UN agency for Palestinians to slash salaries as funds run dry

UNRWA says it needs to raise $70m by the end of the month or it will not be able to pay salaries of 28,000 employees.

A Palestinian demonstrator holds a United Nations flag during a rally against a US decision to cut funding to the UNRWA and in the occupied West Bank [File: Mussa Qawasma/Reuters]

The United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees said on Monday it needs to raise $70m by the end of the month or it will not be able to pay the full salaries of thousands of employees through the end of the year.

The UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) said it notified its entire workforce of 28,000 people that it will be forced to defer their salaries for the rest of the year. The agency said most of the workers affected are refugees themselves and the cuts will affect employees in countries across the Middle East.

“If additional funding is not pledged in the next weeks, UNRWA will be forced to defer partial salaries to all staff,” said the agency’s commissioner general, Philippe Lazzarini.

“I am deeply saddened to know that the earned salaries of our fearless, resilient social, sanitation and healthcare workers on the front lines and our teachers working to ensure students’ education continue during this emergency health crisis are at risk.”

The agency said in a statement its funding ran out on Monday and the cuts would be “major”. Tamara Alrifai, a spokeswoman, said it was not immediately known how severe the cuts would be.

Alrifai said 2019 shortfalls were filled by additional support from several Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait.

Both the European Union and individual European states, notably Germany, also helped close the gap, she said.

Financial support ‘waned’

This year, “financial support waned”, Alrifai added, noting the coronavirus pandemic “didn’t help” as key donors faced increased domestic financial pressures.

The UNRWA was established to aid the 700,000 Palestinians who fled or were forced from their homes during the war surrounding Israel’s establishment in 1948.

It provides education, healthcare, food and other assistance to some 5.5 million refugees and their descendants in the occupied West Bank and the besieged Gaza Strip, as well as Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. Alrifai said those services would not be affected by the cash crunch.

The funding shortfall affects 28,000 staffers, spread across these countries, and only those whose work is covered by special emergency budgets could be spared, Alrifai said.

The agency’s finances have been ravaged by a decision by the Trump administration to slash hundreds of millions of dollars of aid as well as a crisis in confidence after its previous commissioner general was accused of abusing his authority.

US President-elect Joe Biden has said he plans on restoring aid to the Palestinians.

Alrifai said although the agency was hopeful Biden’s election might lead to a resumption of funding from the US, the current crisis required an immediate response.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies