UN Palestinian refugee chief warns lack of donors leading to operating difficulties

UNRWA chief Philippe Lazzarini says ‘if we are constantly struggling financially, we will become an unreliable partner for host countries, communities, refugees’

The Commissioner-General of UNRWA, Philippe Lazzarini, speaks during an interview with The Associated Press at the UN relief agency headquarters in Beirut, Lebanon, September 16, 2020. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)
The Commissioner-General of UNRWA, Philippe Lazzarini, speaks during an interview with The Associated Press at the UN relief agency headquarters in Beirut, Lebanon, September 16, 2020. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)

AMMAN, Jordan — The UN agency for Palestinian refugees warned on Thursday that it faced growing challenges in running its operations as donors were set to contribute less money this year.

UNRWA chief Philippe Lazzarini told The Associated Press in an interview that he plans to make a new appeal for donors after the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. He said that if “we are constantly struggling financially, we will become an unreliable partner for the host countries, the communities, for the refugees, but also for our 30,000 staff.”

UNRWA was founded in the wake of the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 to serve hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who fled or were forced from their homes. Today, their numbers have grown to some 5.9 million people, most in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, as well as neighboring countries in the Middle East. The agency provides social services, education and jobs to many.

The organization has long faced chronic budget shortfalls, which worsened dramatically in 2018 when former US president Donald Trump cut support to the agency. His administration branded UNRWA “irredeemably flawed,” siding with Israeli criticisms of the agency.

Israel disputes UNRWA’s policy of extending refugee status to the descendants of those who were expelled or who fled during the 1948 War of Independence, arguing that it is an anomaly in the UN’s treatment of refugees in general and that the agency should be closed.

It has also accused the agency of contributing to incitement against the Jewish state through its educational institutions and through support for violence by employees.

Lazzarini said the massive earthquake that devastated the region in early February, as well as an economic meltdown in Lebanon, have added to the plight of many Palestinian refugees.

Palestinians carry bags of flour and basic food products received as aid to poor families, at the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) distribution center, in the Rafah refugee camp, southern Gaza Strip, on January 22, 2023. (Said Khatib/AFP)

Although its epicenter was in neighboring Turkey, the earthquake caused damage to Palestinian refugee camps in northern Syria in the provinces of Aleppo and Latakia. According to UNRWA, at least 20 Palestinian refugees were killed in the quake.

“I have to say that the population I met has been deeply, deeply traumatized and terrorized by the earthquake,” Lazzarini said about refugee camps in northern Syria that he visited in late March during a trip to the war-torn country.

Earlier this year, UNRWA launched an appeal for $1.6 billion, of which about $850 million is for the core budget of the organization and about $750 million for an emergency appeal.

Lazzarini said that the emergency appeal has recently been complemented by an appeal for $16 million for the February earthquake that hit Syria and Turkey, killing more than 50,000 people, including over 6,000 in Syria alone.

Lazzarini said the situation in Lebanon, which is witnessing a historic economic crisis, “is extremely, extremely worrying.” Nearly 75% of Lebanon’s population now live in poverty as the Lebanese currency has lost more than 95% of its value, affecting living conditions of the country’s 6 million people, including 1 million Syrian refugees and tens of thousands of Palestinians.

“What you encounter in the camp is a lot of desperation, a lot of distress,” Lazzarini said of Lebanon’s 12 camps, adding that most of the youth that he met have only one dream which is to leave Lebanon.

Lazzarini said he does not have statistics on how many Palestinians have left Lebanon since the economic crisis began in late 2019, “but we have seen the tragedies over the last year, which also involve Palestinian refugees.”

A Palestinian worker unloads foodstuffs donated by the EU through the World Food Program and distributed by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) in the village of Arrabeh near Jenin Wednesday, Dec. 26, 2007. (AP Photo/Mohammed Ballas)

A crowded boat capsized on September 21 off the coast of Tartus, Syria, just over a day after departing Lebanon. At least 94 people were killed, including Palestinians who were seeking a better life in Europe.

“Anyone below the age of 30 talks about leaving the country,” Lazzarini said.

UNRWA aims to achieve youth empowerment and wants to give a sense of future prospects to hundreds of thousands of young Palestinians, many of whom are impacted by unemployment and other economic obstacles, Lazzarini said.

Speaking about the strike by UNRWA employees in the West Bank demanding higher salaries that started on March 4, Lazzarini said the move has impacted the work of the agency, with some 40,000 boys and girls being out of school and also “all our health centers are closed.”

He said that sanitation workers also are on strike and the trash and garbage is stockpiling in camps, “which is becoming also a health hazard.”

Lazzarini expressed hopes that the strike will end, saying that going on strike is a legitimate right of the UNRWA staff, but that many staff members do not necessarily agree with the strike and are willing to work.

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