Who will help Palestinian refugees if UNRWA falls?

UNRWA is an extraordinarily disadvantaged behemoth. It’s responsible for educating, housing and providing health care for millions of refugees but boasts almost no political power and few international friends.
Sunday 10/11/2019
A Palestinian man and children carry bags of cereal outside an aid distribution centre run by UNRWA in  the central Gaza Strip refugee camp of Bureij,  July 31.(AFP)
Mounting uncertainties. A Palestinian man and children carry bags of cereal outside an aid distribution centre run by UNRWA in the central Gaza Strip refugee camp of Bureij, July 31.(AFP)

The Western leaders running the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East are playing with the lives of millions of Palestinian refugees.

An internal report by the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services into the goings-on at senior levels of the relief agency, known by the initials UNRWA, leadership and revealed by Al Jazeera and Agence France-Presse (AFP) last July unveiled a damning culture of nepotism, graft and abuse. UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krahenbuhl resigned November 6.

Conducted late last year and to be released in the coming weeks, the report’s authors said they uncovered “sexual misconduct, nepotism, retaliation, discrimination and other abuses of authority, for personal gain, to suppress legitimate dissent and to otherwise achieve their personal objectives.”

AFP said the report “paints a picture of a small number of mostly foreign senior leaders centralising power and influence while disregarding UN checks and balances.”

Krahenbuhl is alleged to have created a position for Maria Mohammedi, with whom he was allegedly romantically involved, and taken her with him on business-class flights around the world. Both Krahenbuhl and Mohammedi are married to other people. The author of the internal report has been targeted by Hakam Shahwan, a senior UNRWA staff member, who left the agency in July.

UNRWA and the individuals named in the internal investigation vehemently deny the report’s charges and say they are cooperating with the investigation.

While the findings of the internal investigation have yet to be officially released, the incidents of bullying and the corporate misuse of critical funding uncovered show that the mostly European leaders at the head of the organisation have little regard for the people they are to help and represent and that their priorities lie somewhere else entirely.

The Israeli and pro-Israel media around the world, which for years singled UNRWA out for criticism, has had a field day with the scandal. Opinions put forward by pro-Israel press — from Canada’s National Post to the New York Post and the constellation of Israeli media — call for the organisation to be disbanded. Some even claim that UNRWA “promotes the dream nurtured among Palestinians to destroy Israel.”

None, perhaps unsurprisingly, offers a solution or alternative to an organisation that provides vital assistance for millions of displaced people — as well or as poorly it may have been run at its top levels.

More than this, in the eyes of conservative and nativist regimes in the West, the troubles facing UNRWA mirror — as US President Donald Trump and others say — broader problems within the United Nations itself. Troublingly, the scandal gives weight and prescience to the Trump administration’s decision to cut its annual $360 million funding to the agency last year. Even more worrying is that UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has known about the alleged wrongdoings since December.

This speaks to something bigger than UNRWA itself — that the international community cares little for what remains the most intractable problem in the Middle East — how to solve the issue of the Palestinian right of return.

None of this is the fault of the Palestinian refugees the organisation was created to help. While such incidents and cultures are unfortunately commonplace at corporations and private institutions, in UNRWA’s case, the lives and futures of millions of Palestinians are at risk because there is a growing possibility that the agency, crippled by the loss of millions of dollars of US funding, may be closed. In addition to the United States, Switzerland, Holland, Belgium and New Zealand have pulled their funding since the scandal became public.

UNRWA is an extraordinarily disadvantaged behemoth. It’s responsible for educating, housing and providing health care for millions of refugees but boasts almost no political power and few international friends. It’s expected to operate and perform near miracles in desperate conditions in Gaza, Syria and Lebanon without any of its own money. It has not been a properly functioning organisation for a very long time, its brief and mandate severely and continually slighted and crippled over the decades.

Undoubtedly some will say these are exactly the reasons why it should be pulled apart and discontinued as an organisation.

With UNRWA’s mission  to expire in June, it finds itself in a desperate place. Does Guterres tear up the playbook and shut UNRWA down? Such a move would depend on who is left to donate money to the organisation.

If other countries, especially any of Germany, Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom or the European Union (though the latter is unlikely to do so) should pull its funding as a result of the scandal, then the United Nations’ senior leaders might find themselves faced with little choice than to pull the plug and subsume the organisation into the UNHCR, the UN agency for refugees, which is what pro-Israeli voices have long called for.

What would happen then? Nothing positive at least, since a refugee agency’s job is chiefly to resettle said refugees and Israel refuses to concede on the right of return.

With major donating backers likely to stand behind UNRWA when faced with no serious alternative, the organisation will probably continue to struggle on. What’s unfortunate is that much of the leadership that’s brought UNRWA close to its knees is likely to remain in place.

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