UNRWA’s limited aid focus in Syria, and its consequences

Palestinian refugees find themselves threatened by all warring factions of the Syrian civil war and are trapped in the terrible conditions of ill-managed UNRWA facilities. Meanwhile UNRWA ignores possibilities for long-term relocation opportunities.

Students at UNRWA school in Jordan 370 (photo credit: Muhammad Hamed/Reuters)
Students at UNRWA school in Jordan 370
(photo credit: Muhammad Hamed/Reuters)
Since March 2011, Syria has fallen into a vicious civil war in which over 100,000 people have lost their lives while 1.5 million have fled or been displaced. Before the outbreak of the war, Syria hosted 499,189 registered Palestinian refugees. The refugees have been wallowing in UNRWA facilities for 65 years with no attention given to a long-term solution.
Now their lives are in danger.
UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency) estimates that 235,000 Palestinian refugees (including 54,000 children) have been displaced within Syria having been targeted from all angles, transforming UNRWA facilities into war zones. Since the beginning of June 2013, 1,350 Palestinians have been killed in the war. Many of have fled to Jordan and Lebanon, who do not welcome this influx. The majority of the population relies solely on UNRWA which is charged as the provider for this population.
Since 1948 UNRWA serves not only those who were displaced in the war of 1948 but also their descendants. This self-created definition of “refugee” for Palestinians is significantly different than that of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) which serves all other refugees in the world. UNRWA focuses almost exclusively on immediate emergency needs.
This is due to the Syrian government’s historic policy of keeping the Palestinian refugees without citizenship or full legal rights, subjecting them to lives of disenfranchised non-citizens.
In UNRWA’s crisis response report for 2013, their work description and budget layout demonstrate their focus on immediate material needs: “The primary rationale... is to enhance the socioeconomic resilience of Palestine refugees and thus strengthen their ability to withstand and survive the tragedy of the Syria conflict.”
Any kind of planning for long-term solutions for refugees outside of the territories has not been and is not within the purview of UNRWA. The organization’s six-month budget is dedicated to cash assistance, food and non-food items, emergency health, education, rehabilitation and capacity and management support. Concrete aid items such as bedding, kitchenware, garbage services and emergency medicine constitute a large chunk of where the money goes.
While all of this is necessary, comparatively, UNRWA’s budget requirement for Syria in the past six months was $75,087,733, a whopping 90.44 percent of the required budget requested by the UNHCR’s Syria budget – charged with all other Syrian refugees (approximately 1,250,000).
UNRWA issues a few reports each week that address the current situation on the ground in Syria. However, the organization fails to address the actual concerns of the population it serves.
When deputy commissioner-general Fillipo Grandi visited Syrian UNRWA facilities in March, he was met with requests for a job-creation program and trauma support for children as means of self-empowerment and recognized human dignity. Without addressing these requests, Grandi replied, “UNRWA will continue to provide emergency assistance to the displaced refugees to alleviate their suffering.”
In April, the UN reported that UNRWA schools were acting as lastoption shelters for over 9,000 people (some non-Palestinian refugees included), and at that point, already 20,000 had fled to Lebanon where they were greeted with similarly horrid conditions.
In Syria, UNRWA facilities have continuously been the sites of violence: 129 of its facilities have been significantly damaged from fighting, and civilians have been injured and killed.
Their shelters, throughout the region, are ill-equipped, and refugees are either held as prisoners in the camps (due to complications with their IDs and travel permits), or are sent back to Syria where their lives are in constant danger.
While UNRWA continues to maintain this alarmingly limited emergency aid focus, three-quarters of the Syrian Palestinian refugees rely almost entirely on UNRWA aid, which has been sustained by UNRWA since 1949 and the Assad government since the 1960s.
The motive behind keeping the descendants of the Palestinian refugees displaced and segregated noncitizens is the eventual dismantling of the State of Israel so that they may return to their pre-1948 homes.
This “right of return” mantra, is systematically reiterated in the education programs for Palestinian children who study in UNRWA schools.
Meanwhile, UNRWA receives hundreds of millions of dollars for emergency relief and short-term aid, which only continues the cycle of Palestinian suffering. The UNHCR, by contrast, addresses permanent resettlement of refugees in distress. Why an opportunity for relocation has not been emphasized for Palestinian refugees is a serious question.
In 2009, the UNHCR relocated 1,000 Palestinian families from nightmarish conditions faced in UNRWA facilities in Iraq to third-party countries such as Chile, Australia and across Europe, and another 1,350 to the US. This followed the extreme violence Palestinian refugees in Iraq faced after the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s government.
According to UNHCR, resettlement programs are running currently in response to the Syrian civil war, with over 600 staff in Jordan conducting interviews for eligibility.
Similar to the Iraq case, the Palestinian refugees are in a particularly perilous situation in Syria given that they never had citizenship or full rights when Assad was in power, and now their homes in the UNRWA refugee camps have become war zones. Now is the time to encourage UNHCR to initiate a targeted relocation program that offers permanent resettlement for the Palestinian refugee population of Syria on a much larger scale, and to learn from the accomplishments of the UNHCR just a few years ago with regard to the threatened Palestinian refugee population in Iraq.
The author, originally from Bellingham, Washington, now lives in Jerusalem and works as a researcher and correspondent with the Center for Near East Policy Research.