At the end of 2013 came a shocking update from Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus – at least 15 Palestinians had died of hunger since September. The grim news was shared by the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), whose spokesperson Chris Gunness told French news agency AFP that the conditions in the besieged camp were deteriorating. UNRWA, he said, “have been unable to enter the area to deliver desperately needed relief supplies” since September.
Meanwhile, in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, anger at job cuts and budgetary problems has manifested itself in the form of industrial action, hunger strikes and marches by refugee camp popular committees.
These are reminders of both the challenges faced by UNRWA the beginning of a new year, as well as of the role it still plays in providing for the needs of Palestinians and their descendents ethnically cleansed from their homeland by Israel. Soon to arrive is a new Commissioner-General, Pierre Krähenbühl (currently Director of Operations at the International Committee of the Red Cross), who will take over from Filippo Grandi at a time of crisis for the 65-year old agency.
UNRWA was established in 1949 by the UN General Assembly, and is mandated “to provide assistance and protection” to registered Palestinian refugees. Its field of operations is Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, West Bank and Gaza Strip, where services include “education, health care, relief and social services, camp infrastructure and improvement, and microfinance”.
Three significant challenges face the agency. The first, and most critical, is that of funding. As chief of UNRWA’s donor relations division Esther Kuisch-Laroche told Indonesian media in December, the agency is experiencing an “urgent finance shortfall” to simply cover staff salaries. Weeks before, UNRWA’s Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs Jeffrey Feltman warned the UN Security Council that the agency would “be unable to adequately fund its core services – especially in education, health and poverty mitigation”.
At a recent meeting of the Ad Hoc Committee for Voluntary Contributions to UNRWA in New York, Deputy Commissioner-General Margot Ellis explained that only 42% of an appeal for emergency support in the West Bank and Gaza had been funded, and only 50% of its funding needs inside Syria had been met. Looking ahead, a 10% shortfall for the 2014 budget of $687 million is anticipated, Ellis said.
Speaking to me about the funding crisis, UNRWA spokesperson Chris Gunness said the agency begins 2014 with a $65 million deficit in the core budget, putting “essential services in health, education, relief and social services…under threat”. Gunness said that UNRWA “constantly” tells donors how “it is better to bring effective pressure on the parties to resolve the root causes of these emergencies rather than pay UNRWA to mitigate their consequences”.
Isn’t it obvious that the way forward is to end the blockade of Gaza and free over a million people from the indignity of aid dependency, rather than pay aid agencies to deal with the consequences of collective punishment? And beyond that, it is equally obvious that the political plight of some five million refugees needs to be addressed in a durable solution which is more than six decades overdue. It is an affront to the humanity of all that so many people have been deprived of human dignity because of their continuing dispossession, statelessness and exile.
Some have stepped in to try and address the shortfall. At the end of 2013, the European Union announced a new contribution of €16 million, bringing the EU’s total support for UNRWA in 2013 to €153.5 million. Earlier that month, the UK donated £15.5 million, while the U.S. revealed an initial pledge for 2014 of $100 million.
All of which has been exacerbated by UNRWA’s second significant challenge: regional upheaval. As the outgoing Filippo Grandi has explained, six out of twelve Palestinian refugee camps in Syria are now battlegrounds in the civil war, while in the economically-devastated Gaza Strip, more than 800,000 receive food from the agency. In December, Margot Ellis stressed that the situation in Palestine and Syria was increasing the financial pressure on UNRWA, with the bloodshed in Syria turning into “one of the most profoundly complex emergencies” they had ever faced.
Gunness told me that the majority of the agency’s half million refugees in Syria have been displaced, with thousands of Palestinian refugees seeking shelter in neighbouring countries. “The populations fluctuate”, he said, “but some 50.000 have fled to Lebanon, approximately 10.000 to Jordan, 5,000 to Egypt and 1,000 to Gaza”. UNRWA’s appeal for Syria in 2014 is over $400 million.
The third challenged faced by UNRWA is long-running attacks on its work and mandate from the Israeli government and Zionist lobby groups. For them, the agency is perceived as an obstacle in their efforts to forever remove the possibility of Palestinian refugees exercising their right to return, while UNRWA officials often provide unwelcome eyewitness testimony to Israeli military brutality.
These attacks on UNRWA come and go, and there has been a recent uptick in efforts to tarnish and undermine the agency’s activities. In September 2013, prominent UK-based Israel lobby group BICOM (Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre) published an article by former MK Einat Eilf calling for “reform” of UNRWA. At the end of November, a photograph exhibition of UNRWA’s digitised archive prompted Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesperson Yigal Palmor to bemoan what he claimed is
the strident anomaly of the dedication of a disproportionate part of the United Nations budget, staff, time and resources to the Palestinian issue exclusively at the expense of, and to the detriment of, all other similar issues
In late November, meanwhile, it was reported that some members of the U.S. Congress are “demanding that the State Department investigate and justify US financial aid” to UNRWA, prompted by accusations by Zionist lobby groups that the agency “actively incites and radicalizes” Palestinian refugees. The members of Congress in question cited a film produced by Israel advocacy group The Lawfare Project, ‘Camp Jihad’. This film was also referenced by Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in a transparently desperate attack on UNRWA after an employee of the latter was killed by the Israeli military in Qalandia refugee camp.
Chris Gunness has seen it all before, describing “politically motivated, baseless attacks” as a “constant for UNRWA” (as spokesperson he has spoken out on the topic a number of times). These arguments, he told me, are usually founded on “the myth that if you get rid of UNRWA, you get rid of the refugees; as if some bureaucratic gesture would make five million human beings and the need to deal with their rights disappear”.
Most of the attacks are founded on deliberate misunderstandings of refugee law and best practice and fortunately our stakeholders are well aware of this. According to all internationally accepted paradigms for bringing peace to the Middle East, the refugee question has be resolved in the context of a political deal which must be just if it is to be durable. All such paradigms accept the importance of UNRWA bringing services to the refugees until such a peace is achieved.
Funding deficits, worsening regional crises, and politically-motivated attacks by Israel lobbyists; an already stretched organisation is under significant pressure by problems with no quick fix in sight. The new Commissioner-General will have a tough job on his hands to meet the challenges head on, and to keep UNRWA delivering vital services that are more needed than ever.
Note: page updated at 13.26GMT on Jan 12 2014 to correct Jeffrey Feltman’s title, from “Under-Secretary-General” to “Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs”
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.