The Struggle for Reform of UNRWA

On 31st August this year the United States announced its decision to halt all further funding of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).

The main reason given was simple, UNRWA’s “business model and fiscal practices” made it an “irredeemably flawed operation.” The “endlessly and exponentially expanding community of entitled beneficiaries is simply unsustainable and has been in crisis mode for many years.”

Children at a school run by UNRWAChildren at a school run by UNRWA (photo: REUTERS/Mohammed Salem)

That statement referred to the unique arrangement in which descendants of the original Arab refugees are also considered to be refugees, in addition to those who actually fled the fighting in 1948. Thus several generations of descendants are now eligible for support by UNRWA. Yet no other group of refugees in the world is treated in this way – normal practice only treats those who are actually displaced as refugees.

Since the decision by the US there have been strenuous efforts by UN officials to find alternative funding – efforts that have met with some success with European countries even as recently as last week, during a large meeting of the United Nations.

However, experts are calling for significant reforms of UNRWA to end decades of mismanagement that have resulted in millions of people being dependent upon aid delivered through the organisation, and have allowed incitement of hatred that has aggravated the conflict between displaced Arabs and their Jewish neighbours.

The dependence of this group upon the agency was highlighted on Monday by UNRWA’s evacuation of ten senior officials from Gaza into Israel for their own safety. Those officials have experienced harassment from employees and received death threats as a result of job losses resulting from the reduced funding.

It is well worth noting that these UNRWA officials have been moved into Israel for safety.

On Wednesday the head of UNRWA’s operations in Gaza explained that the emergency evacuation of foreign employees of UNRWA from Gaza was made necessary after protesters surrounded and blocked a car containing UNRWA officials for an hour in a “threatening” manner.

In addition, around 300 UNRWA employees have been prevented from accessing their offices for eight of the last ten days by a crowd of Gazans mobilized by the UNRWA employees’ union.

This article was updated on Thursday 4th October.