Frequently asked questions

These frequently asked questions deal with general queries about UNRWA. For the Agency’s response to particular new developments or specific questions, please contact our press and public information representatives.

Palestine refugees

Who is UNRWA mandated to serve?
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UNRWA is mandated by the UN General Assembly to serve ‘Palestine refugees’. This term was defined in 1952 as any person whose "normal place of residence was Palestine during the period 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948 and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict." Palestine refugees are persons who fulfil the above definition and descendants of fathers fulfilling the definition. Read the full eligibility rules (Arabic PDF) or learn more here.

In addition to Palestine refugees, the UN General Assembly has also mandated UNRWA to offer services to certain other persons who require humanitarian assistance, on an emergency basis as and when required, in UNRWA fields of operations. Notably, the General Assembly has mandated the Agency to provide services to persons in the region who are currently displaced and in serious need of continued assistance as a result of the 1967 and subsequent hostilities. These persons are not registered as Palestine refugees. Only the UN General Assembly can change the mandate of UNRWA, the definition of a Palestine refugee and whom the Agency is mandated to serve.

How many Palestine refugees access UNRWA services?
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As of 2021, Palestine refugees registered as such with the Agency and eligible to access its services within the UNRWA areas of operations (Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip). However, not all registered refugees avail themselves of the Agency’s services. Reasons include - for example - having no need for assistance or having moved outside of UNRWA areas of operations. The annual UNRWA budget is based on the number of refugees accessing services, not the total number of those registered.

UNRWA basic education and primary health care services are accessible to all Palestine refugees who seek them in UNRWA fields of operations, while other services like cash and food assistance or hospitalization support are provided based on eligibility criteria, which target those most in need. Eligibility for the receipt of UNRWA services is not contingent on lack of nationality. Eligibility for UNRWA services is a matter separate from conferral of refugee status or nationality under international or national law, issues that go beyond the scope of the Agency’s mandate.

In 2020, over 540,000 children were enrolled in UNRWA schools (2020-2021 school year); Social Safety Net Programme assistance reached 390,000 beneficiaries; and 1.5 million affected by conflict, blockade and occupation in the occupied Palestinian territory or the Syria conflict received urgent humanitarian assistance.

How does UNRWA promote the protection of Palestine refugees?
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Protection is what UNRWA does to safeguard and advance the rights of Palestine refugees. In particular, UNRWA:
 

  • Delivers its services in a manner that promotes and respects the rights of beneficiaries
  • Promotes respect for Palestine refugees’ rights through monitoring and reporting of violations and by engaging in private and public advocacy
  • Ensures that protection needs are addressed in all aspects of programming, policies and procedures including addressing cases of violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation of vulnerable groups, including women and children, through programmatic responses and referral to external partners
  • Advocates in public statements as well as private interventions with a broad range of interlocutors to promote the protection of refugee rights.

The Agency is not responsible for security or law and order in refugee camps and has no police force or intelligence service. The responsibility for ensuring the physical security of Palestine refugees residing in the Agency’s fields of operations falls within the sovereignty and sole responsibility of the respective host government. Click here for more information.

 

Protracted Displacement & Solutions

Is the transfer of refugee status to descendants unique to UNRWA?
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No. Under international law and the principle of family unity, the children of refugees and their descendants are also considered refugees until a durable solution is found. As stated by the United Nations, this principle applies to all refugees and both UNRWA and UNHCR have recognized descendants as refugees on this basis.

In line with this, the UN General Assembly annual resolutions on UNRWA operations continue since the 1950s to require the Agency to deliver its services for the protection and assistance of Palestine refugees, including descendants.

Palestine refugees are not distinct from other refugees in protracted refugee situations such as those from Afghanistan or Somalia, where there are multiple generations of refugees, registered by UNHCR as refugees and supported as such. Protracted refugee situations are the result of the failure to find political solutions to their underlying political crises.

It is important to note that registration with UNRWA does not afford refugee status under the 1951 Geneva Convention, but provides services and assistance based on a definition that sets out eligibility for receipt of such services.

Why is UNHCR not responsible for Palestine refugees?
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UNHCR does not have a mandate over Palestine refugees within the UNRWA fields of operations (Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip). This is not a decision on the part of either UNRWA or UNHCR, but rather the result of decisions of the international community enshrined in the 1951 Refugee Convention and the UNHCR Statute (adopted by the General Assembly).

In 1949, the UN General Assembly established two different UN refugee agencies – the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) – to respond to distinct refugee crises. The UN General Assembly provided these Agencies with complementary mandates to assist and protect refugees, as laid out in relevant instruments, including the Statute of UNHCR (adopted by a General Assembly resolution) and the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (an international treaty). Neither UNRWA nor UNHCR can unilaterally change these instruments.

The UNRWA mandate extends to the delivery of services to Palestine refugees within its five fields of operations: the West Bank (including East Jerusalem), the Gaza Strip, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. Therefore, Palestine refugees within these fields do not fall under UNHCR’s mandate. However, UNHCR has a mandate regarding Palestine refugees when they are outside the UNRWA areas of operations in certain circumstances.

Would the Palestine refugee question be solved if Palestine refugees came within UNHCR’s mandate?
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UNRWA and UNHCR also have distinct functions. UNRWA is a direct service provider. At the core of these services are education and health services, essential for the human development of Palestine refugees. UNHCR is not a direct service provider, it is not set up to be one, and it neither has the staff numbers required to deliver these services nor the requisite experience. Direct comparisons of the budgets of the two agencies and the staff required to deliver the respective mandates are deceptive. UNRWA operates as a quasi-state body delivering services akin to a state, while UNHCR offers temporary protection and assistance. A like-for-like comparison is disingenuous.

Even if Palestine refugees were to fall under UNHCR’s mandate, they would still be Palestine refugees and retain their rights under General Assembly resolution 194, pending a just and lasting solution to their plight. Any durable solution for refugees sought by UNHCR would still depend on all relevant parties agreeing to such a solution.

Why can’t UNRWA resettle Palestine refugees?
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Unlike UNHCR, UNRWA does not have a mandate to resettle Palestine refugees and has no authority to seek lasting durable solutions for refugees. UNRWA is mandated by the UN General Assembly to provide services to Palestine refugees in five fields of operations, pending a just and lasting solution to their plight. Palestine refugees within the Agency’s fields of operations are excluded from the mandate of UNHCR, which has a resettlement mandate. However, according to UNHCR, less than 1 per cent of refugees are resettled each year

It is worth noting that the protracted situation in which Palestine refugees live is not unique. Resettlement requires the consent not only of refugees, but also of the receiving state. UNHCR estimates that 77 per cent of all refugees under its mandate – 15.7 million refugees - were in protracted refugee situations at the end of 2019. According to UNHCR data, of the 20.4 million refugees under UNHCR protection in 2019, less than 2 per cent of refugees (317,200) were repatriated back to their country of origin. Far fewer were resettled in a third country (107,800) or naturalized as citizens in their country of asylum (55,000). The vast majority remained refugees pending a solution to their plight.

What is the Agency’s stance on UN General Assembly resolution 194 (III) and the ‘Right of Return’?
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The right of return is enshrined in UN General Assembly resolution 194. UNRWA was established to provide assistance pending the implementation of that resolution, which has been reaffirmed by the General Assembly since 1948.

We understand that voluntary repatriation is the preferred solution sought by UNHCR, which has an explicit mandate to seek durable solutions, for refugee situations globally. However, UNRWA is a humanitarian organisation and, unlike UNHCR, has no authority to seek durable solutions for refugees that fall under its mandate (i.e. Palestine refugees), including return to the country of origin. Other UN actors and the international community more broadly are tasked with the mission of facilitating a just and lasting solution to the plight of Palestine refugees.

Is UNRWA involved in political negotiations?
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No. UNRWA is a humanitarian organization that has a mandate to provide assistance and protection to Palestine refugees pending a just and lasting solution to their plight. However, UNRWA highlights the international community's obligation to provide a just and durable solution for Palestine refugees. Learn more about neutrality here.

UNRWA Operations

What is the mandate of UNRWA?
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UNRWA was established by UN General Assembly resolution 302 (IV) of 8 December 1949 “to carry out […] direct relief and works programmes” for Palestine refugees. The Agency began operations on 1 May 1950.

UNRWA has a humanitarian and development mandate to provide assistance and protection to Palestine refugees pending a just and lasting solution to their plight. UNRWA derives its mandate from the UN General Assembly, the Agency’s parent organ, and it is only the General Assembly that can define the UNRWA mandate. The Agency’s mandate is not set out in a single source or document. Rather, the Agency’s mandate is derived primarily from UN General Assembly resolutions.

The Agency’s mandate has evolved over the years, as set out in various General Assembly resolutions, to extend to the provision of emergency services to persons in its area of operations who are currently displaced and in serious need of continued assistance as a result of the 1967 and subsequent hostilities. The mandate has also evolved to accommodate the changing needs and political situation of Palestine refugees, including with respect to protection activities.

UNRWA provides humanitarian assistance and contributes to protection of refugees through essential service delivery, primarily in the areas of basic education, primary health care and mental health care, relief and social services, microcredit, and emergency assistance, including in situations of armed conflict, to millions of registered Palestine refugees located within its five fields of operations (Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Gaza).The Agency does not have a mandate to engage in political negotiations or durable solutions.

The General Assembly has repeatedly affirmed the necessity of the Agency’s work and reiterated the “essential” and “vital” role it plays. Since establishing UNRWA in 1949, the General Assembly has consistently renewed the Agency’s mandate routinely, most recently for another three years to 30 June 2023 with overwhelming support from UN Member States.

UNRWA will continue to fulfill its mandate of providing services to Palestine refugees until a just and durable solution to their plight is found. It is the responsibility of the international community to assist in finding that solution.a

Is UNRWA a political organization?
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No. Established by the UN General Assembly (as its subsidiary organ), UNRWA is a United Nations agency and humanitarian organization that operates based on the legal framework applicable to UN entities, including the United Nations Charter, and in accordance with the UN humanitarian principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality and operational independence.

The Agency is mandated by the UN General Assembly to provide assistance and protection to Palestine refugees pending a just and lasting solution to their plight. UNRWA services include education, healthcare, relief and social services, camp infrastructure, microfinance and emergency assistance to Palestine refugees. The finding of a just and lasting solution to the plight of Palestine refugees is a political matter and is not part of the Agency’s mandate.

Does UNRWA run the refugee camps?
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No. UNRWA does not administer the camps. The Agency’s responsibility is limited to running education, health, relief and social services, microfinance and emergency assistance programmes, which are located inside and outside camps. The Agency is not responsible for security or law and order in the camps or the physical protection of Palestine refugees and has no police force or intelligence service. This responsibility falls within the sovereignty of the respective host government. 

Who owns the land the camps are built on?
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Host governments allocate areas of land for use as refugee camps. Some of the land is state-owned, but the majority is privately owned. UNRWA does not own the land.

What is UNRWA doing to help refugees live a dignified life in host countries, until a just and lasting solution to their plight is found?
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The Agency’s mission goes far beyond a humanitarian response. A human development approach lies at the centre of the Agency’s work, as reflected in its Medium-Term Strategy for 2016-2021, which also articulates the Agency’s commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals.

UNRWA therefore recognizes that advancing human development for Palestine refugees requires a multi-dimensional approach involving poverty alleviation, promoting respect for human rights, access to quality health and educational services, reductions in inequality, and economic growth. Through its services, encompassing education, health care, relief and social services, camp infrastructure and improvement, and microfinance, UNRWA helps Palestine refugees to achieve their full human development potential, become self-reliant, and live-in dignity. From using the host country’s school curricula – so students can pursue further education in public school systems – to modern vocational training, refugees enjoy greater opportunities to achieve basic socioeconomic wellbeing.

In addition, the Agency is a strong advocate for the protection and promotion of the rights of Palestine refugees until a just solution is found. This involves advocacy with duty bearers to uphold their obligations towards Palestine refugees in all UNRWA fields of operations, including those living in the occupied Palestinian territory and under blockade in the Gaza Strip, those facing discrimination and denial of rights that severely affect their living standards in Lebanon, and those experiencing acute vulnerability in Jordan, in particular certain categories of Palestine refugees who suffer from exclusion. UNRWA has also advocated for the protection of Palestine refugees impacted by the Syrian conflict.

UNRWA also works to address specific protection concerns, such as cases of violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation of vulnerable groups, including women and children through programmatic responses and referrals to partner organisations.

Despite the steadfast commitment and efforts by UNRWA to the human development of Palestine refugees, there are numerous factors severely restricting many Palestine refugees from attaining their full potential. These include the ongoing denial of rights, profound constraints on socioeconomic opportunities, and the exposure to multiple crises – often spilling across borders – in addition to the failure of the international community to find a just and lasting solution to the Palestine refugee situation. UNRWA is confronted with an increased demand for services resulting from a growth in the number of registered Palestine refugees, the extent of their vulnerability and their deepening poverty.

What has been the positive impact of UNRWA services on the lives of Palestine refugees?
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UNRWA has supported multiple generations of Palestine refugees with health, education and social assistance. Life expectancy of Palestine refugees at birth is similar to that of nationals of host countries. UNRWA primary health clinics provide a level of basic care that has reduced maternal and infant mortality among Palestine refugees to national levels, or even lower, in the host countries.

More than 2 million Palestine refugees have graduated from UNRWA schools since the 1950s. Literacy levels are high relative to regional comparators, particularly amongst women, and generally exceed levels of high- and medium-ranked countries on the human development index. A 2016 World Bank report found UNRWA students broadly outperform their peers in public schools and achieve higher-than-average results in international assessments, findings reaffirmed in a subsequent 2021 UNHCR-World Bank report. The 2021 UNHCR-World Bank report also found that UNRWA schools provide a model example and strong foundational lessons for effective emergency responsiveness in refugee education, as well as provide the building blocks for cost-effective, quality education service delivery in resource-constrained environments. And in 2021, 45 UNRWA schools across the Gaza Strip and 14 in the West Bank were named winners of the prestigious International School Awards, an honor granted by the British Council to celebrate schools that are successfully preparing students to be responsible global citizens by embedding international education into their curriculums.

UNRWA also works towards improving the access of Palestine refugees to livelihood opportunities in host countries – with an emphasis on women, youth, those living in poverty, and other vulnerable groups. Palestine refugees form a reservoir of human capital in the region and globally. Despite exclusion and frequent limitations on opportunities, they have played an important, widely-recognized role in local and regional development over the past 70-plus years.

UNRWA improves access to livelihood opportunities primarily through nine technical and vocational training centres, which had graduated more than 123,000 young people as of 2021, all trained to match the needs of the local labour market. Additionally, UNRWA microfinance services have distributed over 550,000 loans since 1992 at a total value of over US$ 600 million. UNRWA temporary job creation programmes in Gaza and employment service centres in Lebanon help refugees overcome, even if temporarily, some challenges to livelihood opportunities in these areas. UNRWA itself plays an important role as an employer of over 28,000 Palestine refugees and others, the majority of them teachers, and it creates significant livelihood opportunities through its construction projects across its fields of operations.

In addition, UNRWA works to improve living conditions in refugee camps, from ensuring access to water to the construction and maintenance of sound education and health facilities, as well as shelter rehabilitation for the poorest and those affected by conflict.

As part of the social safety net programme (SSNP), UNRWA provides in-kind food and cash assistance to refugees living in deep poverty. In 2020, 390,000 refugees in Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon and Jordan were assisted under this intervention, which makes the difference between going hungry and having food on the table.

The UNRWA response to the COVID-19 pandemic has showcased the Agency’s strength as a frontline service provider. The Agency’s ability to quickly and innovatively adjust  service provision such as telemedicine, home delivery of essential medicines and the use of self-learning materials and interactive computer-based learning to minimize the spread of disease. The Agency’s infrastructure, its long experience in working during emergencies and its decision to issue dedicated COVID-19 flash appeals contributed to a quick response to the pandemic.

How does UNRWA work with other UN organizations in the region?
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Partnerships with other UN agencies are an important aspect of the Agency’s work, including with the UN Country Teams in its areas of operations. In education and health, UNRWA works closely with the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organizations (UNESCO) and the World Health Organization (WHO), respectively.

UNRWA also cooperates with other UN agencies such as UNICEF and UN Habitat, as well as specialised agencies such as the World Bank in their respective areas of expertise. In addition, UNRWA maintains a close working relationship with UNHCR.

How does UNRWA work with non-governmental organizations in host countries?
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UNRWA implements most of its services directly. However, staff from UNRWA and non-governmental organisations work together to provide some essential services for Palestine refugees. They are generally medical-humanitarian, human rights and development-oriented.

Funding & Financial Situation

How is UNRWA funded?
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Almost all funding comes from voluntary contributions, and mostly from donor states. The United Nations Secretariat finances 158 international staff posts each year from its regular budget.

In 2020, Germany was the largest donor with a total contribution of over US$ 210 million across all UNRWA funding portals, followed by the European Union (over US$ 157 million). These contributions made up about 39 per cent of the total contributions UNRWA received. 

What is the Agency’s current financial situation?
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As of April 2021, the timing and level of 2021 financial contributions remain unclear. UNRWA is forecasting a major shortfall against its programme budget and emergency appeals. Additionally, the Agency started the year with a carryover of US$ 75 million in liabilities on its programme budget due to reduced financial contributions and increased resource requirements caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Funds to cover the carryover need to be secured, in addition to the 2021 annual requirement of US$ 806 million for the programme budget. 

UNRWA is asking all donors to find ways to comprehensively address the Agency’s recurring shortfalls to ensure the uninterrupted delivery of critical services until there is a just and durable solution to the plight of Palestine refugees. Maintaining smooth and predictable operations, including the provision of emergency assistance, is of the utmost importance for the well-being, protection and human development of Palestine refugees, as well as for the stability of the region at large.  

How does UNRWA allocate its budget?
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The UNRWA budget is guided by the strategic objectives and priorities outlined in the Medium Term Strategy 2016-2021, which is based on the strategic human development priorities that UNRWA strives to achieve.

For 2021, UNRWA is calling for US$ 1.5 billion to fund all essential services, emergency appeals and priority projects for registered Palestine refugees in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, Gaza Strip, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. Of the required US$ 1.5 billion, US$ 806 million is needed for core services such as education, health, relief and social services, protection, and infrastructure and camp improvement.

UNRWA requires US$ 231 million to provide emergency humanitarian assistance in response to the devastating effects of blockade and occupation in the occupied Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem. To respond to the hardship caused by the Syria conflict to Palestine refugees in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon, UNRWA is seeking US$ 318 million. Both emergency appeals include adjustments that UNRWA made to its services to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among Palestine refugees and address its impact.

Approximately US$ 170 million is needed for priority projects to repair or build UNRWA facilities and strengthen or improve core services.

The US$ 806 million budget for this year is a zero-growth budget when compared to 2020.  Read more about our expenditure.

What oversight is there of UNRWA spending?
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UNRWA has its own Department of Internal Oversight, charged with providing internal oversight through:
 

  • Independent, professional and objective internal audit, inspection, investigation and consulting services
  • Promoting responsible administration of resources, a culture of accountability and transparency
  • Improved programme performance

 

The UNRWA Commissioner-General is advised by the Advisory Committee on Internal Oversight which includes external members. UNRWA is also audited by the independent UN Board of Auditors (UNBOA) every two years, which publishes its reports to the General Assembly. Since 2012, the UNBOA has consistently issued ‘unqualified’ reports, i.e. reports finding the Agency’s annual financial statements to be accurate, fair and in line with international accounting standards. These reports, together with the Agency’s audited financial statements, are published on the Agency’s website. The Agency is bound by the principles of best practice of oversight that apply to the United Nations system as a whole.

Why is UNRWA not part of the UN assessed contribution system?
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When UNRWA was established as a temporary agency in 1949, the United Nations and Member States thought it would be in the interest of both UNRWA and the refugees if the Agency was able to collect voluntary contributions of any amount from Member States. Therefore, with the exception of the Agency’s core international staff posts funded through assessed contributions from the UN regular budget, UNRWA operations, projects and emergency appeals are funded by the voluntary contributions of donors.