The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East

The following is the 3rd in a series of articles that will be presented by Palestine & The UN regarding U.N. committees and bodies specifically related to the question of Palestine. The articles focus on the establishment of those committees and bodies, as well as their histories, mandates, work and compositions. The third to be reviewed in this series will be the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).


The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East – UNRWA – was established by the U.N. General Assembly (G.A.) in 1949 with the adoption of resolution 302 (IV) on the 8th of December. The Assembly established UNRWA to take the lead among the numerous religious, charitable, and humanitarian organizations participating in the emergency effort to provide relief, shelter, and assistance to the Palestine refugees after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.

This month, May 2000, marks 50 years since the start of UNRWA’s operations in 1950. Since its establishment, UNRWA has played a crucial and historical role in halting the further deterioration of the situation of the Palestine refugees and, to this day, continues to play a very central role in the lives of the refugees. For 5 decades, it has greatly assisted them through the provision of essential relief, health care, education and social services. Although grateful for the Agency’s continuous and tireless work in service of the Palestine refugees in the effort to ease their suffering and ameliorate their impoverished and desperate living conditions, this is a sad anniversary for the Palestinian people.

In 1950, the proposition of UNRWA’s operation for a half-century would have been inconceivable. Who then would have believed that, after more than 5 decades, the Palestine refugees would continue to languish in refugee camps dispersed throughout the Occupied Palestinian Territory and the Middle East region, denied their right of return and still awaiting a just resolution of their tragic plight? No one then would have believed that 50 years hence, with the 20th century drawing to a close, four generations of Palestine refugees would mostly know only the burdens of life in what were established as temporary camps and shelters, as the international community continued to grapple with their predicament in the face of Israeli intransigence and non-compliance with international law and U.N. resolutions.

Yet, 50 years later, UNRWA continues to provide necessary, daily services for the Palestine refugees and has become the longest-running humanitarian program within the U.N. organization as well as one of the largest U.N. programs in existence. In fact, UNRWA is a subsidiary organ of the U.N. As such, UNRWA is unique in that it is the only U.N. program that reports directly to the G.A. and is the only one devoted to assisting a single group of refugees – the Palestine refugees. Other refugee cases are taken care of by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

According to UNRWA’s operational definition, Palestine refugees are those persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948, who then lost their homes, properties, and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict. Fleeing the violence and hostilities, these persons took refuge in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. When UNRWA began its work, there were approximately 900,000 registered refugees. By 1999, the total number of Palestine refugees registered with the Agency was 3.7 million.

There are 59 refugee camps in these areas, which comprise the 5 fields of UNRWA’s operations. Of those camps, 10 were set up to accommodate the displaced persons, both refugees and non-refugees, following the 1967 war. The socioeconomic conditions in the refugee camps are overwhelmingly poor and characterized by severely cramped and dilapidated living conditions, high population densities, high unemployment, and an inadequate and overburdened infrastructure. UNRWA has been the main provider of education, health, relief and social services for refugees living in the camps, who number approximately 1.2 million persons, as well as those registered and eligible refugees (2.5 million) living in villages, towns and cities in the vicinities of the camps.

Of all its services, education represents UNRWA’s largest area of activity. Since it began operations, the Agency has provided free education to Palestine refugees in what now totals 650 schools spread throughout its 5 fields of operation, making it one of the largest school systems in the region. Other than these elementary and preparatory schools, UNRWA also runs 8 vocational and technical training centers, essential in providing refugees with employable skills, and a teacher-training program that has been instrumental in training many of the teachers needed to staff its schools. In addition, UNRWA annually provides several higher education scholarships to qualified refugees, although none have been awarded in the past year.

In the health sector, UNRWA operates 122 outpatient facilities to serve the Palestine refugees, offering such services as primary health care, nutrition, dental, mother-and-child health, immunizations, physical rehabilitation, and health education. It also provides refugees with assistance for secondary health care through agreements or special arrangements with private and non-governmental hospitals. Additionally, UNRWA provides environmental health services, including sewage disposal, provision of safe drinking water, and insect control.

In providing relief and social services, the Agency assists refugee families that are unable to meet basic needs. These relief services include material and financial assistance, food aid, shelter rehabilitation for those refugees experiencing serious hardships. In this field of work, UNRWA also supports centers for women’s programs, rehabilitation for refugees with disabilities, and youth that provide a wide range of useful and necessary social services. Further, the Agency has instituted a poverty alleviation program, focusing, inter alia, on skills training and micro-credit programs. The micro-finance programs are part of UNRWA’s larger income generation program, which began in 1991. Through this program, targeting women in particular, UNRWA has sought to create sustainable employment, generate income, and provide loans for small business enterprises as a means of promoting economic growth and social development.

Over the decades UNRWA has also been integral in providing other emergency relief assistance to the refugees, including food, tents, blankets, and medical care. Such relief was particularly necessary during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon by Israel, when UNRWA provided emergency housing, medical care and food to thousands of fleeing refugees, and during the years of the intifada in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, when the Agency provided medical care to the injured, food rations, and financial assistance. Also during the intifada, in response to Security Council and G.A. resolutions, UNRWA’s refugee affairs officers played an important role in providing protection to the refugees. Over the decades of Israeli occupation, UNRWA has faced many difficulties in carrying out its services in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, particularly due to the frequent closures and curfews in the past and other restrictions on the movement of Agency staff and vehicles.

UNRWA is one of the largest employers in the region, employing more than 22,000 staff, the majority of whom are locally recruited Palestinians, almost all of whom are Palestine refugees themselves. The Agency also employs about 98 international staff. Rather than working through local authorities or other agencies, UNRWA provides its services directly to the Palestine refugees, through its doctors, teachers, nurses, social workers. The Agency also plans and carries out its own activities and projects, including the building and administration of its facilities.

The head of UNRWA is the Commissioner-General, who is appointed by the U.N. Secretary-General in consultation with the Agency’s Advisory Commission. The current Commissioner-General is Mr. Peter Hansen of Denmark. UNRWA’s Advisory Commission, which meets annually to review the Agency’s activities and financial situation, consists of the following countries: Belgium, Egypt, France, Japan, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, U.K. and U.S. Since 1994, the PLO joined the Advisory Commission as an observer. UNRWA has over 900 facilities throughout its five fields of operation, with field offices located in Amman, Beirut, Damascus, East Jerusalem, and Gaza City. In 1996, the Agency’s official headquarters relocated to Gaza from Vienna, Austria. In carrying out its services, UNRWA also has cooperative agreements to receive assistance from the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the World Health Organization (WHO), the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF), and the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA).

UNRWA’s operations are financed almost entirely by voluntary contributions from governments and regional organizations, such as the European Union. These contributions account for 95% of the Agency’s income, while the remaining costs are funded by the U.N. The Working Group on the Financing of UNRWA plays an important role in this regard. Most contributions to the Agency are received in cash, with a small percentage of contributions in the form of food donations. In addition to contributions to its regular operating budget, UNRWA receives contributions for special projects and activities, such as the Peace Implementation Programme begun in 1993 and income generation initiatives. In the fall of each year, while the G.A. is in session, an annual pledging conference for UNRWA is held. Among the largest donors in recent years: U.S., which is UNRWA’s largest single donor, Sweden, Norway, Netherlands, Denmark, Canada, Japan, Switzerland and the European Commission, as well as many of the individual European countries.

Despite the consistency of these contributions, UNRWA has struggled in recent years, experiencing severe financial problems and budgetary shortfalls. The gulf between the resources available to the Agency and the needs of the Palestine refugees continues to widen. Currently, UNRWA is experiencing a budgetary gap of approximately $30 million. Unfortunately, contributions to the Agency have not been commensurate with rising costs and the natural growth of the refugee population. In fact, in recent years, the Commissioner-General has had to make urgent appeals for additional contributions to help the Agency carry out basic services.

Whereas in the 1970s, UNRWA’s budget allowed for the provision of $200 worth of services per year per refugee, this figure has now been reduced to only about $70 per year. Ongoing financial difficulties have led the Agency to enact austerity measures and to reduce or adjust levels of services and programs. These measures have not been well received by the refugee population. The reductions have exacerbated the already-heavy socio-economic burdens of refugee families, who have understood them to have political implications reflecting a decline in the importance of their plight in the international arena after so many decades.

The mandate of UNRWA has been extended by the G.A. every 3 years, with the most recent extension last year until 30 June 2002. Annually, in this resolution, the Assembly refers to resolution 194 (III) of 1948, regarding the rights of the Palestine refugees, including the right to return or to just compensation if they choose not to, and refers as well to the displaced persons of 1967. Each year, the international community has reaffirmed its overwhelming support for UNRWA and the Palestine refugees with the adoption of several G.A. resolutions. The agenda item for UNRWA is debated in the Special Political and Decolonization Committee of the G.A. and the resolutions include the following: Assistance to Palestine refugees; Working Group on the Financing of UNRWA; Persons displaced as a result of the June 1967 and subsequent hostilities; Offers by member states for grants and scholarships for Palestine refugees; Operations of UNRWA; Palestine refugees’ properties and their revenues; University of Jerusalem “Al-Quds” for Palestine refugees.

Clearly, the services and assistance provided by UNRWA have been crucial in helping to alleviate the hardships that have been borne by the Palestine refugees. Despite the progress made in the peace process, the plight of the refugees remains unresolved. As such, there remains a vital need for UNRWA to continue its programs in all its fields of operations until a just and definitive solution to the refugee problem is reached with the implementation of the relevant U.N. resolutions.