Apparently the summer constitutes the silly season for the refugee issue too. Case in point: the Great UNRWA Logo Conspiracy.
For those who haven’t been following, for years UNRWA—the United Nations Relief and Works Agency—used to use an old-fashioned UN logo. They often didn’t bother to write out the “Relief and Works Agency,” presumably because 1) it was long and awkward, and 2) it was a legacy of its creation as a short-term humanitarian aid agency in the 1950s, and 3) it really doesn’t describe what UNRWA does these days (which is relief and social service provision, not relief and “works”).
In 2009, as the Agency started to mark its 60th anniversary, it started using a more trendy logo in many of its public relations materials and on its website. This incorporated the UNRWA-at-60 theme, as well as the Arabized transliteration of the UNRWA “noun” (al-Unrwa).
Still more recently, the Agency has retained that trendier font and presentation, but added the catch phrase “the UN agency for Palestine refugees.” It has done so, I suspect, to differentiate itself from the better known United Nations High Commission for Refugees, and because—frankly—lots of people who don’t work on Palestinian issues don’t know what UNRWA really is or does. Certainly the new presentation of the logo fits in well with the Agency’s efforts to “brand” itself and fund-raise in a more effective, modern way.
The Palestinian issue being what it is, however, some have seen the font and slogan changes as evidence of a nefarious international conspiracy. In Gaza, members of (one of the) refugee “popular committees” held a protest. According to one report:
According to the Popular Committee for Refugees in Gaza the change of the name is part of the UN plan to evade its duties and responsibilities toward Palestinian refugees all over the world.
Mo’ien Okaal, head of the popular committee for Palestinian refugees based in Gaza, “The change of UNRWA’s title is considered a very dangerous indication that could be explained due to the presence of a plan against Palestinian refugees especially after the latest statements by Netanyahu in which he offered to settle the Palestinian refugees outside of Palestine, something that provoked Palestinian refugees in and outside the occupied territories.”
Okaal explained that for the past 63 years, UNRWA was responsible for relief and works efforts toward Palestinian refugees; changing the name means that the organization is trying to evade some of its responsibilities.
Hamas’s refugees’ affairs department also denounced UNRWA’s alleged name change, accusing the agency of conspiring against the rights of Palestinian refugees.
UNRWA officially changed its name and logo from the United Nations Agency for Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees to the UN Agency for Palestinian Refugees, as appears on the agency’s website.
Hamas further accused UNRWA, calling its recent conflicting statements on a budget deficit an attempt to justify the decline in services it has been providing to refugees. It said the name change signals that the agency would make radical changes in its tasks as an international institution.
UNRWA does not have the right to dissolve itself or amend its tasks based on UN resolution no. 302 issued by the General Assembly in 1949, the statement adds.
The statement calls on Palestinian forces to address the UNRWA conspiracy and also calls on the UN to address the name change decision.
In a statement, the committee called on UNRWA to clarify its position on the matter and to work seriously to reconstruct what Israel destroyed in its last war on Gaza and to improve its services to refugees.
The statement also says that the committee has begun talks with UNRWA officials, but they have not offered a convincing argument to why the words “relief works” have been omitted from the title. But the committee has asserted that the change would pave the way for relinquishing some of its commitments towards the refugees.
Of course a cynic might suggest that Hamas, angered at the success of UNRWA’s annual summer camps and its implicit status as a rival service provider, is simply looking for issues (whether real or invented) with which to criticize the UN agency.
In Lebanon, there were also protests. There, however, they form part of a larger campaign of criticism, much of it focused on problems of access to tertiary health care and other issues of service provision by the Agency. The result has been an increasingly toxic political environment, fanned by some local Palestinian leaders. Last month, for example (emphasis added):
Palestinian refugees in south Lebanon staged a sit-in at which they set the U.N. flag alight Wednesday in protest at what they say are corrupt practices at UNRWA.
Hundreds of Palestinian protestors staged a sit-in at the entrance to Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp near the southern port city of Tyre, accusing the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) of “involvement in projects targeting refugees in Lebanon.”
The demonstrators blocked Ain al-Hilweh’s main road with burning tires and dumpsters.
They waved banners that read: “No to UNRWA’s corrupt policy,” and “No to UNRWA’s conspiratorial policies.” Another placard said: “People want medical care and medication.”
A statement issued by the protesters accused UNRWA and the head of the U.N. organization in Lebanon of “being transformed into a ‘black operations room’ to run a suspicious project and to implement international schemes targeting refugees in Lebanon.”
The military commander in Ain al-Hilweh, Munir Maqdah, who was monitoring the sit-in from his base, also accused UNRWA of bringing 43 “foreign” staff to Lebanon “with a mission that does not serve the Palestinian people.”
This week, protesters also forced a suspension of summer UNRWA summer youth camps in Lebanon:
Summer camps for Palestinian refugee children were shut down Sunday over fears that the program, which receives funds from the United States, was designed to “erase the Palestinian memory.”
Palestinian popular committees closed summer camp centers in Ain al-Hilweh camp, arguing that the summer recreational activities were suspicious, as they received funds from the U.S. Agency for International Development. According to the committees, USAID is conspiring with UNRWA to erase the children’s memory of Palestine under the banner of the child’s “right to play.”
One can certainly understand the frustrations of refugees at their unresolved plight, and in particular the frustrations of refugees in Gaza and Lebanon given their adverse political, social and economic conditions. It is wholly appropriate, of course, for refugees to raise questions about how UNRWA allocates its spending, or the efficacy and purposes of its programs. Some conspiracy theories are to be expected too.
That being said, 1) UNRWA hasn’t changed its name, 2) tweaks in the UNRWA logo are intended solely for the purpose of more effectively branding the Agency (and thereby sustaining its operations through fund-raising), 3) if refugees want more services, they would do better to direct their advocacy towards donor countries, explaining why UNRWA ought to rank as a higher priority; and 4) it is a lamentable and dangerous political game to be accusing UNRWA staff of personal involvement in evil conspiracies. At the very least, it inhibits the effectiveness of the Agency, and hampers service provision. At worst, it puts hard-working people at personal risk.
The Ma’an News Agency updates the story with an UNRWA denial:
UNRWA: Name has not changed07/07/2011GAZA CITY (Ma’an) — An UNRWA spokesperson said Thursday that the Palestinian refugee agency has not changed its name, after reports of a new title sparked protests in Gaza on Tuesday.Adnan Abu Hasnah said the only change was a logo update which actually added the term UNRWA, in English and Arabic, to the image.
The organization’s 60th anniversary, Hasnah said, and attracting donors and other partners was behind the update.
But the no word in the title had been changed, he said.
Reports that the United Nations Relief and Works Agency was considering changing its name to the United Nations Agency for Palestinian Refugees, had led to fears that services to Palestinian refugees could be affected, and a sit-in in front of Gaza UNRWA offices on Tuesday.
But Hasnah noted that the mandate of UNRWA was determined in 1949 and cannot be changed without a resolution of the UN General Assembly.