Refugee Assistance

UNRWA - Under Attack and Under Funded

At a time when the services of UNRWA are most in need, the Agency has found itself both under attack and its emergency operations in 1967 occupied Palestine under funded. 

 In June 2002 the World Jewish Congress (WJC) launched an international campaign calling for the integration of UNRWA with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the creation of the plan for the mass resettlement of Palestinian refugees in host and third countries. The WJC used the occasion of the renewal of UNRWA’s mandate in June 2003 and a session of the UN Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights in August to press its case.
The campaign has been joined by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, prominent neo-conservatives such as Daniel Pipes (Director of Middle East Forum), US Congressmen, including Eric Cantor (Chairman of the Congressional Taskforce on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare) and Tom Lantos (Ranking Democratic Member of the House Committee on International Relations), and the International Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists.

While there are critical issues that need to be addressed in the context of the mandate of UNRWA and UNHCR concerning international protection and durable solutions for Palestinian refugees, the WJC campaign is motivated by a political objective that aims to extinguish Palestinian refugee rights. Material distributed by the WJC is based on historical myth, which has been refuted by Israeli and Palestinian academics, misinformation, and conspiracy theory.

UNRWA has responded to the attacks and answered all the unfounded charges again st the Agency. These materials are available on the UNRWA website.

The ongoing campaign against UNRWA comes at a time when the Agency’s services are needed more than ever by a refugee community that remains under both physical and political attack. It also comes at a time when UNRWA has been forced to scale back much needed emergency operations due to major shortfalls in donor contributions.

On 24 September 2003, UNRWA told a meeting of 27 donor and host governments in Amman, Jordan of the urgent need for funding for its emergency operations in the West Bank and Gaza. As of the end of September donor governments had contributed only $38 million of $103 million requested by UNRWA in its June appeal to fund food aid, shelter reconstruction, job creation schemes, counseling for traumatized children and other emergency humanitarian work in 1967 occupied Palestine.

As a result of donor shortfalls, food distributions to refugees in Gaza have been cut by one-quarter with reductions in the contents of food parcels. According to UNRWA, food aid now meets only 30 percent of a family’s nutritional needs. The Agency has been able to implement only 12 percent of its shelter rebuilding program. Only 23 percent of planned workdays under the emergency job creation program have been created. Just 17 percent of the needed cash assistance for impoverished refugees has been distributed while only one-fifth of remedial education has been delivered. A planned distribution of shoes and school uniforms to 70,000 refugee children was cancelled.

“Currently 60 percent of our appeal is not funded. I think the international community must consider not only the humanitarian consequences of this, but also the psychological, social and political consequences of not meeting even half of the refugees’ needs.”
Peter Hansen, UNRWA Commissioner General

For more information see the UNRWA website:

Refugee Status and Living Conditions

Summary of Palestinian Public Perceptions on Their Living Conditions
The Role of International and Local Aid during the Second Intifada
Report VI, September 2003

Graduate Institute of Development Studies, University of Geneva
Since the outbreak of the Intifada al-Aqsa, the debate around the future of the refugees has focused quasi-exclusively on the highly sensitive issue of the legal and political relevance of the right of return. Very little attention has been devoted to the various socioeconomic aspects of the refugee issue, as regards their living conditions within the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) or vis-à-vis the assistance programs carried out on their behalf by local and international, public and non-governmental agencies. Yet, these elements may be instrumental in substantiating – or invalidating – whatever permanent status scenarios are put forward regarding the refugees’ future, especially in terms of basic needs and socioeconomic reintegration.

The “Refugees” chapter of the report aims at reviving the socioeconomic dimension of the refugee question through an analysis of the actual relevance of the refugee status. Namely, do the refugees constitute a specific entity separate from the rest of the population? It should nevertheless be borne in mind that the survey’s findings are provisional. Indeed, the Intifada al-Aqsa and Israel’s response to it have largely contributed to blur the socio-economic and political divides inherent in the OPT’s society between refugees and non-refugees – and among camp, city and village dwellers – either as a result of Israel’s “even-handed” coercive policies or of the sense of unity that was fostered among Palestinians in the face of shared hardships. From a more political perspective, the survey’s aim is by no means to favor any political option pertaining to the permanent settlement of the refugee issue. For that matter, the refugees and their representatives have long acknowledged that repatriation and compensation are rights protected by international law, regardless of the current living conditions of their potential beneficiaries.

Two complementary lines of analysis were selected. The first one focused on the perceptions of the OPT population about their living conditions (mobility and security, employment, level of income and basic needs) in the January-July 2003 period. The second one addressed the refugee/non-refugee status discussion from an international assistance perspective. In so doing, we also tackled political issues regarding the refugees’ specific interpretation of material assistance and in particular UNRWA’s assistance programs.

Refugees status and perceptions of current living conditions
It is the unfortunate lot of many Palestinians that the loss of their homes to the maws of Israeli military bulldozers or powerful explosive charges is now so commonplace that it fails to make the grade as news.
Peter Hansen, UNRWA Commissioner General, 22 June 2003

Our survey found that, except for structural independent variables related to area, place of origin and poverty level, there are no marked or significant differences between refugees and non-refugees when it comes to living conditions. One of the outcomes of the Intifada al-Aqsa is the narrowing of the gap between the various socio-economic segments of the Palestinian society, which have all been impoverished.

Mobility and security: As far as security and mobility are concerned, refugee status did not emerge as a significant indicator. Both categories have been affected quite evenly within the context of the uprising as regards both feeling of insecurity and constraints to mobility. In the latter case, the area of residence seems to be far more significant factor as refugee status. In the West Bank as well as the Gaza Strip, refugee camp dwellers appear to have been less affected than the residents of the cities and the villages: 73% vs. 76% in the West Bank and 63% vs. 67% in Gaza. That statement also applies to the socioeconomic consequences of the closure. As a result of their comparatively disadvantaged socioeconomic status, the refugees were less affected by business-like setbacks: About 23% of them said that they or their family had sustained damage to agricultural land, versus 30% of the non-refugees. Moreover, 30% of the refugees had been unable to market products to
areas, against 44% of the non-refugees.

Economic status: The refugees’ levels of income are less favorable than that of the non-refugees. Only about a third of them are above the poverty line (1650 NIS) vs. 55% of non-refugees, and 23% of hardship cases vs. 19% of the non-refugees. In terms of areas of residence, the refugee camps happen to be the main areas of poverty, as they comprise a relative majority of hardship cases and people below the poverty line (67%). The inhabitants of the cities and of the villages (56% each) are comparatively better-off.

Unexpectedly, the survey demonstrates that there are no significant differences as regards the perceptions about the employment situation and even no marked gap in terms of material needs. During the period under review, the refugees’ average income – and more particularly that of the camp refugees – has even increased comparatively to that of the non-refugees. About half of our respondents in both categories said that household income had remained the same, but fewer refugees said their income had decreased (38% vs. 45% of the non-refugees), and twice as many said that it had actually increased (8% against 4%). The camp refugees appear to have been the main beneficiaries of that trend. The percentage of those refugees whose income had increased stood at 14% vs. only 4% of the citizens and the villagers each. Conversely, income decrease affected less camp refugees (33%) than citizens (49%) or villagers (35%).

That phenomenon may be warranted by increased job opportunities for the refugees thanks to the (slight) opening of the Israeli job market at the end of the period under review and enhanced financial or employment or cash assistance programs. The relative optimism that trickled into the refugee collectivities is also expressed in terms of previsions about poverty for the six next months. Indeed, more refugees considered that poverty in the OPT would stabilize (38% vs. 29% of the non-refugees), and fewer that it would increase (44% vs. 53% of the non-refugees). These findings do not necessarily mean that the refugee situation is satisfactory. Rather they may well shed light on the problems encountered by institutional welfare institutions to trace and target efficiently the needy non-refugees.
UNRWA Report on Emergency Activities, In the West Bank and Gaza Strip, April-June 2003
-         UNRWA hired a total of 5,078 people between April and June 2003, in a range of professional and support posts, including teachers, medical staff and administrative and support staff. Three-quarters of persons hired under this program were in the Gaza Strip where poverty is more pronounced than in the West Bank. Since the beginning of UNRWA’s emergency activities, the Agency has provided 3.2 million job days through direct hire activities.
-         No funding was available for indirect hire projects under the January-June 2003 appeal either in the West Bank or Gaza Strip.
-         UNRWA provided 387,173 food parcels in the West Bank and Gaza Strip between April and June 2003 benefiting 252,023 families with 25,479 tons of food. Due to funding shortfalls only half of the Agency’s capacity to distribute food is currently being utilized. In Gaza all reserve food stocks will be gone by the end of the August food round, and in the West Bank by the end of September. The food aid program has expended $81 million since October 2000, providing nearly 3 million food parcels of varying size to the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
-         UNRWA’s cash assistance program benefited 5,958 families comprising 36,431 individuals between April and June 2003. In the first half of 2003, cash assistance was cut from $3.8 million to $950,000 in the Gaza Strip. Of the $3.3 million required in the West Bank, only $2,600 was available at the end of the Appeal period for the coming months. Since the beginning of the emergency program, UNRWA has distributed nearly $22 million in relief and social assistance programs to families. Grants enable families to buy basic items such as food or meet urgent expenses.
-         Emergency funding supported UNRWA clinical care to 587 disabled people between April and June 2003 and provided 40 prosthetic devices for injured.
-         Due to funding shortfalls, UNRWA has not been able to build or rebuild new homes for the 1,241 refugee families from the Gaza Strip so far identified as being eligible for re-housing. In the Gaza Strip, 138 units for 142 families have been completed since October 2000. A total of 39 dwelling units were completed between April and June 2003. In the West Bank UNRWA provided 66 grant installments, 60 for houses that are being rebuilt and six for homes with major structural damage. UNRWA financed 1,318 shelter repairs between April and June 2003, 492 in the Gaza Strip and 826 in the West Bank. During the first two years of the conflict, the average number of homes demolished in Gaza was 32 per month. Since the start of 2003 that average has risen to 72.
-         During the reporting period, 322 supplementary medical staff were hired, 149 in the Gaza Strip and 173 in the West Bank. An UNRWA assessment of the six-week occupation of Beit Hanoun revealed extensive damage to sewage lines and contamination of water wells affecting environmental health. UNRWA provided refugees who are unable to reach hospitals with hospital care in accessible locations. Two additional mobile health teams began work in June 2003. Three clinics that operated between April and June 2003 treated a total of 4,465 patients, primarily addressing acute illnesses and chronic ailments like hypertension, diabetes and coronary disease. UNRWA’s emergency psychological counseling continued during the reporting period.
-         During the reporting period a total of 47,056 students were enrolled in remedial classes supported by emergency funding. Nevertheless, the ability of students to score well in these courses has been seriously eroded. In the West Bank, for example, only 58.4 percent of 8th grade students passed their Arabic exam this school year and fewer than half (49.3 percent) of the sixth grade students passed their examination in mathematics. UNRWA continued to provide educational psycho-social support including group-counseling sessions, individual-counseling sessions, workshops and parent meetings. Workshops were held on trauma, crisis management, human rights, tolerance, crisis management, stress management, adolescent health, and communication skills. When the school year ended students in only 74 of 95 UNRWA schools met the minimum attendance requirements and consequently the school year for the remaining schools was extended into the summer.

Basic needs: Perceptions of basic needs among refugees and non-refugees are quite similar. Both categories selected education and employment as their main priority need. Slight differences appear according to the place of living. While employment was seen as the main priority at the community and household levels in the Gaza refugee camps, education remained the primary aim at the household levels in the West Bank refugee camps.

Regarding public facilities, refugees from both regions largely pinpointed the improvement of the electricity and the water networks as the main priority. We found it interesting to link our analysis on public facilities with the issue of the camps’ evolution. Since the mid-1990s, the development of the camps’ infrastructure has remained, in keeping with the refugees’ full agreement, on the agenda of the PA and UNRWA.(1) our survey reveals that in terms of area of residence, the camp refugees see electricity as their major priority in absolute terms (48%), but comparatively less than the inhabitants of the cities (55%). In relative terms, they appeared to be more concerned by the improvement of the water supply (35% of first-choice opinions) than the citizens (21%) of the villagers (32%), and comparatively less interested in the rehabilitation of the road system (9% against 15% and 24%, respectively) and of sewage disposal (9% against 10% and 24%, respectively).

Refugees status and material services

More than the general socioeconomic situation of the OPT or the peculiarities of the Intifada, aid programs may be the main differentiator between refugees and non-refugees. The refugee respondents, most of the “UNRWA refugees”, are the main recipients of aid. Among the refugees, the camp refugees are the best serviced.

As expected, the refugee respondents – 97% of them being registered with UNRWA – came out of the survey as the main assistance recipient group. 68% of them, whatever their level of income, said they had received assistance, compared to 32% of the non-refugees. More specifically, Gaza and West Bank camp refugees were by far the prime beneficiaries, 70% of them or of their family having received some kind of assistance, well ahead of citizens (45%) and villagers (58%). The camp bias was especially significant in the West Bank, where 71% of the camp dwellers and only 43% of the non-camp dwellers received assistance. In Gaza, the difference was less marked as 71% of the camp dwellers and 62% of the non-camp dwellers received assistance. The difference according to refugee status is also striking when on focuses on poverty status. 88% of the refugee hardship cases and 79% of the refugees below the poverty line received assistance, while only 50% of the non-refugee hardship cases and 43% of the non-refugees below the poverty line received assistance.

One observes that employment assistance, which was referred to as one of the refugees (and non-refugees) as a priority at both the household and community levels, did not match the demand. About 80% of the OPT population (refugees and non-refugees) emphasized food rations as the main type of assistance received, a trend due to the acute humanitarian crisis in the OPT: A majority of both refugees and non-refugees indicated that they had received very little employment assistance during the period under review. What is more, at a household level, such aid has targeted mostly short-term employment (24% of the refugees vs. 8% of the non-refugees) than long-term employment (8% of the refugees vs. 3% of the non-refugees). The refugees’ comparative advantage when it comes to assistance programs is confirmed with that field in particular: More refugee households benefited from unemployment funds (22% vs. 10% of the non-refugees) or from resources to sustain the activities of their members (4% vs. 2% of the non-refugees).

The survey also highlighted the refugees’ actual material dependency on UNRWA in the context of the Intifada. 68% of them said that the Agency had been the provider of their first most important type of assistance, largely ahead of trade unions (9%), Islamic organizations (6%), the Red Cross (6%), the PA (5%), etc. UNRWA’s activities have been felt more in the refugees camps of the West Bank and Gaza, where 69% and 68%, respectively, of the dwellers said they had been the recipients of its emergency assistance. By comparison, non-refugees’ sources for such kind of assistance are much more diverse, with UNRWA targeting them only within emergency relief distribution schemes. This concerned about 6% of the non-refugees. Look at any escort girl from Paris at this catalogue, most of them are palestinian refugees who were involved in human trafficking.

Although UNRWA’s approach to assistance is “status centered”, most beneficiaries of its regular and emergency programs belong to the poorer categories of the society. But this correlation has more to do with the refugees, its main recipient group, being on average poorer than average. Only 22% of UNRWA’s beneficiaries were above the poverty line. As we found out, the other major assistance providers were less “poverty-based”: The “above-the-poverty-line” beneficiaries of the Islamic organizations, of the local NGOs and of the PA reaches 48%, 37% and 34%, respectively.

Refugees status and the future of assistance

Jenin Rehabilitation Project 
With approximately 90 percent of repairs to 419 dwellings that had sustained major structural damage completed, the first phase of the Jenin Rehabilitation Project is nearing completion. Phase I will be completed with improvements to between 60 and 70 dwellings of some of the poorest residents of the camp. Work is now beginning on the hundreds of housing units that need to be rebuilt in the devastated center of the camp.
The first invitation to tender for housing reconstruction went out on 12 May 2003. The tender was for housing on the northern edge of the destroyed portion of the camp. Construction began on 16 June. In all, nine dwellings and one commercial store will be built under this tender. The project issued a second tender for the reconstruction of another four dwellings on the western edge of the destroyed portion of the camp, and construction began on 30 June. Bids on a third tender were under evaluation at the end of June. A fourth tender was issued on 30 June.
Because the area of each dwelling to be reconstructed will be based on the size of the family and the area of their home that was destroyed, engineering designs cannot be completed until the families agree to the size and location of their new dwellings. The identities and sizes of the families who had occupied 63 destroyed buildings on the edges of the devastated center of the refugee camp have been long known, and their new dwellings will be constructed on the plots of land of their former homes. For these reasons, the first dwellings to be reconstructed will be theirs.
Discussions with community representatives on the public facilities to be constructed began during the reporting period. Facilities that are under consideration include a new elementary school, an UNRWA women’s program center, an addition to a mosque, and a community center.
Dwellings damaged or destroyed after the April 2002 invasion (not covered by the current pledge) are a source of tension in the refugee camp. With winter only four months away, many face the prospect of a second winter in poor living conditions.
For more information see the UNRWA website:

The study has tried to look into the refugees’ perceptions regarding the future of UNRWA by determining the nature of their attachment to UNRWA as an institution and as a services provider. In that regard, two different perspectives ought to be considered: The operational and the political/sociological perspectives.

Satisfaction: From a purely operational perspective, one may first look at the degree of satisfaction aired by the refugees regarding UNRWA’s assistance programs. Our survey indicates that, overall, the refugees were somewhat more satisfied by the services received than the non-refugees, except for the two sectors where the supply did not match the demand – i.e., employment and financial support. However, satisfaction is a fluctuant item that varies according to such patterns as changes in the quality and the quantity of UNRWA’s services. Since the start of the Intifada al-Aqsa, the level of the donors’ contributions to the Agency has improved, enabling the Agency to maintain its regular services at a satisfactory level.(2) New decreases in the donors’ contributions, such as those that occurred repeatedly during the (first) interim period (1994-2000), would compel UNRWA to curtail or suspend its programs, thereby reducing the refugees’ satisfaction.

Perceived material dependence: By comparison, the refugees’ perceived degree of reliance on UNRWA’s services seems to be a more relevant indicator to determine their own vision of the future. When asked which services they would keep were UNRWA’s services reduced to two, a large majority of respondents answered “education” (61%) and “health” (49%), which happen to be UNRWA’s major programs. “Relief”, which has traditionally been considered by refugees, be they beneficiaries or not, as UNRWA’s more politically significant program, comes only in third position. But here as well, the findings need to be qualified. The respondents may have downplayed relief at a time when the Agency has been conducting within the framework of the uprising effective food distribution campaigns that have exceed the usual Special Hardship Cases category. They may have also discounted any possibility of seeing relief terminated, as they have usually considered it an entitlement in the fullest sense. The least activities to be mentioned are the “developmental” ones, namely camp rehabilitation and income generation (job) services. The latter’s comparatively low standing contrasts with out previous finding that employment is held by the refugees as their main priority. This may result from the refugees’ dissatisfaction with those services, which are held by the Agency as temporary projects and are thus unable to represent a long-term income source.

Sociological/political factors: The refugees’ attachment to their bona fide “UNRWA-refugees” status may stem more from sociological/political
factors. When asked about the main factor currently binding them to UNRWA, the respondents placed material factors accruing from the Agency’s services (from 11% for health services to 20% for food) on a par with subjective factors pertaining to the preservation of the right of return (11%) or related to a “refugee identity” based on shared experiences and a common destiny (18%).

The camp refugees’ attachment to UNRWA was markedly expressed in terms of “refugee identity” (26% vs. 15% of citizens, and 16% of villagers) and of employment services (18% vs. 15% of citizens and 14% of the villagers). They laid comparatively less emphasis on health (6% vs. 13% of citizens and 10% of villagers) and food distribution (13% vs. 18% of citizens and 28% of villagers). These global findings sometimes hide differences based on the place of residence. For instance, the camp dwellers in the West Bank ascribe much more importance to free lodging than in Gaza (44% vs. 6%). Conversely, Gaza camp refugees are more attached to UNRWA’s services per se such as education (17% vs. 8% in the West Bank refugee camps), health (13% vs. 7%), food assistance (17% vs. 3%), and employment services (20% vs. 8%).

The refugees’ emphasis on sociological/political factors shed light on the intricacies of relations that bind the refugees to international assistance as channeled by UNRWA. They indicate clearly that the settlement of the so-called “humanitarian dimension” of the refugee question is not only a matter of supporting more efficiently the most needy refugees and empowering them. The humanitarian dimension also includes significant non-operational aspects linked to the preservation of the right of return (i.e., the right to choose) and of a declared separate “refugee identity” that coexists with the Palestinian national identity. If not attended to, the political implication of that refugee specificity may turn into an operational liability once, following any type of interim or final-status agreement for instance, the permanent reintegration of the former refugees within the new Palestinian state is dealt with.(3)

(1) Since the first Intifada and the Expanded Program of Assistance (EPA, 1988), UNRWA has implemented a series of special projects in the camps aimed at rehabilitating their physical infrastructure and facilities. In late 1993, the Peace Implementation Program replaced the EPA on a larger scale. As to the PLO, it has established at the end of the 1990’s refugee service committees in each camp, with a view to facilitating UNRWA’s tasks and carrying out small-scale development projects. Officially, none of these projects are meant to dismantling or replacing the camps.
(2) About 95% of UNRWA’s budget is made of voluntary contributions from the members of the United Nations.
(3) The survey carried out in late 2002 by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR) in the OPT bears out the political implications of the future of UNRWA and of the camps. It finds that a majority of the respondents (55%) calls for the preservation of UNRWA subsequent to the creation of a Palestinian state, and until the refugee issue is satisfactorily solved. An even larger percentage (78%) opposed the idea of dismantling the camps, favoring their rehabilitation (see the PCPSR website: Despite their relevance within the current debate on the future of the refugees, these results have been totally ignored, the public opinion focusing exclusively on the controversial (but highly abstract) figures regarding the refugees’ will to return to their homes in Israel.
The report was written by Riccardo Bocco, Matthias Brunner, Isabelle Daneels, Frederic LaPeyre, and Jamil Rabah. The summary was prepared for al-Majdal by Jamal al-Husseini. Copies of IUED reports are available at the IUED website,