- During a press briefing on 16 January 2018, the U.S. Department of State announced that it was withholding $65 million in a first $125 million tranche of 2018 funding to UNRWA, pending some unspecified “reforms” the U.S. administration would like to see implemented. [The UNRWA Commissioner-General has stated that, at no point from the time of that announcement was the Agency informed as to the specific reforms sought by the US.]
- Subsequently, On 31 August 2018, the spokesperson of the U.S. Department of State announced that the United States would not make additional contributions beyond the $60 million contribution it made in January:
“The Administration has carefully reviewed the issue and determined that the United States will not make additional contributions to UNRWA. When we made a US contribution of $60 million in January, we made it clear that the United States was no longer willing to shoulder the very disproportionate share of the burden of UNRWA’s costs that we had assumed for many years. Several countries, including Jordan, Egypt, Sweden, Qatar, and the UAE have shown leadership in addressing this problem, but the overall international response has not been sufficient.
Beyond the budget gap itself and failure to mobilize adequate and appropriate burden sharing, the fundamental business model and fiscal practices that have marked UNRWA for years—tied to UNRWA’s endlessly and exponentially expanding community of entitled beneficiaries—is simply unsustainable and has been in crisis mode for many years. The United States will no longer commit further funding to this irredeemably flawed operation. We are very mindful of and deeply concerned regarding the impact upon innocent Palestinians, especially school children, of the failure of UNRWA and key members of the regional and international donor community to reform and reset the UNRWA way of doing business. These children are part of the future of the Middle East. Palestinians, wherever they live, deserve better than an endlessly crisis-driven service provision model. They deserve to be able to plan for the future.
Accordingly, the United States will intensify dialogue with the United Nations, host governments, and international stakeholders about new models and new approaches, which may include direct bilateral assistance from the United States and other partners, that can provide today’s Palestine children with a more durable and dependable path towards a brighter tomorrow.”
- Meanwhile a number of other relevant and revealing statements by U.S. officials have either been publicly circulated or leaked. For example, in internal emails leaked to Foreign Policy magazine, Jared Kushner, senior advisor to U.S. President Donald Trump, advocated for a “sincere effort to disrupt” UNRWA. “This [agency] perpetuates a status quo, is corrupt, inefficient and doesn’t help peace,” he wrote. According to the same report, Kushner also pressed Jordan, during a visit to the region in June 2018, to strip its more than two million UNRWA-registered Palestinians of their refugee status so that the Agency could no longer operate there. The same report also quoted an email from Victoria Coates, a senior adviser to Jason Greenblatt, Special Representative for International Negotiations: “UNRWA should come up with a plan to unwind itself and become part of the UNHCR by the time its charter comes up again in 2019.”
- On 17 August 2018, President Trump’s lawyer Jay Sekulow, in a response to another Foreign Policyarticle about Palestine refugees, claimed that UNRWA had changed its definition of a “Palestine refugee” in 1965 to include third-generation descendants and again in 1982 “to include all descendants of Palestine refugee males, including legally adopted children, regardless of whether they had been granted citizenship elsewhere.” According to Sekulow, “[t]his classification process is inconsistent with how all other refugees in the world are classified, including the definition used by the UNHCR and the laws concerning refugees in the United States.” Sekulow asserts that although UNHCR also applies the principle of “family unity,” it does so differently from UNRWA:
“The 1951 refugee convention has a lengthy definition of refugee that is personal: A refugee is a person who ‘owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.’ In registering refugees on this basis, the UNHCR interprets the convention as requiring ‘family unity,’ and it implements the principle by extending benefits to a refugee’s accompanying family, calling such people ‘derivative refugees.’ Derivative refugees do not have refugee status on their own; it depends on the principal refugee. UNRWA’s definition is also personal: Palestine refugees are ‘persons 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,’ but it also registers ‘descendants of Palestine refugee males, including adopted children.’ The status for descendants is not dependent upon accompanying the principal refugee. Here is where the sleight of hand comes in: Of course it is possible for there to be multiple generations of refugees, if the multiple generations all fit the primary 1951 definition of a refugee. For example, if the granddaughter of a refugee is also outside the country of her nationality due to a well-founded fear of being persecuted, she too is a primary refugee. But she is not a refugee due to descent, because there is no provision for refugee status based on descent in the 1951 refugee convention or in internationally accepted practices for refugees who are not Palestine refugees.”
- Sekulow also takes aim at the Palestine refugees in Jordan: “many of the UNRWA ‘refugees’ are not actually refugees at all under the standard international definition of that term. For example, of the 2 million Palestine refugees in Jordan, most have been granted Jordanian citizenship.”
- Also with respect to the approach to durable solutions, Sekulow sees a difference between the two agencies, alleging: “UNRWA, moreover, is the only refugee agency in the world whose purpose is not to resettle refugees and help them go on with their lives. UNRWA spends more to do less, while perpetuating a problem it was created to help solve. This situation, which does little to advance the interests of actual refugees and much to expand a bloated UNRWA bureaucracy, needs to be addressed.”
- Meanwhile the pressure to reconsider (or end) the refugee status of the majority of Palestine refugees is also gaining traction in congress. In July 2018, Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-CO) introduced a billthat would limit the United States to assisting only the “original refugees.” Similarly, Sen. James Lankford, (R-OK) has drafted legislation that would redirect U.S. funding away from UNRWA and towards other local and international agencies.
-  Heather Nauert, “On U.S. Assistance to UNRWA,” 31 August 2018, https://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2018/08/285648.htm.