In 2009, James Lindsay wrote a powerful expose of United Nations Relief and Works Agency [UNRWA] organization for which he served as general-counsel from 2002 to 2007. His monograph, Fixing UNRWA, Repairing the U.N.’s Troubled System of Aid to the Palestinian Refugees, published by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), documents how far the organization had strayed from its original purpose. Lindsay wonders why the United States government, UNRWA’s largest benefactor, has turned a blind eye to an institution that in his opinion, neither supports U.S. interests nor its policies.
According to Lindsay,
Initially UNRWA provided emergency relief (food and shelter) to refugees who suffered as a result of the 1947-1949 struggle over Palestine…Gradually UNRWA segued to an organization that only provided emergency relief to one that provided governmental and developmental services in areas such as education, health, welfare, microfinance, and urban planning.
UNRWA is unique among United Nations agencies in that it is dedicated solely to assisting Arab refugees of the conflict with Israel and their descendents into perpetuity. A separate UN agency handles aid and resettlement of the far more numerous refugees resulting from conflicts in the rest of the world. Lindsay sees a pressing need for reform of the organization and would like to see as a first step the “removal of citizens from recognized states – persons who have the oxymoronic status of ‘citizen refugees’ – from UNRWA’s jurisdiction.” He includes in this category the vast majority of Palestinian refugees residing in Jordan, as well as some in Lebanon.
Lindsay also contends that “No justification exists for millions of dollars in humanitarian aid going to those who can afford to pay for UNRWA services.” Many observers of UNRWA’s activities have pointed out that Palestinian refugees enjoy better access to healthcare and education than many of their fellow Arabs in the region.
Lindsay calls for UNRWA to “halt its one-sided political statements and limit itself to comments on humanitarian issues; take additional steps to ensure the agency is not employing or providing benefits to terrorists and criminals; and allow the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), or some other neutral entity, to provide balanced and discrimination-free textbooks for UNRWA schools.” He is particularly concerned with the textbooks used by UNRWA schools, commenting:
Biased textbooks have long been recognized as an important issue that needed to be addressed. Former UNRWA Commissioner-General Michelmore observed that agency schools were supporting a “bitterly hostile attitude to Israel,” but nevertheless he justified the schools as “better than producing a politically innocuous system of education.”
He notes that UNESCO did not share the Commissioner-General’s opinion about continuing to use these flawed books and pointedly refused to associate itself with the Commissioner.
Out of Control Programs
Lindsay documents the mission creep that set in over the years. He calls attention to a lucrative loan system to fund new enterprises in which more than half are “soft loans” that are not expected to be paid back. The loan system competes with local Palestinian lenders and many of the loans are made to non-refugees. Lindsay contends that the majority of loans made in Syria and possibly in Jordan go to individuals who are neither Palestinian nor refugees.
In his opinion, a program that sees the greatest abuses is food rationing. Most refugees are able to pay for their own food, but many continue to receive rations. “This has led to the practice where some “refugees ‘sold’ or ‘rented’ their ration cards to merchants, who then collected the extra rations and resold them on the open market.” Such corrupt practices are a routine feature of generous welfare systems in which adequate oversight is lacking.
He also describes an investigation in the 1960s that revealed the likelihood that some Arabs receiving services from UNRWA had lost their homes on the Arab side of the border, never having resided in territory that was claimed by Israel.
Many attempts appear to have been made over the years to reconcile the numbers and get the programs under control. But uncooperative Arab governments and other factors have undermined efforts. Lindsay regards the government of Jordan as among the least cooperative in providing investigators with basic census information on refugees to help combat fraud. Israel has been the most cooperative.
A Trend Toward Increased Politicization
Lindsay observes that relations with Israel deteriorated in the 1980s. In 1982, the Commissioner sought to expand the role of UNRWA to include all Palestinians, whether they could claim refugee status or not. UNRWA reinterpreted its services to now include “protection” of the Palestinians. Unsurprisingly, the organization became increasingly politicized and the influence of terrorist groups increased.
Peter Hansen, UNRWA Commissioner-General from 1996-2005 exacerbated tension with Israel. He was forced out
soon after admitting that the agency employed known members of Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist organization officially considered a terrorist group by the United States and the E.U.
Lindsay is critical of current UNRWA commissioner Karen Abu-Zayd, whom he depicts as further politicizing the agency. He accuses her of increasingly steering the positions of UNRWA into alignment with Hamas.
Lindsay is not entirely negative about the direction of the agency. He reports that UNRWA is belatedly attempting to organize and computerize its files to get a handle on who is accessing its services.
Andrew Whitley, an UNRWA representative at the United Nations headquarters in New York, responded
to Lindsay’s report stating that the agency found the findings “tendentious and partial, and regrets in particular the narrow range of sources used.” Whitley continued, “The study ignores the context in which UNRWA operates and the tight line the agency walks due to various pressures… No mention is made of the occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.” Oddly, this statement was made in 2009
, three years after Israel had departed from the Gaza Strip.
Whitley contends that “The agency has a significant record of integrating refugees into local societies and not perpetuating its own role… UNRWA is building a cadre of trained, educated, self-sufficient Palestinians who will be the backbone of a future Palestinian state.” He also stated that “All Palestinian textbooks are under review… but replacing them with sanitized UN textbooks runs counter to the goal of integration of refugees into local societies.”
Lindsay offers some fascinating facts about the agency and how it has changed over the years:
UNRWA employs 29,000. All but about 200 are Palestinian Arabs.
At its inception 98% of UNRWA’s budget was used for relief and social services. Today 10% of its budget is used for relief and social services. Only 6 percent of those defined as refugees receive welfare assistance. These are mostly elderly, single women and disabled.
From 1995-2000, Palestinian Arabs utilizing UNRWA services experienced a dramatic decrease in fertility. This reflects the general trend across the Muslim world.
Most Palestinian Refugees in Jordan have Jordanian citizenship.
For those who are interested in a critical accounting of UNRWA from someone who viewed it from the inside, James Lindsay’s monograph is a must-read. For further reading on the debate over UNRWA also see a follow up piece written by Lindsey that was published by the Middle East Forum.