Palestinian refugee agency scrambles for funds after US cut

Arab and EU states expected to increase donations to UNRWA, as $185m required to keep agency running until end of 2018.

Palestinian schoolgirls take part in a rally against a U.S. decision to cut funding to UNRWA and in support of president Mahmoud Abbas, in Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank
Palestinian schoolgirls take part in a rally in the occupied West Bank against the US decision to cut UNRWA funding [Mussa Qawasma/Reuters]

New York, United States – The UN Palestinian refugee agency has welcomed the “huge solidarity” shown by several countries as the humanitarian organisation seeks to rapidly plug the hole left by the US, which pulled its financial support in August.

Several major donors, including Arab and European Union (EU) states, are expected to announce an increase in their contributions to the UN’s Relief and Work Agency (UNRWA) at a meeting on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly on Thursday in an attempt to fill the $300m gap left by its biggest contributor.

UNRWA has raised some additional funds from other contributors in recent weeks but the agency’s Commissioner-General Pierre Krahenbuhl told Al Jazeera that raising the $185m required to keep operating until the end of 2018 is a “very uphill struggle”.

“The size of the cut was very, very significant from the US and therefore we are certainly not out of the woods by any stretch of the imagination,” said Krahenbuhl.

The agency was established in 1949 to provide relief and assistance to the 700,000 Palestinians who were expelled or fled from their homeland a year earlier, as well as their descendants.

It currently supports five million people in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank, Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip.

Financial crisis

A total of 677 schools and 143 health facilities, along with tens of thousands of jobs are at risk as the agency battles to survive its worst ever financial crisis, with only enough money in the bank to operate until mid-October.

“We managed to open our schools on time in August and September for half a million students which was very good news,” said Krahenbuhl.

“Now we need to keep them open, keep our clinics open and keep the other services running, so that requires a lot of work.”

More than 100 agency staff have been laid off and hundreds more roles have been reduced to part-time positions, while deep pay cuts have been introduced in response to the Trump administration’s unilateral decision.

These jobs are a lifeline in areas where unemployment rates can reach 40 percent and a loss of earnings could have devastating ripple effects on families and whole communities, Krahenbuhl warned.

Loans towards development projects have also been suspended and the provision of mental health services downgraded.

“In Gaza, where those needs are very severe and very significant, it is wrong to have to reduce in this way because the needs have not gone away,” said Krahenbuhl, referring to the dramatic rise in anxiety, depression and suicide in the besieged territory as residents struggle to cope with the severe restrictions imposed by the 11-year Israeli blockade.

On Wednesday, thousands of Palestinian school children from refugee camps across the occupied West Bank went on strike, protesting the US cuts.

We should not have political disputes settled through cutting humanitarian finding.

by UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krahenbuhl

Krahenbuhl reiterated the fundamental right for Palestinians to return to their homelands, established under UN Resolution 194.

US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley has disputed UNRWA’s estimates of the number of Palestinian refugees and criticised the claim that the right of return must be a fundamental requirement of any peace settlement between Israel and Palestine.

“You can be certain everyone is advocating the right to return of the Rohingya, just as people will advocate for the right of return for Afghan refugees or Syrian refugees,” Krahenbuhl said.

“Why would it be that the only community on the planet that doesn’t have a right of return would be the Palestinians? That wouldn’t make any sense.”

Krahenbuhl said the politically motivated withdrawal of support by the US is a matter of great regret.

“We should not have political disputes settled through cutting humanitarian funding.”

He also dismissed suggestions that UNRWA was in any way responsible for the political situation in which Palestinian refugees find themselves, a common barb from its critics in the US and Israel.

“The absence of a political resolution of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is what has perpetuated their refugee status, not the work of UNRWA.

“Politicians should look more into addressing the root causes of this conflict.”

Source: Al Jazeera