Frequently asked questions

This section deals 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

Is UNRWA now closing down its services in anticipation of the imminent closure of the agency?

No, UNRWA services are not being closed down. However, the Agency has been forced to implement austerity measures over the last few years due to lack of funds: financial contributions have not increased sufficiently to keep pace with inflation and a rising refugee population. This has resulted in a reduction in services as is evident in the fact that average annual spending per refugee has fallen from about $200 in 1975 to around $110 today. Nevertheless, UNRWA’s commitment to Palestine refugees remains undiminished, and the Agency will continue to serve them pending a just resolution of the question of the Palestine refugees.

How is UNRWA responding to the current humanitarian crisis in Syria?

Since the onset of the conflict in Syria, UNRWA has stepped up its operations to ensure the needs of Palestine refugees in the country are met. The Agency is the main provider of humanitarian assistance, protection and basic services to 438,000 Palestine refugees who remain in the country, and who have been among those worst affected by the crisis. Almost 60 per cent of Palestine refugees have been displaced at least once. Emergency interventions in Syria include the provision of cash assistance, food and non-food items, emergency health and education services as well as protection. These activities have been funded by annual Emergency Appeals. 

Due to the current funding shortfall, UNRWA has had to reduce both the amount and frequency of its cash distribution in 2018. UNRWA runs one of the largest cash programmes in an active conflict setting in the world and provides over 400,000 Palestine refugees with cash assistance. This has a profound effect on poverty levels, reducing the number of Palestine refugees living in extreme poverty (less than US$ 1.50 a day) from 80 to 50 percent of the population. The prioritization of cash assistance requires UNRWA to scale down other interventions.

How is UNRWA responding to the current humanitarian crisis in the West Bank and Gaza strip?

UNRWA has launched a series of emergency appeals for emergency food, employment and cash assistance. The emergency programme serves over one million people in the West Bank and Gaza Strip who have been impoverished by the conflict, violence and restrictions. UNRWA provides this emergency assistance in addition to its regular programme services in the areas of relief and social services, education and health and other assistance.

The unprecedented funding shortfall faced by UNRWA since the beginning of 2018 has forced the Agency to implement changes to some of its emergency interventions to ensure that vital humanitarian assistance is maintained for the most vulnerable refugees. In Gaza, UNRWA is prioritizing the continued delivery of food assistance to nearly one million refugees. This requires the scaling back of other interventions, such as the community mental health and job creation programmes and protection.

In the West Bank, under the Emergency Appeal, UNRWA is currently providing emergency food assistance in the form of food vouchers; and in-kind food assistance for the Bedouin communities through a cooperative arrangement with the World Food Programme (WFP). UNRWA also continues to assist and advocate for Palestine refugee communities at risk of displacement due to demolitions or evictions. Other activities such as cash-for-work; community mental health; and mobile health clinics, initially planned as part of the emergency interventions, have been altered or discontinued due to lack of funding.

Why did UNRWA continue its operations in the west bank and Gaza after the Palestinian Authority was established?

The Palestinian Authority falls under the same category as the host governments of Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. Until the refugee issue is solved and as long as there is a need for relief, UNRWA will continue providing services to the refugees in these areas in accordance with its mandate from the General Assembly. The Palestinian Authority strongly supports the continuation of UNRWA’s operations in support of the refugees.

Does UNRWA work with Non-Governmental organizations?

UNRWA implements most of its services directly. However, staff from UNRWA and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) work together to provide some essential services for Palestine refugees. They are generally medical-humanitarian, human rights and development-oriented.

Does UNRWA work with other un organizations in the region?

Yes. Partnership with other UN agencies is an important aspect of UNRWA's work, including with the UN Country Teams in its areas of operation. In education and health, UNRWA works closely with the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organizations (UNESCO) and the World Health Organization (WHO).

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.

What is the difference between UNRWA and UNHCR?

UNRWA deals specifically with Palestine refugees in its five areas of operation in Jordan, Lebanon, the Syrian Arab Republic, West Bank, and the Gaza Strip. Its role encompasses assistance, protection and global advocacy for Palestine refugees. UNHCR’s mandate is to provide international protection to refugees worldwide whenever political conditions allow. UNHCR is responsible for Palestine refugees outside UNRWA's areas of operation.

Find out more about the relationship between UNRWA and UNHCR in:

Our publication The UN and Palestinian refugees (PDF)

UNHCR’s 2009 Revised Note on the Applicability of Article 1D of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees to Palestinian Refugees

Why do Palestine refugees not come under the mandate of UNHCR?

As UNRWA was set up in 1949, Palestine refugees were specifically and intentionally excluded from the international refugee law regime established in 1951. The 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol thereto exclude Palestine refugees as long as they receive assistance from UNRWA. The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) provides assistance and protection to Palestine refugees outside UNRWA's areas of operations.

Is UNRWA involved in the middle east peace negotiations and in the discussions on a solution to the refugee issue?

No. UNRWA is a humanitarian agency and its mandate defines its role as one of providing services to the refugees. However, UNRWA highlights the international community's obligation to provide a just and durable solution for Palestine refugees.

What is the mandate of UNRWA?

UNRWA was originally mandated to:

  • "carry out direct relief and works programmes in collaboration with local governments"
  • "consult with the Near Eastern governments concerning measures to be taken preparatory to the time when international assistance for relief and works projects is no longer available", and
  • plan for the time when relief was no longer needed.

UNRWA’s contemporary mandate is to provide relief, human development, and protection services to Palestine refugees and persons displaced by the 1967 hostilities in its fields of operation: Jordan, Lebanon, the Syrian Arab Republic, West Bank and the Gaza Strip. UNRWA’s mandate has been repeatedly renewed by the UN General Assembly. The current mandate runs until 30 June 2020.

If unrwa was set up as a temporary agency, why is it still working after 68 years?

The UN General Assembly has affirmed “the necessity for the continuation of the work” of UNRWA and “the importance of its unimpeded operation and its provision of services for the well-being and human development of the Palestine refugees and for the stability of the region.” The General Assembly has renewed UNRWA's mandate repeatedly pending the just resolution of the question of the Palestine refugees.

When did UNRWA begin its field operations?

On 1 May 1950.

Who provided emergency relief to Palestine refugees before UNRWA?

Immediately after the Arab-Israeli hostilities of 1948, emergency assistance was provided by international organisations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, League of Red Cross Societies and the American Friends Service Committee.

In November 1948, the United Nations established the United Nations Relief for Palestine Refugees (UNRPR) to extend aid and relief to Palestine refugees and coordinate efforts of NGOs and other UN bodies.

The United Nations established the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) under UN General Assembly Resolution 302 (IV), of 8 December 1949, as a subsidiary organ of the United Nations. The Agency inherited the assets of the UNRPR and took over the ICRC’s refugee registration records.

How does UNRWA provide protection to Palestine refugees?

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

  • Promotes respect for Palestine refugees’ rights through monitoring, reporting and intervention
  • Delivers its services in a manner that promotes and respects the rights of beneficiaries
  • Ensures that protection needs are addressed in all aspects of programming, policies and procedures
  • Advocates in public statements as well as private interventions with a broad range of interlocutors to promote the protection of refugee rights.
Does UNRWA only provide services to Palestine refugees?

No. For example, the Agency also provides services to refugees and people displaced by the Arab-Israeli conflict of 1967 and subsequent hostilities.

Who is a Palestine refugee?

The operational definition of a Palestine refugee is 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 fulfill the above definition and descendants of fathers fulfilling the definition.

Read the full eligibility rules (PDF).

In May 1951, UNRWA inherited a list of 950,000 persons from its predecessor agencies.

In the first four months of operations, UNRWA reduced this list to 860,000 persons, based on painstaking census efforts and identification of fraudulent claims.

The 1948 registered refugees and their descendants now number 5.4 million, and mainly reside in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon or Syria.

Why is UNRWA not part of the un assessed contribution system?

When UNRWA was established as a temporary agency 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. However, the United Nations finances all of the Agency's core international staff posts from its regular budget.

What oversight is there of UNRWA spending?

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.

UNRWA’s Commissioner-General is advised by the Advisory Committee on Internal Oversight which includes external members. The Agency is also audited by the independent UN Board of Auditors every two years, which publishes its reports to the General Assembly. The Agency is bound by the principles of best practice of oversight that apply to the United Nations system as a whole.

How does UNRWA spend most of its money?

The UNRWA budget is guided by the strategic objectives and priorities outline in its Medium Term Strategy 2016-2021 (MTS), which is based on the strategic human development priorities that UNRWA strives to achieve.  Out of a US$ 750 million core programme budget in 2019, roughly more than half was earmarked for education, with US$ 111 million for health services, US$ 55 million for relief and social services, US$ 27 million for infrastructure and camp improvement and US$ 594,124 for protection services.

Read more about our expenditure.

What is the agency’s budget?

The regular UNRWA budget for 2018 was US$ 747 million, roughly half of which was spent on education. In response to emergency situations in the region - notably in the occupied Palestinian territory and in Syria - UNRWA has launched emergency appeals for assistance not covered by the regular budget. In 2019, UNRWA requires over US$ 277 million to respond to the emergency in Syria, and around US$ 138.5 million for emergency assistance in the West Bank and Gaza.

What is our financial situation?

In 2018, the USA decided to decrease its funding UNRWA and eventually stopped it completely in 2019. The result was a global show of solidarity with the Agency from governments, public and private institutions, as well as individual givers who came to the rescue of the Agency in support of over 5.4 million Palestine refugees in the Middle East.  

In 2019, UNRWA started with an overall shortfall of US$ 211 million over an overall US$1.2 billion budget. Thanks to the remarkable additional support of many traditional and emerging donors, UNRWA has raised additional contributions and was able to decrease the shortfall to US$ 120 million in late September 2019. UNRWA is now looking at other donors to help bridge the financial gap, which still poses a huge challenge to the Agency and puts at risk UNRWA operations across all fields.

Who are the largest donors for UNRWA?

In 2018, The European Union was the largest donor with a total contribution of over US$ 179 million, followed by Germany (over US$ 177 million). These contributions made up about 27 percent of the total contributions UNRWA received.

What are the main sources of UNRWA income?

Almost all funding comes from voluntary contributions, and mostly from donor states. The United Nations Secretariat finances over 158 international staff posts each year from its regular budget. UNESCO and WHO also currently fund 3 posts in the education and health programmes.

Who owns the land the camps are built on?

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.

Does UNRWA run the refugee camps?

No. UNRWA does not administer the camps but is responsible for running education, health, and relief and social services programmes, which are located inside and outside camps. The Agency is not responsible for security or law and order in the camps and has no police force or intelligence service. This responsibility has always remained with the relevant host and other authorities.