Written by: Kayed Ma’ari
Today, the refugee community is preoccupied with a new crisis between The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) and the Union of the Agency's workers. This crisis has preoccupied many parties, institutions, official and civil actors attempting to resolve the dispute between the two parties. This is done with the intent to preserve the rights of workers and ensure the provision of services to the refugee community.
For years, UNRWA has suffered from a financial deficit in its budget. This deficit was exacerbated in 2018 after Donald Trump, the former President of the United States, decided to stop the financial funding provided by the United States to UNRWA, which amounted to $350 million annually. His decision was then followed by a decision by the Arab Gulf states to halt aid that was worth $200 million. This decision came as a result of the Trump administration's efforts to eliminate the refugee file from the Palestinian-Israeli conflict agenda. This decision brought many humanitarian and economic repercussions for Palestinian refugees in all Palestinian camps.
This crisis was a turning point for several accumulated crises experienced by UNRWA in the last three decades. The agency has significantly reduced the services it provides to refugees and reduced its expenses. Additionally, Arab workers in UNRWA feel that this came at the cost of their rights through several procedures that became the main discussion points of the labour dispute between the Union of Arab Workers in the UNRWA and its management. Examples include ending the contracts of employees working on the daily and their contract system. The last strike came within the same context as employees demanded higher salaries due to higher living costs. This strike is now suspended after mediation by the agency's workers in the West Bank.
The conflicts of demands cannot be read in isolation from the crisis that UNRWA is experiencing, which is composed of two parts. The first is the existential threats experienced by the agency despite of the belief and acknowledgement of the trade union and the agency’s workers demanding their rights. The threats are especially related to the agency's political and historical missions. The United States and the successive Occupation governments made great efforts to destabilise the agency's status and distort its image in front of the international community. This was made under attractive slogans such as administrative and financial reforms and fighting corruption in the agency. On the other hand, the level of depleting the agency's resources, systematically undermining its services over time, liquidates its tools and interferes in reducing the suffering of Palestinian refugees in all Palestinian camps.
The UNRWA's situation does not in any way justify the denial of the claim and trade union rights of the agency's employees, both in terms of work environment and wages. However, the situation requires a new strategy that reserves the agency in light of the existential dangers that it is exposed to. This strategy needs to create a state of balance in dealing with the issues without doubling the erosion of the agency's ability to provide its services to the Palestinian refugees. This is especially the case when discussing vital services such as health, education and the environment. It is a national and humanitarian task to preserve the UNRWA as an inclusive institution and as preserver of the Palestinian narrative after the Nakba in 1948.
The Department of Refugee Affairs of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, the Ministry of Labour and the President’s Office did well in their mediation efforts that led to the suspension of the recent strike. These mediators were able to provide a platform to hold dialogues between the various parties and ensure the provision of services to Palestinian refugees, especially in light of the growing targeting of them by the Occupation, are happening in the Shuafat, Balata and Jenin Refugee camps.
However, to ensure the success of this initiative, it must be sustained. The partners’ base must be expanded to include vital community institutions inside the camps. This gives it a position in influencing, decision-making and creating an incubating and supportive environment that can, in the long term, prevent the development of conflicts. This is crucial because the conflicts affect Palestinian refugees and the services provided to them.
The bottom line is that dialogue is the only available means to address various issues. Avoiding using the proper mechanisms deepens the suffering of refugees and destabilises the agency's position at the social level. This serves the plans that aim to end the agency’s existence for purely political reasons that conflict with the acquired Palestinian national rights.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's views and not necessarily the Association's or donor's opinion.