by Nitza Nachmias
1st part of 3
The United Nations Relief and Work Agency for the Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) was established in 1948 as a temporary relief agency. In spite of its failure to solve the refugee problem, it has been renewed and expanded for 60 years, with support from the entire United Nations community, including the
The purpose of this paper is to explore three questions: (1) Are most of the Palestinians in the Middle East in fact "refugees", and does treating them as "refugees" contribute to solutions or prevent them? (2) Is UNRWA the agency best suited to address the issues facing these populations most effectively, or does it create more problems than it solves? (3) If UNRWA is a problem, is it the least bad of the alternatives, or are there, in the balance of costs and benefits, other solutions with a better probability to bring the issue to a just and rightful resolution?
The paper concludes that UNRWA is not merely an "imperfect" agency, but one that is profoundly inimical both to the higher interests of its own Palestinian clients, and to the search for a political settlement of the conflicts in the region. It describes alternative solutions that could more effectively deliver services to these Palestinian populations while strengthening rather than undermining moderate elements and governments in the various host countries, including the Palestinian Authority. Strengthening the PA would help to advance the peace process. The paper proposes more effective ways to channel the enormous sums misappropriated to UNRWA, to achieve vital objectives of the donors that perpetuation of UNRWA will continue to subvert.
Sixty years ago UNRWA was created as a temporary emergency relief agency. Its main duties were constructing temporary shelters and providing essential food to the Palestinian families that left their homes during the 1948 Israeli-Arab war. Sixty years and billions of dollars later, UNRWA has become an entrenched permanent, overstaffed, affluent bureaucracy. Hardly any traces of the original mandate can be found in its current operations. In a surprising and unprecedented move for any emergency aid organization, UNRWA launched in September 2008 a two-year global celebration entitled: "UNRWA at 60". The celebrations are taking place at the UN headquarters (NY),
While the United Nations Relief and Work Agency for the Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) was established in 1948 as a temporary relief agency, it has for 60 years enjoyed broad support from the entire United Nations community, including even
UNRWA claims that about five million Palestinians are refugees. We will show that most are not. Most Palestinians living in the West Bank,
In the particular case of the West Bank and
The existence of UNRWA after the 1993 creation of the Palestinian Authority creates an anomaly. While the residents of the West Bank and Gaza are citizens of the PA and have enjoyed full political rights, including suffrage (as have most Palestinians of Jordan), they are at the same time international wardens of a UN governing authority that provides them with non-emergency civil services. UNRWA has created a de facto "state within a state" albeit with ambiguous legal status. Normally, no government would accept the presence, beyond its control, of an autonomous international organization that provides substitute services to its citizens. However, the PA lacks effective authority over either the "refugee camps" or UNRWA's operation in these areas. This is an abnormal situation.
Are UNRWA's Clients "Refugees"?
Defining the populations to whom services are administered by UNRWA as "refugees" is in most cases both misleading and harmful to the search for a solution. UNRWA's refugee registration process was profoundly flawed from its inception, and the original mistakes have been compounded over the succeeding decades. In the beginning, to gain the status of a "protected refugee" and qualify for an UNRWA refugee ID card entitling the holder to benefits, applicants must have been resident in
A review of UNRWA's history reveals the unacceptable fact that for decades, UNRWA has thwarted all efforts to settle the issue and terminate its operations. UNRWA was created to provide short-term, emergency, humanitarian aid to Palestinian refugees, just as the newly formed United Nations sought to assist millions of refugee populations in other parts of the world created by the upheavals of World War II and its aftermath. The UNRWA operation was expected to be completed within two or three years, once the emergency conditions were resolved and the refugees resettled. The Palestinian refugees were at the time but a small percentage of the tens of millions of refugees worldwide receiving various forms of United Nations assistance. Dag Hammeskjold, the second UN Secretary General (1953-1961), initiated a plan for the reintegration of the Palestinian refugees in their host countries. Under his leadership, the UN General Assembly specifically instructed UNRWA to work to reintegrate the refugees in the places of their refuge. At the time, the refugee camps in the West Bank were under Jordanian authority and the refugee camps in
By the early 1950s, UNRWA's original 1948 emergency humanitarian mission was completed. However, due to the agency's autonomous status, UNRWA was able to shift its operational agenda and began providing non-emergency, regular, daily social benefits to anyone registered with the Agency who it decided to give assistance, whether refugee or not. UNRWA and other reliable sources data show that the majority of the descendents of the original 1948 families ceased to be in need of relief assistance many decades ago. A 1987 General Assembly report found that, only 10% of UNRWA budget was dedicated to emergency relief, while the bulk was devoted "to educating children and furnishing advanced training, maintaining effective public healthcare services and providing basic welfare services to a largely industrious and self supporting [so-called] refugee population."  Already 30 years ago, it was reported that 95 percent of registered Palestinian refugees were self-supporting. A 2003 GAO report found that less than a third of the registered "refugees" live in designated so-called "refugee camps," some only because they prefer to build their homes in territory exempt from local taxes. Two thirds are integrated in the cities and states in the
Once we realize that UNRWA is not actually in the refugee business at all, but is a social welfare agency distributing benefits to a body of preferred clients whether they qualify as needy or not, the real issue becomes clear: If the world community wants to provide economic and development assistance to Palestinians, is UNRWA the best way to select the Palestinian beneficiaries and the best agency to channel the assistance? A systematic review of UNRWA and other existing government and non-government organizations shows that it is not.
Alternatives for Better Education Opportunities
Education is UNRWA's single largest area of activity, accounting for half its budget and two-thirds of its staff. UNRWA provides education to over 500,000 students in 684 schools, and this is often cited as one of its supreme achievements. Commissioner General Ms. Abu-Zayd stated recently: "Education has been central to UNRWA's human development agenda throughout its sixty-year history. Today, more than half of our budget is devoted to the primary education of refugee children, with equal opportunity given to boys and girls". However, UNRWA's extensive and costly educational activity is neither humanitarian nor consistent with UNRWA's mandate. The students of UNRWA's schools come from a largely undistinguished and unidentified population, who could hardly be considered "refugees". Moreover, recent scholastic achievement reports show that the same students could be better served by educating them through the hosts' national school systems. If the international community wishes to assist Palestinian children by subsidies to their education, this could be accomplished more effectively and with fewer collateral problems by providing the same assistance to the state educational systems where they reside rather than through an over-sized international bureaucracy that perpetuates the political myth that the Palestinians are refugees and should be allowed to return to their former homes.
As mentioned earlier, UNRWA's claim to fame in education proves misleading. Its schools are not scholastically superior, in fact they are often inferior, to the local-national schools, and
As we have shown, the answer to UNRWA's educational problems is clear: turn over UNRWA's costly and inferior educational system to the local governments. While the transfer will require a major structural change the process will be facilitated by the fact that the majority of the students are bone fide citizens of Middle Eastern states, all the teachers are local Palestinians, and the curriculum is adopted from the host countries and the PA texts. The transfer of the educational operation is necessary and timely. Money will be saved and overstuffed, inefficient bureaucracy will be terminated. The big winner will, of course, be the students!
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