinating the identity of the organization.

UNRWA is facing tremendous risks. The refugees, on the other hand, are facing even more important risks. The best solution would be to build a sustainable public policy that rebuilds UNRWA’s efficiency and contributes to ending the tragedy instead of simply healing the wounds.

Ziad El Sayegh is an expert in Public Policies and Refugee crises. An Arabic edition of this article was published by the Issam Fares Institute.

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