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The dichotomy between UNHCR and UNRWA - UN as a pawn?

UNRWA and UNHCR are two UN agencies in charge of dealing with different sets of refugees, with the former primarily focuses on Palestinian refugees, while the latter deals with all refugees around the world excluding Palestinian refugees. Interestingly enough, both agencies have different definitions of 'refugees'. While UNRWA actively works against the integration of Palestinian refugees in their home countries and treats the descendants of the immigrants as immigrants too; UNHCR seeks permanent solutions to the problems of refugees including resettlement and local integration. UNRWA also continues to treat internally displaced individuals as 'refugees', which UNHCR would treat as citizens of their country of residence.

Therefore, despite both operating under the umbrella of the United Nations, among the 5.4 million refugees identified by UNRWA, 4.4 million are not recognized as refugees as per UNHCR's standards. Therefore, while UNRWA's numbers have been inflating for as long as the refugee crisis has existed for Palestinians, the numbers for UNHCR have been deflating. It makes one wonder why two UN-led agencies have such stark differences in terms of their standards and their treatment of refugees..

The treatment of refugees within the same host country, Lebanon, has seen stark differences in terms of the agencies each has to deal with. Palestinian refugees in Lebanon have continually been the target of social exclusion through the discriminatory laws and regulations and socioeconomic conditions that they are subject to. UNHCR gives the 150,000 Syrians in Lebanon $175 a month per family for basic survival and needs. Whereas, UNRWA extends $10 for each Palestinian family member every three months. This translates into $3.33 per month per individual for Palestinians. The difference in the aid provided is huge, especially considering that both sets have to maintain a standard of living within the same country - Lebanon.

It makes one wonder why Palestinian refugees do not have the same set of rights as other refugees do under the office of the United Nations. Why is it that while UNHCR has resettled millions of refugees around the world, UNRWA operates in a way that ensures that the Palestinian refugee crisis is never solved. Why is it that the refugee status for Palestinians is hereditary and passed on for generations, while the same standards do not apply to other refugees? Perhaps the United Nations is a pawn of political interests at the end of the day, and perhaps the UNRWA is using the Palestinian's 'right of return' as a political tool to overcome Israel.

- Amna Amer


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Faizan Qureshi
Faizan Qureshi
Jul 07, 2022

Amna, the questions that you have left us with at the end of your blog are very thought provoking, perhaps Olivier Nay's article, “International Organizations and the Production of Hegemonic Knowledge”, expand on your argument in a different light, yet with the same shared grievances. These organizations such as United Nations and World Bank don’t work isolation, rather they participate in knowledge networks. Moreover, these organizations, have their own specific interests and they tend to make policy shifts and shape knowledge that better reflects their own preferences. Moreover sometimes these peacemaking organizations work with private actors, which are more problematic. As the journalist Naomi Klein coins this the term “disaster capitalism”, when markets utilize conflict occasions to enact neoliberal reforms…


Has no one ever questioned why the United Nations has two separate divisions? Have their been any attempts at integrating the two bodies in the past? Also, do you believe that this is a collective agenda or does it have more so to do with the differences in the way the two are governed and who has the decision making authority?

Replying to

To answer your question further, I believe it is a collective agenda,

A sneak into the past reminds us that the refugee situation for Palestinians came to be born because of a decision the UN itself took. I'm referring to the Resolution 181 and the recognition of Israel. The resolution stated that the UN had “full knowledge of the consequences.”

Here's another dichotomy. The UN then uses the ever-growing number of 5.3 million refugees as a way to apply pressure on Israel to allow Palestinians their own state. Which ideally wouldn't even have been a problem had it not been for the UN itself. Therefore, it is alarming and hypocritical of the UN to use a situation they themselves created…

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