UNRWA chief seeks funding to avert financial collapse

Philippe Lazzarini says UN agency for Palestinian refugees unable to meet needs as financial crisis deepens.

A Palestinian health worker leaves a health center run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), at al-Fari'ah refugee camp, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank [File: Raneen Sawafta/Reuters]

The head of the United Nation’s aid agency for Palestinian refugees has warned that the organisation is in the “danger zone” and faces potential collapse.

Philippe Lazzarini, the commissioner-general for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), told Al Jazeera the agency is cannot maintain the services it provides to millions of refugees without additional funding.

“The funding for the organisation has not increased in nearly 10 years,” he said.

Lazzarini arrived in Qatar on Monday for a high-level meeting aimed at shoring up financial support for UNRWA, which provides education, healthcare and other vital services to some 5.7 million registered Palestinian refugees across the Middle East.

The agency’s mission is to help Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and the occupied territories of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip.

Lazzarini said that refugees have been turning to UNRWA as their “only lifeline” as their needs increased due to the multiple crises in the region

“UNRWA, being weakened because of the financial crisis, is unable to meet their expectations and hence you have more distress, despair, and anger,” he said, describing the atmosphere in some refugee camps as boiling over.

“There is a total mismatch between the expected delivery and demand being given to the agency, and the resources being made available,” he said.

Last month, Lazzarini said his organisation is facing an “existential” budget crisis, and appealed for urgent funding of $120m to keep essential education, healthcare and other services running.

Despite Qatar pledging $18m to the agency, and US President Joe Biden restoring $235m in aid to Palestinian refugees in April – reversing the decision of his predecessor Donald Trump, the situation remains dire.

The United Kingdom, the agency’s third-largest donor, has reduced its funding in 2021 from $57m to $28m.

“Over the last few years, what we did was a number of efficiency measures, which after that became posterity measures and started to impact on the quality of those services,” Lazzarini said.

“Today, we cannot go further without really impacting the services towards the Palestinian refugees and hence, raising the alarm bell.”

The commissioner-general said he was hoping for two outcomes from the top-level meeting being held in Doha on Tuesday.

“The first is to help the organisation, not to collapse it,” he said. “We have entered a danger zone. It is most important we keep our schools and health centres open, especially in the middle of a pandemic.”

He also said that as part of revising the way funding for UNRWA is organised, he will seek out more commitments from Gulf countries and other member states “in general, in order to have better visibility on where we are going”.

Later this month, Jordan, in cooperation with Sweden and UNRWA, will organise an international donors’ conference in Brussels to rally support for the agency, which has requested $800m in funding.

Ayman al-Safadi, Jordan’s foreign minister, praised his government’s role in supporting the refugee agency.

“I look forward to its participation on the 16th of this month in the conference that the kingdom will organise in cooperation with Sweden in order to mobilise financial and political support for the agency,” he said.

Meanwhile, UNRWA staff protested in Jordan’s capital of Amman on Monday, demanding workers’ rights and urging donor countries to support the agency.

It is a “message to the agency’s (UNRWA’s) management that they should not take away from the rights of the employee, whether in salary, bonus, or job security,” said Riyad Zygan, head of UNRWA Local Workers Union in Jordan.

Lazzarini had previously said it was not clear to agency officials if they would be able to continue in November and December.

“UNRWA is irreplaceable,” he told Al Jazeera, adding that no one has ever requested to be a refugee after 70 years.

“The minimum we owe to the Palestinian refugees is to continue to invest in their human development in the absence of durable peace in the region,” he said.

In this file photo from 2011, a Palestinian refugee student peers from behind a United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) school door at Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp in southern Lebanon [File: Ali Hashisho/Reuters]
Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies