The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) has warned that the financial pledges it received during the donors’ conference held in New York on Friday are insufficient to meet the agency’s financial needs from September onwards.
The agency said donor countries announced $812.3 million in pledges, but just $107 million were new contributions. This, it added, is significantly below the $300 million needed to continue helping millions of people in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories and refugee camps in neighbouring countries.
UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini said that while the agency is grateful for the pledges, they are below the funds that the Agency needs to keep over 700 UNRWA schools and 140 clinics open from September onwards.
“We will continue to work tirelessly with our partners, including host countries – the refugees’ top supporters – to raise the funds needed,” he added.
“Ten years of chronic underfunding have severely impacted the quality of some UNRWA services which translates today into larger classrooms, increased reliance on daily paid workers (including for basic services like education and health), depleted assets, and the inability to expand cash assistance programmes,” UNRWA said.
UNRWA was created in 1949 by a UN mandate to serve Palestine refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Gaza Strip, West Bank and Jerusalem. It supports approximately 5.9 million Palestine refugees.
For years, Israel has been lobbying hard to have UNRWA closed down as it is the only UN agency to have a specific mandate to look after the basic needs of Palestinian refugees. If the agency no longer exists, argues Israel, then the refugee issue must no longer exist, and the legitimate right for Palestinian refugees to return to their land will be unnecessary. Israel has denied that right of return since the late 1940s, even though its own membership of the UN was made conditional upon Palestinian refugees being allowed to return to their homes and land.
UNRWA depends almost entirely on voluntary donations from UN member states, making it extremely vulnerable to pro-Israel lobby groups which are influential in various key capitals.
The agency faced severe financial difficulties while US President Donald Trump was in power as his administration stopped donations altogether in 2018. Though some of these funds were later reinstated they failed to fill the funding gap.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) then sharply reduced its funding of the body in 2020. 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. This at a time when the UAE began normalising ties with the occupation authorities, signing the so-called ‘Abraham Accords’ in September of the same year.
The UK also more than halved its funds for UNRWA from £42.5 million ($57.2 million) in 2020 to £20.8 million ($28 million) in 2021. The UK was the third largest overall donor to UNRWA in 2020, but the cuts put it in the second tier of contributors.