June 30, 2021 | International Organizations Monograph

United Nations Relief and Works Agency

June 30, 2021 | International Organizations Monograph

United Nations Relief and Works Agency


In 1947, the UN General Assembly voted to partition the British Mandate of Palestine into two states, one Jewish and one Arab. After Israel declared independence within the boundaries of the Jewish state, Arab armies declared war and attempted to destroy it. The conflict lasted from May 1948 to March 1949 and ended in an armistice agreement but not a formal peace.

The war produced both Arab and Jewish refugees. Israel absorbed roughly 800,000 Jewish refugees exiled from Arab states during and after the war. Arab governments, however, refused to absorb a similar number of Arab refugees. The UN General Assembly established the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) in 1949 to care for Palestinian Arabs displaced by the 1948–1949 Israeli War of Independence.

Today, even though most of the original refugees are no longer alive, UNRWA provides health care, education, and other basic government-like services in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. Not accounting for inflation, from 1950 to 2018, American taxpayers contributed more than $6 billion to UNRWA. The United States suspended funding for UNRWA in 2018.1 The Biden administration announced on April 7, 2021, that it would resume funding to UNRWA without any concrete plans for reform.2


In 1950, the UN General Assembly established the position of UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to assist refugee populations around the world. UNRWA, having a separate mandate, was not included – and today remains the only nominally refugee-focused agency independent of UNHCR. Unlike UNHCR’s mandate to provide “durable solutions” to refugees, including voluntary repatriation, local integration, and third-country resettlement, UNRWA has no such mandate.3 The agency openly declares that it “has no authority to seek lasting durable solutions for refugees, including resettlement in third countries.”4 This creates a dynamic whereby refugee status endures across multiple generations, leading UNRWA to claim today that more than 5 million people are registered as Palestinian refugees.

Unlike many UN agencies to which the United States provides large sums of funding, UNRWA has no board of directors to conduct oversight and steer the organization. The agency’s inefficiency and bloated bureaucracy is readily apparent. UNRWA serves a population of more than 5 million people with a staff of roughly 30,000, while UNHCR serves more than 20 million people worldwide with a staff of only 10,000.

In recent years, Congress has raised concerns about an UNRWA school headmaster moonlighting as a terrorist, UNRWA schools storing weapons and launching rockets against Israel, and issues related to waste, fraud, and abuse.5 In January 2021, UNRWA’s secretary-general acknowledged that the agency’s educational curricula refer to Israel as the “enemy,” teach math by counting “martyred” terrorists, and include the phrase “Jihad is one of the doors to Paradise” in grammar lessons.6

While UNRWA asserts there are 5 million Palestinian refugees, then-U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced in January 2021 that less than 5 percent of people registered with UNRWA meet the internationally recognized criteria for refugee status.7 Most are citizens of Jordan or residents of the West Bank or Gaza – that is, they are currently living in the territory they seek for a future state of Palestine.

UNRWA’s mandate and inaccurate labeling of people as refugees perpetuates conditions conducive to instability and violence in the Middle East. UNRWA raises generation after generation of Palestinian children to believe that they are entitled to occupy homes that do not belong to their families but that Palestinians claim should be part of a Palestinian state. Israel, of course, would never open its doors to several million individuals who see it as an enemy.

Achieving an overhaul of UNRWA’s operations and mandate will face several hurdles. Changing UNRWA’s mandate requires a vote by the UN General Assembly. For internal political reasons, the Kingdom of Jordan has opposed the idea of transitioning UNRWA’s operations in Jordan to bilateral U.S. assistance. Amman fears that either the millions of Palestinians living in Jordan or Muslim Brotherhood instigators could respond by protesting the kingdom’s abandonment of the Palestinian “right of return,” thus fomenting instability. Hezbollah control of Lebanon, Hamas control of Gaza, and the Palestinian Authority’s refusal to acknowledge fewer numbers of legitimate refugees further complicate moving away from UNRWA to bilateral assistance channels.

At the same time, however, the Abraham Accords open new opportunities for dialogue with Arab partners on this issue. UNRWA’s institutionalization of the Arab world’s war on Israel is now outdated – and perhaps threatens the advancement of normalization agreements between Arab states and Israel. Indeed, the agency perpetuates the myth of a Palestinian “right of return” and generates Palestinian resentment toward Arab governments choosing to normalize. The United Arab Emirates notably suspended funding for UNRWA earlier this year until “steps are taken to manage funds more efficiently.”8


The Biden administration and Congress must recognize that with less than 5 percent of the people served by UNRWA meeting the internationally recognized criteria for refugee status under the 1951 Refugee Convention, UNRWA is not a refugee agency. Rather, it is a politicized welfare agency riddled with oversight deficiencies and operating on an outdated mandate intended to block Arab-Israeli peace. UNRWA not only stands in the way of Arab-Israeli normalization and Palestinian-Israeli reconciliation; it also prevents millions from building better lives.

Congress is taking incremental steps to address concerns over UNRWA’s educational curricula, while a group of senators are demanding that more comprehensive conditions be placed on U.S. assistance.9 As Congress considers the Biden administration’s decision to resume funding, members of both parties should consider imposing conditions on U.S. assistance. These conditions should require UNRWA to:

  • Allow annual U.S.-led expenditure and beneficiary verification audits.
  • Establish a board of governors for oversight. 
  • Change UNRWA’s mandate to integrate populations wherever they live and terminate the organization within five years.
  • Transition responsibility for populations served by UNRWA to host governments by the end of the five-year period, including steps to transition U.S. assistance from multilateral assistance to bilateral assistance in all geographic areas of transition wherever allowed under U.S. law. 
  • Transition responsibility for at-risk displaced Palestinians, such as those in Syria, to UNHCR, which is already operating in the area.

During the proposed five-year transition period, technical teams from the U.S. Agency for International Development and other agencies should design programs, projects, and budgets to help Palestinians achieve economic independence and long-term opportunities.

The Biden administration and Congress should encourage Arab states normalizing with Israel that are donors to UNRWA, starting with the United Arab Emirates, to support UNRWA reforms and increase their financial support to Palestinians during this transition period. This process can be a win-win for Arab governments – removing a future impediment to normalization, while increasing support for the Palestinian people.


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