Washington ends funding to UN’s Palestinian refugee programme

Concern over the agency’s future comes as European and Arab countries pledge to protect UNRWA.
Sunday 02/09/2018
Palestinian school girls walk past sacks of flour outside a UN compound at the Rafah refugee camp, on September 1. (AFP)
Palestinian school girls walk past sacks of flour outside a UN compound at the Rafah refugee camp, on September 1. (AFP)

TUNIS - The United States said it is cutting all funding to the main United Nations’ refugee programme.

The US State Department said in a statement August 31 that, in addition to inadequate “burden sharing” in supporting the work of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), “The United States will no longer commit further funding to this irredeemably flawed operation.”

An unidentified US official told the Washington Post that the funding cut was part of a wider move to dramatically reduce the number of people recognised as Palestinian refugees by the United Nations.

The organisation considers approximately 5 million people, including descendants of the hundreds of thousands displaced since the Nakba who were alive when the agency was established in December 1949, as refugees.

The US move has been interpreted by some as a less-than-subtle attempt by the Trump administration to dismiss one of the sticking points in any peace negotiation, the Palestinians’ right of return to homes they left or were forced from when the state of Israel was established.

US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, asked during a discussion August 27 at a Washington think-tank if the United States should “get the right of return off the table,” said: “I do agree with that … I absolutely think we have to look at right of return.”

UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness posted on Twitter: “We reject in the strongest possible terms the criticism that UNRWA’s schools, health centres and emergency assistance programs are ‘irredeemably flawed’.”

Concern over the agency’s future comes as European and Arab countries pledge to protect UNRWA, with Germany promising a significant increase in financial backing. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told Reuters: “The loss of this organisation could unleash an uncontrollable chain reaction.”

Maas cautioned that the added German funds would not be enough to cover a $217 million deficit left by the US withdrawal and urged the European Union and other states to work towards “a sustainable finance basis for the organisation.”

The United States has provided approximately one-third of the UNRWA’s $1.1 billion annual budget but earlier this year cut a scheduled payment of $130 million to $65 million, insisting that the UNWRA needed to make various unspecified reforms.

A spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas characterised the United States’ move as an “assault” against his people.

17