Why was the UNRWA created?

Palestiniani refugees stand in front of a line of tents in Khan Younis, Gaza, 1948
The United Nations founded the Palestinian Relief Organisation in response to the start of the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948 (image: UNRWA/AP)

The UNRWA was founded in 1949, shortly after the onset of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. It became operational in May 1950.

The UN founded the agency to offer aid to the more than 700,000 Palestinians who fled their homes during the 1948 conflict between five Arab states and the newly-created state of Israel. Some fled in anticipation of the war; others were forced to flee by groups fighting for Israel or after finding themselves caught in the crossfire. Overall, the reasons for the mass departure are complex.

The UNRWA helps provide education, health care and welfare to some 6 million Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. "[It] is perceived as a lifeline by Palestinian refugees," said Lazzarini in interview last year.

Half of the agency's budget is dedicated to education. The UNRWA runs over 700 schools and is the only UN agency that operates a fully-fledged school system, it said in a May press release. 

How is the UNRWA financed?

The agency is funded almost entirely by voluntary donations by UN member states. In 2022, total pledges of $1.17 billion were made – around half of that came from EU member states

In January 2023, the agency appealed for an increase in its budget to around $1.6 billion, but as of May 2023, only 25% of that total – around $364 million – had been pledged. 

UNRWA has been underfunded for the past decade and has run at a deficit since its founding. It entered 2023 some $75 million in debt. 

This is partly due to the constant growth of the Palestinian refugee population, since descendants of refugees are also entitled to claim refugee status under international law.

The United States, long a significant funder of the agency, cut funding in 2018 at the behest of former President Donald Trump, who was critical of the United Nations in general and the UNRWA specifically. Washington has since resumed funding. The U.S. currently provides the most funding to the agency, followed by Germany, the European Union and Sweden.

Why is the UNRWA controversial?

Donald Trump and Israeli politicians, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have criticised the agency's definition regarding who counts as a Palestinian refugee.

The UNRWA says Palestinian refugees are "persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine during the period 1 June 1946 to 11 May 1948, and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict". The UNRWA website also states: "The descendants of Palestine refugee males, including adopted children, are also eligible for registration".

Netanyahu has called the agency a "refugee perpetuation agency" and argued for its dissolution, saying this job shouldn't be the responsibility of the United Nations.

The UNRWA argues that were the agency to shut down, those recognised as refugees "would still be Palestine refugees and retain their rights under [UN] General Assembly Resolution 194, pending a just and lasting solution to their plight".    (DW)