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UNRWA suffering existential crisis from funding cuts, warns UN official

GAZA CITY, GAZA - JANUARY 14: Workers of United Nations Palestine Refugee Agency (UNRWA) prepare aids distribute to Palestinian refugees in Al-Shati Camp in Gaza City, Gaza on January 14, 2020. ( Ali Jadallah - Anadolu Agency )
Workers of United Nations Palestine Refugee Agency (UNRWA) prepare aids distribute to Palestinian refugees in Al-Shati Camp in Gaza City, Gaza on January 14, 2020 [Ali Jadallah - Anadolu Agency]

Cuts to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) budget, including halving the UK's annual grant, has left the agency close to collapse, the Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini announced today.

Lazzarini warned of the agency's existential crisis, which is due to not only the $100 million shortfall this year, but also because of a method of long-term funding that has proved unsustainable.

The UK was the third largest overall donor to UNRWA in 2020, but its latest cut puts it in the second tier of contributors.

"It is a direct impact of this policy decision to reduce the aid budget from the equivalent of 0.7% of gross national income to 0.5%," Lazzarini said. "It has a humanitarian impact. It has a human development impact. We calculate the decrease in aid as the equivalent of more than 70,000 boys and girls in our schools."

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UNRWA was created in 1949 to provide assistance and protection for the Palestinian refugees who were forced out of their homes to make way for the creation of the state of Israel.

The organisation currently offers its services to about 5.3 million Palestinian refugees in the occupied territories, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.

The UN official described the current mood among Palestinians as one of distress, boiling despair and hopelessness. When the UN agency is struggling financially to deliver the most essential services, it creates a deep sense of abandonment, he said.

UNRWA's funding comes almost entirely from voluntary donations made by UN member states. The agency faced severe financial difficulties since the US administration of President Donald Trump stopped donations altogether in 2018.

Moreover, the United Arab Emirates sharply reduced its funding of the body in 2020, an UNRWA spokesman revealed earlier this year. Sami Mshasha said that the UAE donated $51.8 million to UNRWA in 2018 and again in 2019, but in 2020 it gave the agency just $1 million.

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"It is not a short-term problem. Our current funding model is leading the agency to a collapse," Lazzarini said. "It has become so unstable it is causing an existential threat to the organisation. Year after year, we are in an ever more exacerbated situation."

"Right now at the beginning of November, I have nothing in my bank account. I do not know how I will cover the costs and salaries and that means thousands of teachers and thousands of health workers, and that means losing critical services in a highly unstable environment."

"We started this year with a critical liability. I cannot print money. I cannot borrow money. All I can do is delay and build up. It is not UNRWA that is perpetuating refugee statehood. Refugee statehood is perpetuated by the absence of a political solution, and there is no Palestinian, I promise you, that wants to remain a refugee after such a long time," he added.

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