UNRWA – the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East – was established by the UN General Assembly in 1949 and became operational in 1950. In the aftermath of the 1948 war, it was entrusted with the task of providing relief services to Palestinian refugees who had fled their homes in the areas of Palestine which had become part of the new Israeli state.
The legal basis for the creation of a specialised UN agency for Palestinians lay in Resolutions 194 and 302 (IV). It was tasked to undertake “works” projects that would improve the refugees’ economic conditions until a peace settlement could resolve their status, and to cooperate with neighbouring states hosting Palestinian refugees. While UNRWA was established on a temporary basis to deal with the immediate refugee crisis, as the conflict between Israel, the Palestinians and the Arab states persisted, the refugees have remained and so has the agency.
After more than seventy years of existence, the agency is still operating and embodies, in the words of Professor Benjamin Schiff, “a unique international commitment: no other group has an international organisation dedicated purely to its welfare.” Nevertheless, the mandate continues to be a short-term one. Given the inability of the UN to implement the 194 resolution, which calls for the return of and compensation for the Palestinian refugees, its mandate is renewed by the UN General Assembly every three years, most recently in December 2019.
Today UNRWA is the largest agency of the UN system. Currently, it administers 59 refugee camps and employs over 30,000 people, the majority of whom are Palestinian refugees. UNRWA does not run the camps itself but it provides services to them. In addition to emergency relief, it provides basic health, education, and social services, and legal protection for nearly 6 million Palestinian refugees, or about three-quarters of the entire Palestinian Refugee population, residing in the five areas of the Agency’s operation: The Gaza Strip, West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria.