The Truth About UNRWA

Frequently asked questions about the Palestinian refugee agency, UNRWA.

According to reports, the Trump administration is getting ready to cut the United States’ official estimate of the number of Palestinian refugees to 500,000 — roughly one-tenth of the international community’s estimate.

They will do this by denying the refugee status of millions of Palestinians, claiming that the descendants of refugees should not have refugee status. The Palestinian refugee agency, UNRWA, isn’t perfect by any means, but it serves a vital mission and provides needed assistance to millions of individuals. And Israeli military and intelligence leaders have warned that the Trump administration’s cuts and broader policies targeting Palestinian refugees will harm Israel’s long-term security and could strengthen Hamas.

Below are some questions and answers that address common misperceptions and speak to the consequences of this dramatic policy shift.

Why is the Trump administration seeking to remove refugee status from 90 percent of Palestinian refugees?

This move is part of a long-term attempt by the Trump administration to punish Palestinian civilians, marginalize the Palestinian Authority leadership, and undermine prospects for a two-state solution. It comes in the wake of the administration’s decision to slash over $200 million in congressionally allocated humanitarian aid intended for Gaza and the West Bank and to halt to all US funding for UNRWA. This decision also follows the administration’s move to unilaterally and prematurely relocate the US Embassy to Jerusalem and its continued refusal to discourage Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank, or to even express support a two-state solution.

By attempting to strip the refugee status of descendants of people having fled or been expelled as a result of Israel’s 1948 creation, the Trump administration is callously targeting vulnerable victims of the conflict and attempting to cut off aid to millions of civilians — threatening to send an already-explosive situation in Gaza and difficult circumstances in the West Bank spiraling out of control.

Given these developments, it’s clear that Jared Kushner was describing the administration’s agenda when he made his widely-reported comments on wanting to “disrupt” UNRWA. It is deeply disturbing that a US administration is not only walking away from the United States’ longstanding role as a diplomatic leader dedicated to advancing the peace process, but is actually actively making the regional situation more dangerous and unstable.

Are the Palestinians unique in their ability to pass on their refugee status to descendants?

Under international law, children of refugees — whether or not their parents are stateless or lacking citizenship in another country — are considered refugees. Palestinian refugees are not distinct from any other group of refugees in this regard.

The majority of refugees around the world live in protracted refugee situations. The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) recognizes generational refugees across the globe, including individuals from Afghanistan, Angola, Bhutan, Burma, Burundi, Congo/DRC, Eritrea, Somalia, Sudan, Tibet and Western Sahara.

UNRWA’s definition of who can qualify as a Palestinian refugee is actually narrower than UNHCR’s definition of refugees more generally. While UNHCR allows both women and men to pass on their refugee status, UNRWA only allows male refugees to do so. The core principle behind generationally transferring refugee status is the need to keep families united and together. 

Can the United States unilaterally change UNRWA’s mandate?

UNRWA’s mandate is agreed upon through a majority vote by the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). Only the General Assembly can change the agency’s mandate. 

Does UNRWA seek to perpetuate Palestinians’ refugee status?

Palestinian refugees exist because the Israeli-Palestinian conflict still exists. If UNRWA closed tomorrow, there would still be millions of Palestinian refugees in the Middle East who would be stateless, without a legal identity and unable to access the full rights afforded to citizens of the host countries. As long as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict persists, millions of Palestinians will remain refugees, regardless of whether the US decides to deny their status as refugees. 

Why can’t Palestinian refugees be integrated into the countries they are hosted in?

While neighboring states have absorbed Palestinian refugees over the years, most refugees are not given legal protection by any state. In most countries, they are primarily confined to refugee camps. UNRWA does not have the authority to normalize or integrate the situation of refugees. That authority lies in the hands of the governments that host the refugees. 

Is there a risk of UNRWA schools being used by terrorist groups to store weapons to be used against Israel?

Over the course of regular inspections of its facilities in the Gaza Strip, UNRWA has discovered weapons or Hamas infrastructure in or beneath its schools in the past. When this has occurred, UNRWA has responded by immediately informing the relevant parties and taking immediate action to keep its facilities safe.

UNRWA enforces a strict no-weapons policy across its facilities and undertakes regular inspections in order to ensure that facilities are being used for purely humanitarian purposes. The agency has condemned all forms of violence and called for all actors to respect the neutrality and inviolability of its premises, as guaranteed under international law. 

Will this policy change benefit Israel?

In making this change, the Trump administration is once again closely aligning itself with the Israeli far right, which has long sought to marginalize Palestinian refugees. However, as mentioned above, Israeli military and intelligence leaders have made clear that policies that seek to undermine, marginalize and harm Palestinian refugees will damage Israel’s security and interests.