World News

What is UNRWA and What Would It Mean if Trump Cuts Its Funding?

Posted January 3, 2018 5:21 p.m. EST

President Donald Trump has vowed to block millions of dollars of funding for Palestinians, declaring on Twitter on Tuesday that they were “no longer willing to talk peace.”

Much of that aid flows through the U.N. Relief Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees, or UNRWA. While Trump did not explicitly mention the agency, his ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, made it clear that the agency was being looked at.

Asked specifically about UNRWA, Haley said: “He does not want to give any additional funding, or stop funding, until the Palestinians are agreeing to come back to the negotiation table.”

Many have expressed concern about Haley’s remarks. What is UNRWA, and how would a cut in U.S. aid affect its work with more than 5 million Palestinian refugees?

Why was UNRWA set up?

The agency was set up in 1949 to provide humanitarian aid in the wake of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, which left hundreds of thousands of Palestinians displaced in the Middle East. UNRWA was initially intended to be a temporary agency, but it has continued to provide support for Palestinian refugees for the better part of six decades. Palestinians are the only refugee group whose support is not handled under the broader mandate of the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

The agency has never been involved in peace negotiations and has instead focused on humanitarian efforts throughout the Middle East in areas where the largest numbers of displaced Palestinians are concentrated. Israel has regularly feuded with the organization, as it rejects the Palestinian demand for a right of return for the refugees displaced by the Arab-Israeli conflict.

But despite Israel’s reservations, the organization is internationally recognized for its humanitarian efforts, and it plays a major role in the region.

At times its role is as basic as providing a safe space for civilians. Much in the same way that other U.N. facilities have become a haven in times of active conflict, an UNRWA school was used by thousands of civilians seeking shelter during the 2014 Gaza war.

What does UNRWA do?

UNRWA mainly provides services and funding for those registered as Palestinian refugees in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. (The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees is responsible for Palestinian refugees outside UNRWA’s areas of operation.)

Nearly the entire population of the Gaza Strip receives aid from UNRWA. The agency acts almost as a de facto government there, responsible for the majority of schools, health care facilities and some public services.

Jordan, with more than 2 million registered Palestinian refugees, hosts the largest number of people who are provided aid by UNRWA.

More than half of UNRWA’s budget for programs goes toward education, and in 2016, 17 percent of the budget was set aside for health care. On Wednesday, the agency pointed out the role that it plays in the region, while also highlighting the U.S. contribution to those efforts:

The agency also provides loans through its microfinance department for small local businesses.

What would a U.S. funding cut mean?

The United States is the top funder of UNRWA and, according to figures released in 2016, it contributed nearly $369 million, including emergency funding for aiding Palestinian refugees caught up in Syria’s brutal civil war.

If the U.S. funding was eliminated, the agency would face a significant deficit in its budget. The next biggest donor in 2016, the European Union, contributed less than half of what the United States did. The agency receives contributions from more than 100 donors, and its entire budget for 2016 was nearly $1.25 billion.

But any cuts would affect those most in need.

More than 500,000 children are taught in 700 UNRWA-run schools across the Middle East, according to the agency. UNRWA provides funding for more than 9 million patients visits at health care facilities in the region. It employs more than 30,000 people.

Despite Trump’s Twitter message, Chris Gunness, an UNRWA spokesman, said the agency had not received any formal notification that the Trump administration intended to cut its funding.