What happens when UNRWA runs out of money?

What happens when UNRWA runs out of money?
The UN organisation responsible for over half a million children across the Middle East is on the verge of closing down, and the ramifications are dire, argues Sophia Akram.
4 min read
10 Aug, 2015
The crisis is the largest since UNRWA's inception in 1949, a year after Nakba (Getty)

UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near and Middle East, is by all intents and purposes broke.

Historically underfunded and catching up with its own shadow, it is now in an unprecedented position, carrying a US$101 million shortfall that has compelled UN General Secretary, Ban Ki Moon, to put out an urgent appeal for more donors to come forward and help stem the deficit.

What will happen if funding is not met is that UNRWA will have to do something that it has never done before and delay the school year; this has not happened since the agency’s inception in 1949.

But there is simply no other choice. Without new money, the cash is due to run out in October, teachers can no longer be paid, and half a million children across the Middle East, currently educated in 700 UNRWA schools, will no longer have a school to go to.

What happens when there is no school for children to go is typically a bleak story. In devastated regions like Gaza and conflict ridden countries like Syria, the children will be vulnerable to all sorts of miscreation as they are faced with spending most of their day on the streets.

The threat of violence, human trafficking or prostitution is rife, as is the danger of being recruited to malevolent causes. Rising extremism looms over the adolescent population.

Education for a refugee is an opportunity, sometimes the only opportunity they will have to remove themselves from the poverty they find themselves in. It is for the future a snippet of hope, and for the present an escape from the drudgery associated with living in endless displacement.

For Palestinian refugees, UNRWA represents the only solid institutional provision to attain this hope, which is all due to end in October.

If UNRWA’s capacity in delivering services was always strained, nothing has placed it more on a back footing than the wars of Gaza. Last year’s Operation Edge is still impacting the southern Palestinian Governorate as well as the agency.

     It is for the future a snippet of hope, and for the present an escape from the drudgery associated with living in endless displacement.

Empty promises

Reconstruction efforts have barely gone underway, despite billions of dollars of pledges from donors all around the world. At the Cairo Conference, $5.4 billion was pledged to reconstruct Gaza but by February this year only 5% had reached the UN.

Why the funding has not been as forthcoming as would have been hoped cannot be said with certainty. But shrinking oil prices might have affected the ability of some state donors including Qatar, Kuwait and the UAE, who also represent the biggest pledges making up circa 20 per cent of the total.

However, a deeper-rooted explanation remains at bay as UNRWA has often been targeted by Israeli lobbyists and been the butt of various accusations of being a tool for Hamas. Last year’s conflict was no stranger to similar claims with regards to the alleged use of its schools.

Those accusations have never been founded. Last year, when I asked the question to Chris Gunness, UNRWA Spokesperson, he turned those accusations on their head.

Even opposing potential claims of crimes against humanity directed at the agency’s beneficiaries lures criticism from their adversaries who claim they are politicising the debate.

But as Gunness aptly put it, human rights abuses are a humanitarian issue not a political one for them. Yet, it is the political actors, Gunness adds, that are failing to take action, which has led to such devastation on the ground and ultimately has resulted in the crisis now affecting UNRWA.

Many donors, in particular the United States, despite them being UNRWA’s biggest net donor, periodically discuss the agency’s de-funding. For instance, Canada already withdrew its funding in 2010.

Israel has been critical of the agency’s definition of the term "refugee". It has asked the UN to close down the UNRWA as they see the solution for Palestinians is resettlement rather than return.

     A deeper-rooted explanation remains at bay as UNRWA has often been targeted by Israeli lobbyists

The right of return

Return to the homeland is a right granted to all refugees. And those in the occupied Palestinian territories have the right to ultimately be administered by the main UN refugee agency, UNHCR. Although legally, this would never negate the right of return as defined in UN General Assembly Resolution 194.

It is the very political impasse of realising Resolution 194 that is making the future of UNRWA so unsustainable. Being responsible for 750,000 refugees in the 1950s, the extrapolation of this figure has been ten-fold as there are seven million Palestinian refugees and 450,000 internally displaced persons in the world, representing 70% of the entire global Palestinian population.

If these numbers are growing each day, then the sustainability of the agency can really be doubted and ultimately the fate of the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians is at stake.

Sophia Akram is a researcher and communications professional with a special interest in human rights particularly across the Middle East and Asia.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.