Palestinian refugees strike against UN funding changes

In Jordan, volunteers at community organisations for Palestinians fear the funding crisis could presage bigger changes.

Palestinians protest UNRWA cutbacks
UNRWA's service reductions sparked protests in Jordan this summer [EPA]

Souf refugee camp, Jordan – Community-based organisations in Palestinian refugee camps across Jordan are outraged by recent funding changes made by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).

At the Souf refugee camp, where 20,000 Palestinians live, volunteers at the local women’s centre say its facilities have fallen into disrepair. They worry that the services the centre offers – including vocational training in cosmetics and hairdressing, legal advice, and childcare – could be under threat.

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Across Jordan’s 10 recognised Palestinian refugee camps, staff of community-based organisations (CBOs) like the women’s centre are on strike to protest against a reduction in the assistance they receive from UNRWA, the UN agency tasked with providing aid and services to Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories.

Volunteers like Nooha al-Qatami, an activist who manages the Souf women’s centre, fear that UNRWA wants to end, or at least scale back, its relationship with these organisations. She believes this would be a huge loss for the camps.

“This is the only place in the refugee camp where women and children can express themselves. There’s a nursery, a safe area for little kids, a place where girls can learn,” she told Al Jazeera. “Some women come here just to sit around, to breathe, to escape the home, to talk and chat.”

In the past, Qatami explained, the centre received some $4,000 annually in funding from UNRWA. But this amount has fallen recently, and in the past few months, the centre has received no money at all.

BLOG: UNRWA funding crisis worries Palestinian refugees

The drop in funding is tied to a recent change, made earlier this year, in how UNRWA distributes money to CBOs. Whereas, in the past, CBOs received guaranteed levels of funding from UNRWA, centres now need to submit project proposals for much of the money they receive. Volunteers complain that the new structure does not cover the core funding their centres need to survive.

This is the only place in the refugee camp where women and children can express themselves ... Some women come here just to sit around, to breathe, to escape the home, to talk and chat.

by Nooha al-Qatami, activist who manages the Souf women's centre

UNRWA says the changes were not made because of the UN agency’s ongoing funding crisis, noting the money for CBOs is available, albeit under a new funding structure. In other countries, UNRWA has signed agreements with CBOs establishing them as independent organisations. In Jordan, however, the ongoing dispute has complicated that process.

Here, CBOs receive funding from UNRWA, but are not part of the UN agency: They are not staffed by UNRWA employees, do not fly its flag, and are run by independent committees with an independent budget. In its strategy materials, UNRWA states that it aims to make the CBOs “self-reliant”. But many volunteers at the CBOs want stronger links with the UN agency instead.

“All we want is our rights from UNRWA and to keep them as our supporter,” Qatami told Al Jazeera from the centre’s cluttered offices in the Souf camp. Her colleagues, who serve on the all-female board that runs the centre, said they want to be hired by UNRWA as employees and to continue in a close and financially supportive relationship with the agency.

“A long time ago, the centres were given a lot of money, but not anymore,” said Al Ghazi Abdel Karim, a former treasurer at the Jabal al-Hussein and Zarqa camps. “Now there’s just no money. I speak to the women volunteers in the camps, and they don’t have enough money even for transport.”

But UNRWA does not have the financial resources to broaden its operations in Jordan’s camps, said spokesperson Chris Gunness. He said the agency is currently in the midst of “the most profound and severe financial crisis” in its 66-year history; with a deficit of more than $100m this summer, the agency struggled even to open its schools, which educate nearly 500,000 students, on time.

The crisis, Gunness explained, is down to the heightened needs facing the agency, which is responding to the rebuilding of Gaza and the Syrian refugee crisis, as well as the broader needs of Palestinian refugees.

In Jordan, UNRWA’s offices stressed that the money for the CBOs was available in its budgets within the proposal structure. “UNRWA has deep respect and high regard for the CBOs’ work,” public information officer Anwar Abu Sakieneh told Al Jazeera. “It has supported the CBOs in the past and looks forward to continuing the relationship in the same spirit and in the best interest of Palestinian refugees.”


Gunness also stressed that UNRWA remained loyal to its political and humanitarian responsibilities. “There is no suggestion that our mandate should be downsized,” he said.

INTERACTIVE: Palestine Remix

Among Palestinians in Jordan, the question of money is just one worry among larger concerns. For the female volunteers at the Souf women’s centre, belonging to UNRWA is an important part of the identity of refugees who aspire to return to Palestine; it signifies they are part of a wider community of Palestinian refugees who are aware of, and fighting for, their rights.

Volunteers at the camp’s rehabilitation centre for disabled children say they will continue their work regardless of money. More important than funding, they say, is staying under the “umbrella” of UNRWA and continuing their association – albeit informal – with the institution.

“As a Palestinian refugee population, the only thing we want is for UNRWA to recognise us 100 percent. We live in a refugee camp. We are registered refugees,” said Laila Attaia, the treasurer of the Souf women’s centre. “If this centre doesn’t exist, the connection will be lost between this camp and the outside world. We are refugees; we need to communicate. The centre is our only way of expressing our needs.”

Source: Al Jazeera