The unending temporary: United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) and the politics of humanitarian assistance to Palestinian refugee camps 1950-2012
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Refugee camps are normally intended to provide a temporary shelter for refugees. In the Palestinian case, after more than 60 years, 58 official refugee camps still exist. The longevity of encampment is related to the absence of a solution to the refugee problem created during the war over Palestine in 1948, and the establishment of the state of Israel. In this context the United Nations Relief and Works Agency in the Near East (UNRWA) was established in 1949 with a temporary humanitarian mandate to assist and rehabilitate the refugees. Tented camps were set up as an emergency response to the war. The camps have since developed, and often appear as overcrowded, densely built parts of urban areas. Camps, however, are contested and politicised sites. They have played an important role in Palestinian identity and politics, and for everyday life over four generations.
UNRWA’s practices and policies regarding the refugee camps and shelters have been given little attention in scholarly work. This thesis explores the use of long-term humanitarian assistance in a highly political context by studying UNRWA’s relation to the refugee camps over more than sixty years. The focus is on UNRWA and the role it has played through building, planning, rebuilding, rehabilitating and defining camps and shelters in the wake of wars, destruction and during times of relative calm. Main questions of inquiry are how UNRWA’s relation to the camps has changed over time, and how the notion of the camps’ temporariness has influenced UNRWA’s approaches to shelters and camps. What other factors shaped its practices? And what consequences – unintended and intended – can be identified from these practices?
The thesis is based on unique access to UNRWA’s own archives. It shows how UNRWA’s relation to the camps and shelters was pragmatic, constrained and ambivalent. Camps and shelters were built as temporary sites at low standards, but with an implicit and pragmatic potential for long-term existence. Such assistance in the absence of political solutions raises the dilemma of choosing between the provision of necessary, urgent and needed assistance, and laying the ground for semi-permanent solutions at low standards. UNRWA had to make difficult choices concerning its practices and policies towards the camps, and over time the assistance would largely be marginalised short term-relief. Further, the exploration of UNRWA’s relation to the camps shows that the agency has been both powerful and powerless. Due to a number of reasons, UNRWA both came to loose control of the camps, and consciously withdrew from the camps as they became increasingly politicised.
The first part of the thesis is mainly concerned with UNRWA, camps and shelters in the aftermath of the wars in 1948 and 1967. Unofficial camps and the establishment of some of UNRWA’s out-of-camp projects are also explored. The second part of the thesis explores UNRWA’s relation to the camps after they were all built, and under Israeli occupation on the West Bank, Jerusalem and in Gaza from around 1970 until 2012.
PublisherThe University of Bergen
- History 361