Palestinian refugees wary of UNRWA’s future
Beirut - It was set up 66 years ago as a temporary agency to meet the needs of Palestinians who were displaced from their homes upon the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 and grew in the wake of the 1967 six-day war in which Israel seized more Palestinian territory.
The UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) is still providing core services, including health and education, for Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, the West Bank and Gaza, amid financial strains that many Palestinians fear would pave the way for a reduction of services and the eventual termination of the agency.
In 2015, UNRWA experienced its worst financial crisis with a budget deficit of $101 million that jeopardised education for hundreds of thousands of Palestinians. The school year was saved at the last moment when donors chipped in extra funds. However, this raised alarms among Palestinians and questions about UNRWA’s future.
The agency’s director in Lebanon, Matthias Schmale, acknowledged that UNRWA has a sustainability problem arising mainly from increasing costs that are not matched in the budget. “Our income has remained fairly stable but our needs are much bigger than our income,” Schmale said.
Inflation, salary increases and the natural demographic growth of the Palestinian population were the main reasons for budget inflation, Schmale said. “The services we provide are normally provided by governments but, unlike governments, we do not have tax money to finance them,” he said.
With an annual budget of $680 million, UNRWA runs hundreds of schools and clinics in the five contexts of its operations, including 67 schools and 27 health care centres in Lebanon. But Lebanon’s budget share of $100 million came under further pressure with the influx of 42,000 Palestinian refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria.
The newcomers were incorporated in the core services provided by UNRWA, Schmale said, but budget constraints meant that cash assistance for food and shelter that they initially received was severed.
Palestinian refugees from northern Lebanon’s Nahr el-Bared camp also bore the brunt of UNRWA’s budget limitations. Some 2,500 families, who have not returned to the camp after it was destroyed in a five-month war between the Lebanese Army and Islamic militants in 2007, lost food and rent allowances as well.
Another service that will have to adapt to budget realities is health. While primary care continues to be covered by UNRWA clinics, secondary and tertiary care involving surgeries and chronic diseases will be mainly referred to cheaper, though lesser quality, hospitals run by the Palestine Red Crescent Society and government hospitals. Private care will be a last resort.
Nonetheless, Schmale denies Palestinian recriminations that UNRWA is cutting down essential assistance. “We are trying to redistribute our services,” he said. “There has been no cut in core services… so far.”
Palestinian refugees are wary that UNRWA’s services will dwindle in coming years until the agency ceases to exist. Citing cancellation of contracts for UNRWA teachers and shifting tasks usually undertaken by the agency to other UN bodies, Palestinian activist Suhail Natour warned that “there is an approach towards eliminating UNRWA”.
He said teachers for Palestinian students from Syria were contracted by the UN Development Programme (UNDP), instead of UNRWA in a “serious precedent indicating that there is an attempt to dispense with UNRWA’s services”.
“First you dwarf UNRWA, then you say we have financial problems and then you have other agencies slowly taking over UNRWA’s tasks,” Natour said.
He rejected claims that UNRWA did not reduce its core services, stressing that shelter and food for refugees from Syria and the displaced of Nahr el-Bared camp is “an essential and core service from which they have been deprived”.
Failure to match UNRWA’s budget with refugees’ needs is “a political issue”, according to Natour. “Some donors thought that with time the Palestinians would be integrated in host countries and would eventually do without UNRWA’s help but the Palestinians are attached to UNRWA as a symbol of the responsibility of the international community towards them and their Palestine cause,” he said.
Sabah Kenaan, her husband and six children have been waiting for eight years to return to Nahr el- Bared. They are among the unlucky 40% whose houses are yet to be rebuilt.
“UNRWA has put a lot of pressures on us by stopping the rent allowance,” Kenaan said. “My neighbour returned to the camp more than a year ago; only our sector is not rebuilt yet. Instead of alleviating our suffering, UNRWA added to it.”
While an estimated 450,000 Palestinian refugees are registered with UNRWA in Lebanon, only 270,000 use the agency’s services, as scores had migrated to other countries and many no longer use UNRWA.
The budget is built on the actual number of beneficiaries but the lists of registered refugees remain untouched to ensure the “right to return”, Schmale said. “If there will be a Palestine state one day, all those registered will be citizens of that state,” he said.
According to Natour, Western donors have refused to increase their shares in UNRWA’s budget to pressure Arab states to chip in, violating a common Arab policy that says: “Those who caused the Palestinian problem should bear responsibility for their action.”
For Schmale, donors have started showing signs of “fatigue” in a long-protracted conflict. “If they (Western donors) don’t have the money, then let them solve the (Palestinian) problem,” he added.