What you need to know now about cuts to the UN’s agency for Palestine refugees

Annie Slemrod

Middle East Editor

The UN agency that supports Palestinian refugees says it is facing “the gravest financial crisis” in its history after the United States announced it was holding back planned funding. But the agency is also promising that services for more than five million people in the Middle East aren’t on the chopping block just yet.

“We are determined to do everything in our power to keep services running,” UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness told IRIN on Wednesday. “Schools and clinics will remain open,” he said, as the agency geared up to launch a massive fundraising campaign to fill in the gaps left by its largest donor.

Here’s a quick guide to what UNRWA is, where its money comes from, and where things might go from here?

Who does UNRWA help and where?

UNRWA’s full name – the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East – is a mouthful.

Its name (and all press releases, website, and the like) officially refers to “Palestine refugees,” not “Palestinian refugees”. That’s because UNRWA’s definition of a refugee (meant to help those who left or fled their homes during the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict) is tied to place – Palestine refugees are: “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.”

The organisation began work in 1950, and its mandate was later expanded to help those displaced by the 1967 war that resulted in Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem (plus the Golan Heights and Sinai, later given back in a peace deal with Egypt.)

Those who meet this definition (and their children) and are registered with UNRWA and live in the areas where the agency works – that’s Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Gaza, and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem – are eligible for services from the agency, including education, medical care, camp housing in some places, and more.

Palestinian citizens of Israel, also sometimes called Arab Israelis, are not eligible for UNRWA assistance.

In total, that’s about 5 million registered Palestine refugees in the region, a figure that has been growing since the agency first began work 1950. The number, needs, and budget are all growing, in large part because the children of Palestine refugees are refugees too.

UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, is responsible for all other refugees, and the children born into the protracted crises it deals with should be recognised as refugees and given protection.                                                     

Where does UNRWA’s funding come from?

The United States announced on Tuesday that it was transferring $60 million of a planned $125 payment to UNRWA, but Gunness says the agency doesn’t yet know if this will be the final and full extent of the cuts.

Gunness told IRIN that based on conversations with the US administration, the agency had been expecting to receive around $350 million from the country in 2018, roughly the same amount it gave last year.

Now, it is only sure of $60 million.

“Even without this reduction in US funding, we were facing a deficit of 150 million, ” Gunness added.

The financial situation is bad, although this is hardly the first time. In 2015, commissioner-general Pierre Krähenbühl told IRIN the agency was facing its “most serious financial crisis ever;” in 2016 he said it was “in the midst of a grave financial crisis, of the magnitude faced last year,” and last year warned UNRWA was “on the verge of a major funding breakdown”.

UNRWA says the near constant state of crisis is because needs and numbers are growing. And it’s in a riskier spot than some other UN agencies because it gets little funding from the main UN budget.

So UNRWA largely depends on donations from countries, and the United States has historically been the largest, by a long shot. In 2016, it gave more than $368 million, with the EU a distant second at just under 160 million.

There have been attempts made to put the agency on a more stable footing: expanding the donor base, cutting back on some staff positions, and upping class sizes. Some argue that UNRWA needs to do something radical to fix its chronic funding problem.

State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the cuts were “not aimed at punishing” the Palestinian Authority, despite earlier comments that suggested otherwise by US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley.

Instead, Nauert said, “the United States Government and the Trump administration believe that there should be more so-called burden-sharing to go around.”

It looks like that is exactly what UNRWA is going to have to ask for. Gunness told IRIN the agency would be asking for money from countries, but also charities, private individuals – really whoever can give.

Where does the money go?

UNRWA has, broadly speaking, two major budget lines: main programmes and emergency appeals – for rebuilding Gaza and helping Palestine refugees impacted by the Syrian war, for example.

A close look at UNRWA’s most recent annual report shows that the largest part of its $1.3 billion total spending in 2016 was on education, followed by “relief and social services”, which includes food assistance and cash.

The services UNRWA offers differs by location – in Lebanon, for example, UNRWA runs primary and secondary schooling, plus a bit of tuition assistance for university. In the West Bank, it’s primary school only, and then Palestine refugee children move on to nationally-run schools.


The percentage of Palestine refugees who depend on services also differs by location and need. For example, in Syria, where there are some 438,000 Palestine refugees left – many living right in the the middle of a conflict zone – UNRWA says more than 95 percent “are in continuous need of humanitarian aid to meet their needs”.

Gunness and Krähenbühl are urging new donors to open their wallets – “to rally in support and join UNRWA in creating new funding alliances and initiatives”, as the commissioner-general put it in a Wednesday statement. At stake, he said, “are the rights and dignity of an entire community”.


(TOP PHOTO: UNRWA distributes food parcels in Damascus. Taghrid Mohammad/UNRWA)