Jordan seeks support for UNRWA in face of US pressure

In addition to humanitarian implications of the US cuts, Washington’s bid to strip Palestinians of their refugee status could undermine Jordan’s stability.
Sunday 02/06/2019
Dire conditions. A Palestinian man walks in Baqa’a refugee camp in northern Jordan. (AP)
Dire conditions. A Palestinian man walks in Baqa’a refugee camp in northern Jordan. (AP)

LONDON - Jordanian officials are seeking political and financial support for the UN agency responsible for Palestinian refugees after efforts by the United States to dismantle the international organisation.

Jordan, which hosts some 2.2 million registered Palestinian refugees, sees the work of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) as vital to maintain stability in the country. In addition, the topic of Palestinian refugees is very sensitive in Jordan because many Jordanians are themselves of Palestinian origin.

In 2018, the Trump administration reduced the United States’ annual contribution to UNRWA from $360 million to $60 million. In 2018, the United States stopped giving funds to the UN agency.

Washington has repeatedly called for the dismantling of UNRWA. In an address, May 22 to the UN Security Council, White House adviser Jason Greenblatt said: “The UNRWA model has failed the Palestinian people.” He accused the agency of perpetuating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Kraehenbuehl hit back at Greenblatt’s remarks, saying the organisation’s mandate is a matter for the entire UN General Assembly to consider, not “one or two individual member states.”

Greenblatt called on Palestinians to attend a US-organised conference scheduled for June 25-26 in Bahrain. The conference has the “potential to unlock a prosperous future for the Palestinians,” said Greenblatt.

Palestinian officials rejected attending the Manama conference but Jordan has yet to make it officially clear if it was going to participate. UNRWA is hosting a donor conference the same day.

UNRWA, whose funds are expected to run short in June, is examining new funding models and appealed for more aid.

A vote on renewing the UNRWA mission is to take place this year in the General Assembly. The United States is unlikely to secure enough votes to end the UNRWA mission but its cancellation of aid has hurt UNRWA’s work in a number of countries, including Jordan.

Amman, a traditional US ally, has looked towards Europe for support on UNRWA.

Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi met with Swedish Foreign Ministry Deputy Director-General Anna Hammargren on May 27 to address “joint efforts between Jordan and Sweden in cooperation with the international community to raise political and financial support for the UNRWA,” the Jordan Times reported.

The two countries said they are working to narrow UNRWA’s deficit of around $200 million in 2019. Sweden has donated $200 million to the agency over the past four years.

A day earlier, Safadi met with British Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Department for International Development Andrew Murrison in Amman, to discuss the continuation of Britain’s support for UNRWA.

Safadi met with German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas on May 23 and stressed “the importance of continued financial and political support” to UNRWA.

Jordanian commentators expressed criticism of US policies towards the Palestinians, including defunding of UNRWA, the proposed peace plan that is commonly referred to as the “Deal of the Century” as well as the Manama conference.

“On the whole, Jordanians suspect that the workshop will pave the way for implementing the ill-advised ‘Deal of the Century.’ Jordan has made it perfectly clear that short of reaching a two-state solution, the country’s national security would be threatened,” wrote Hassan A. Barari in an opinion article in the Jordan Times. “Some observers argue that Jordan should attend but for Jordan, there is a much more important issue. If it accepts to attend the workshop, the credibility of the government will go down.”

US presidential adviser Jared Kushner visited Jordan May 29 to convince Amman to attend the conference in Bahrain. It was unclear whether Jordan would yield to US pressure.

What is certain, however, is that UNRWA camps — as well as health and education services — have taken a hit following the US cuts.

“Jerash camp has 30,000 inhabitants and of the 43 workers collecting rubbish keeping the streets clean only ten remain after the cuts. The smell of rotting rubbish everywhere is encouraging rats and the camp air is thick with flies forcing many of its residents to start burning rubbish in their streets and alleyways,” the Independent reported.

“Class sizes [in schools in Baqa’a camp] have swollen and the remaining staff are often now on temporary contracts, unemployed during school holidays and not knowing if they will be rehired afterwards,” reported Asia Times.

UNRWA is where most Palestinian refugees received health support. “There are 1,200 women receiving family planning care, 700 receiving prenatal care and 3,500 children ages newborn to 5 [in Jerash camp],” reported  Alice Rothchild in the website Mondoweiss.

In addition to humanitarian implications of the US cuts, Washington’s bid to strip Palestinians of their refugee status could undermine Jordan’s stability, observers noted.

“If the Trump administration seeks to strip Palestinian refugees of their status, it will destabilise one of America’s closest allies in the region,” wrote Khalil E. Jahshan in Foreign Policy last October. “Having survived many existential challenges since 1946, Jordan’s monarchy is not willing to commit national suicide just to please Washington.”