UNRWA seeks to bridge funding gap but serious challenges remain
LONDON - The UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) is scrambling to sustain funding for Palestinian refugees after the United States announced it would cut all aid destined to the international body.
UNRWA Commissioner Pierre Kraehenbuehl said the agency needs more than $200 million this year despite pledges from donor countries to increase funding following the US cuts. Additional aid is expected from Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Japan, India and several European countries, including Britain and Spain.
The Trump administration branded UNRWA as an “irredeemably flawed operation” that is “endlessly and exponentially expanding community of entitled beneficiaries.” The United States, the largest donor to the agency, contributed $335 million in 2016. The deficit in funding is likely to threaten not only the livelihoods of Palestinian refugees but also the national security of some Arab states.
UNRWA provides education and health services to some 5 million refugees in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. It also provides employment to many of those people.
“Palestine refugees see an UNRWA education as a passport to dignity and if they lose that, they lose their future. If UNRWA services close down, the situation of a deeply marginalised community will get significantly worse,” UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness said.
UNRWA operates 66 schools in Lebanon, providing education to some 38,000 Palestinian students. The agency also addresses health concern of refugees there.
“We have 27 clinics that serve more than 160,000 people. We have 61,000 refugees living below the poverty line,” said Claudio Cordone, UNRWA director in Lebanon. “There isn’t an alternative to this provision of services to these people.”
Jordan hosts some 2.2 million Palestinian refugees, which amount to nearly half of the country’s total population.
Struggling to maintain public calm over its worsening economy, Jordan is seeking further international aid for the Syrian refugees it also hosts. A new hole in its budget could constitute a crisis.
“Disruption of UNRWA services will have extremely dangerous humanitarian, political and security implications for refugees and for the whole region,” Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi told Reuters.
“It will only consolidate an environment of despair that would ultimately create fertile grounds for further tension. Politically it will also further hurt the credibility of peacemaking efforts.”
Humanitarian as well as security concerns appear to be the reason why Britain announced additional $9 million in aid to UNRWA.
“We are deeply concerned about the devastating impact a shortage of funds for UNRWA could cause on those that rely on its services, as well as the consequences this could have for regional stability,” Alistair Burt, Britain’s minister of state for the Middle East and North Africa, said in a statement.
“UK aid support through UNRWA provides an essential humanitarian and stabilising force in the Middle East, educating hundreds of thousands of children every year and providing health care to some of the most vulnerable Palestinian refugees.”
The US move is widely seen as politically motivated, a bid to remove the refugee status of millions of Palestinians who wish to return to their home towns in what is today Israel.
Washington is attempting to “unilaterally take the Palestinian right of return off the (negotiations) table,” Hugh Lovatt, an Israeli and Palestinian affairs analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told Agence France-Presse, “but US actions are misguided, dangerous and won’t work… neither Lebanon nor Jordan can be expected to play along.”
Israel, which objects to the Palestinian right of return because it fears the move would cause the country to lose its Jewish majority, welcomed the US cuts to UNRWA. However, a senior Israeli army official in the occupied West Bank said there could be repercussions from the disruption of UNRWA’s work.
“We are concerned that if the schools aren’t funded, the youth will go out and carry out attacks,” the unidentified Israeli officer told the Jerusalem Post.