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Funding for refugees has long been politicized − punitive action against UNRWA and Palestinians fits that pattern

The US is among more than a dozen countries to freeze funding to UN agency providing aid to displaced Gazans over allegations of complicity in the Oct. 7 attack.

Palestinians await the distribution of UNRWA flour. Abed Zagout/Anadolu via Getty Images

At least a dozen countries, including the U.S., have suspended funding to the UNRWA, the United Nations agency responsible for delivering aid to Palestinian refugees.

This follows allegations made by Israel that 12 UNRWA employees participated in the Oct. 7, 2023, Hamas attack. The UNRWA responded by dismissing all accused employees and opening an investigation.

While the seriousness of the accusations is clear to all, and the U.S. has been keen to downplay the significance of its pause in funding, the action is not in keeping with precedent.

Western donors did not, for example, defund other U.N. agencies or peacekeeping operations amid accusations of sexual assault, corruption or complicity in war crimes.

In real terms, the funding cuts to the UNRWA will affect 1.7 million Palestinian refugees in Gaza along with an additional 400,000 Palestinians without refugee status, many of whom benefit from the UNRWA’s infrastructure. Some critics have gone further and said depriving the agency of funds amounts to collective punishment against Palestinians.

Refugee aid, and humanitarian aid more generally, is theoretically meant to be neutral and impartial. But as experts in migration and international relations, we know funding is often used as a foreign policy tool, whereby allies are rewarded and enemies punished. In this context, we believe the cuts in funding for the UNRWA fit a wider pattern of the politicization of aid to refugees, particularly Palestinian refugees.

What is the UNRWA?

The UNRWA, short for the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, was established two years after about 750,000 Palestinians were expelled or fled from their homes during the months leading up to the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 and the subsequent Arab-Israeli war.

Palestinians flee their homes during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.
Pictures from History/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Prior to the UNRWA’s creation, international and local organizations, many of them religious, provided services to displaced Palestinians. But after surveying the extreme poverty and dire situation pervasive across refugee camps, the U.N. General Assembly, including all Arab states and Israel, voted to create the UNRWA in 1949.

Since that time, the UNRWA has been the primary aid organization providing food, medical care, schooling and, in some cases, housing for the 6 million Palestinians living across its five fields: Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, as well as the areas that make up the occupied Palestinian territories: the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The mass displacement of Palestinians – known as the Nakba, or “catastrophe” – occurred prior to the 1951 Refugee Convention, which defined refugees as anyone with a well-founded fear of persecution owing to “events occurring in Europe before 1 January 1951.” Despite a 1967 protocol extending the definition worldwide, Palestinians are still excluded from the primary international system protecting refugees.

While the UNRWA is responsible for providing services to Palestinian refugees, the United Nations also created the U.N. Conciliation Commission for Palestine in 1948 to seek a long-term political solution and “to facilitate the repatriation, resettlement and economic and social rehabilitation of the refugees and the payment of compensation.”

As a result, the UNRWA does not have a mandate to push for the traditional durable solutions available in other refugee situations. As it happened, the conciliation commission was active only for a few years and has since been sidelined in favor of the U.S.-brokered peace processes.

Is the UNRWA political?

The UNRWA has been subject to political headwinds since its inception and especially during periods of heightened tension between Palestinians and Israelis.

While it is a U.N. organization and thus ostensibly apolitical, it has frequently been criticized by Palestinians, Israelis as well as donor countries, including the United States, for acting politically.

The UNRWA performs statelike functions across its five fields – including education, health and infrastructure – but it is restricted in its mandate from performing political or security activities.

Initial Palestinian objections to the UNRWA stemmed from the organization’s early focus on economic integration of refugees into host states.

Although the UNRWA officially adhered to the U.N. General Assembly’s Resolution 194 that called for the return of Palestine refugees to their homes, U.N., U.K. and U.S. officials searched for means by which to resettle and integrate Palestinians into host states, viewing this as the favorable political solution to the Palestinian refugee situation and the broader Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In this sense, Palestinians perceived the UNRWA to be both highly political and actively working against their interests.

In later decades, the UNRWA switched its primary focus from jobs to education at the urging of Palestinian refugees. But the UNRWA’s education materials were viewed by Israel as further feeding Palestinian militancy, and the Israeli government insisted on checking and approving all materials in Gaza and the West Bank, which it has occupied since 1967.

A protester is removed by members of the U.S. Capitol Police during a House hearing on Jan. 30, 2024.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

While Israel has long been suspicious of the UNRWA’s role in refugee camps and in providing education, the organization’s operation, which is internationally funded, also saves Israel millions of dollars each year in services it would be obliged to deliver as the occupying power.

Since the 1960s, the U.S. – UNRWA’s primary donor – and other Western countries have repeatedly expressed their desire to use aid to prevent radicalization among refugees.

In response to the increased presence of armed opposition groups, the U.S. attached a provision to its UNRWA aid in 1970, requiring that the “UNRWA take all possible measures to assure that no part of the United States contribution shall be used to furnish assistance to any refugee who is receiving military training as a member of the so-called Palestine Liberation Army (PLA) or any other guerrilla-type organization.”

The UNRWA adheres to this requirement, even publishing an annual list of its employees so that host governments can vet them, but it also employs 30,000 individuals, the vast majority of whom are Palestinian.

Questions over the links of the UNRWA to any militancy has led to the rise of Israeli and international watch groups that document the social media activity of the organization’s large Palestinian staff.

Repeated cuts in funding

The United States has used its money and power within the U.N. to block criticism of Israel, vetoing at least 45 U.N. resolutions critical of Israel.

And the latest freeze is not the first time the U.S. has cut funding to the UNRWA or other U.N. agencies in response to issues pertaining to the status of Palestinians.

In 2011, the U.S. cut all funding to UNESCO, the U.N. agency that provides educational and cultural programs around the world, after the agency voted to admit the state of Palestine as a full member.

The Obama administration defended the move, claiming it was required by a 1990s law to defund any U.N. body that admitted Palestine as a full member.

But the impact of the action was nonetheless severe. Within just four years, UNESCO was forced to cut its staff in half and roll back its operations. President Donald Trump later withdrew the U.S. completely from UNESCO.

In 2018, the Trump administration paused its US$60 million contribution to the UNRWA. Trump claimed the pause would create political pressure for Palestinians to negotiate. President Joe Biden restarted U.S. contributions to the UNRWA in 2021.

Politicization of refugee aid

Palestinian are not the only group to suffer from the politicization of refugee funding.

After World War II, states established different international organizations to help refugees but strategically excluded some groups from the refugee definition. For example, the U.S. funded the U.N. Relief and Rehabilitation Administration to help resettle displaced persons after World War II but resisted Soviet pressure to forcibly repatriate Soviet citizens.

The U.S. also created a separate organization, the precursor to the International Organization for Migration, to circumvent Soviet influence. In many ways, the UNRWA’s existence and the exclusion of Palestinian refugees from the wider refugee regime parallels this dynamic.

Funding for refugees has also been politicized through the earmarking of voluntary contributions to U.N. agencies. Some agencies receive funding from U.N. dues; but the UNRWA, alongside the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Organization for Migration, receive the majority of their funding from voluntary contributions from member states.

These contributions can be earmarked for specific activities or locations, leading to donors such as the U.S. or European Union dictating which refugees get aid and which do not. Earmarked contributions amounted to nearly 96% of the UNHCR’s budget, 96% of the IOM’s budget and 74% of UNRWA funding in 2022.

As a result, any cuts to UNRWA funding will affect its ability to service Palestinian refugees in Gaza – especially at a time when so many are facing hunger, disease and displacement as a result of war.

The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.



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