The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) was founded in 1949 by the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 302 (IV) of 8 December 1949 in order to face the humanitarian crisis caused by the 1948 war. Due to the lack of a resolution throughout the years, its mandate has been continuously extended (the most recent extension is until June 2023). UNRWA provides assistance for 5.6 million Palestinian refugees, defined 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” (unrwa.org).
UNRWA is mainly funded by regional governments of UN Member States and the European Union (93%), as well as private individuals and sister UN agencies. It partners with small and large companies, community-based organisations and international NGOs. The agency spends its budget to support education (58%), health (15%), other support services (13%), relief and social services (6%) and camp infrastructure improvements (4%).
For refugee’s children, who had to flee their home country, education is the only true “passport to the future” (Malcom X), as it can help them develop and build a better life for themselves and their families. Recognising its fundamental importance to promote tolerance and gender equality, UNRWA strives to provide high quality education for Palestinian children living in the Gaza Strip, West Bank, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. UNRWA runs elementary and preparatory schools, together with vocational trainings aimed to prepare students for the job market. Besides education, UNRWA also provides access to health care services, protection, financial assistance, microfinancing programs, infrastructure improvements and emergency response.
It should also be mentioned that the Agency has been at the centre of various controversies; to name a few, UNRWA has been accused of willingly perpetuating dependency of Palestinian refugees, misplacing funds, and abuse of power. Despite these allegations and the UNRWA’s duty to give efficient and effective services to Palestinian refugees, it remains crucial for Palestinians that UNRWA receives sufficient funding to continue its programs that are much needed, while also improving its management.
Most importantly, for many Palestinian refugees and the international community, the existence of the agency also constitutes a reminder of the Palestinian “right of return,” as stated in 1948 by the UN General Assembly. It states that “the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or in equity, should be made good by the governments or authorities responsible” (un.org).
Because the Right of Return has never been fulfilled, Palestinian refugees had to get settled where they are, and they have worked tirelessly to rebuild their society and develop their economy. However, the ongoing military occupation in Palestine makes this immensely difficult from all sides. Life in Palestine has no freedom of movement, and Palestinians face severe restrictions on imports and exports, frequent military raids, checkpoints, ongoing destruction of crucial infrastructure, very limited access to water and other natural resources, and many other aspects make it very hard for the Palestinian refugees in particular and Palestinians in general to independently build a prosperous future. This, on the one hand, makes services like the UNRWA still crucial for the daily survival of refugee households. On the other hand, this agency should also symbolically remind all stakeholders involved that only an end to the occupation can solve the refugee “problem” and with that resolve the UNRWA.
Despite decades of exile, all Palestinians still believe in the right of return and the right to compensation. At the same time, many hope for more transparency and better management at the level of the UNRWA so services can continue to run effectively for the people who need them the most.
Everyone has a name, but we, as Palestinians, also have numbers. I was born into a refugee family in the Deheishe camp, and so I received a UN refugee card. This card proves that I am a refugee. It will hopefully be a means to solving the Palestinian refugee issue, and return basic human rights to our people.
The UN began to issue cards in the early 50’s, to some of the 800,000 Palestinians who fled from their homes during the violent establishment of the state of Israel, in 1948. The UNRWA, which is the UN organization formed to assist Palestinian refugees, emulated a similar program initiated by the Red Cross in order to regulate aid dispersements to families. Primarily, it was only the refugees in camps that received these cards.
The cards, and with them the status of UN-registration, gave Palestinian refugees the right to assistance with basic housing, education, medical service and food supplies.
In the beginning, the cards were marked with holes – then a specific family where entitled to their ration of supplies from the UNRWA. In recent times, when the distribution of food supplies has become rare, new cards have been given to the refugees that divided them into a kind of first and second class Palestinian refugees. The “first class” constitutes refugees still living in camps, while the “second class” is made up of refugees that moved out of the camps due to lack of space or other concerns. The latter class do not receive the same access to services as the former, and are losing their rights as refugees.
The UNRWA claims to have fewer and fewer resources available to them, and are progressively cutting their services for Palestinian refugees. Alternatively, the organization has also recently chosen to work for other Palestinians groups, for instance, by establishing mobile medical teams to villages in remote areas. Even though such projects are needed, it calls into question the UNRWAs willingness and ability to help the people it was established to assist.
It has also been made painfully clear over the years that the organization does not have the capacity to raise awareness about the Palestinian refugees’ difficult situation, or to promote a just solution concerning this issue. As long as the refugee issue remains unsolved, we, as Palestinian refugees, still need our UN cards, for as long as they offer us hope.