NEW YORK: A long-term lack of funding for the UN’s relief agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, now represents an “existential” threat, its top official warned on Thursday.
Philippe Lazzarini, Commissioner-General of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, said that chronic and drastic funding shortfalls could even precipitate its collapse.
“Today, austerity has reached its limit and is impacting the quality of our services”, he said, highlighting that despite “rampant” poverty, the agency can no longer increase the number of refugees that it supports.
He added that “austerity reaches its limit when we put 50 children in a classroom or leave the most deprived children without transportation or stationery…when a doctor can only spend three minutes with a patient…[and] when many teachers and sanitation laborers are daily paid workers. These are frontline staff and it really pains me that UNRWA cannot yet give them more stable jobs”.
In an open letter to Palestine refugees, Mr. Lazzarini wrote that he was “painfully aware” that further uncertainty about UNRWA’s “dire” financial situation added another layer of distress to their lives.
“When everything around you falls apart, being able to send your children to school, receive health care and be part of a social safety net are a lifeline”, he added.
The Commissioner-General spoke of his many meetings with Palestine refugees throughout the year, including children in Gaza who were mentally scarred in May by 10 days of rocket fire and airstrike exchanges between Israeli forces and armed groups in the enclave.
He also recalled encountering refugee families in the West Bank “living with the daily threat of forced displacement; young graduates in Burj Baranjeh camp whose only hope for a better future was to emigrate through dangerous migration routes; and refugees in Jordan who faced immense financial hardships under COVID-19”.
Today, well over five million Palestinians have registered with UNRWA as refugees in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan.
In his open letter, Mr. Lazzarini said that since 2018, political attacks on the agency’s mandate had threatened to sever the “lifeline” of education, healthcare and social welfare that UNWRA provides.
“These attacks aim at harming the reputation of the Agency…[and] are based on the foolish and wrong idea that by closing UNRWA they will erase 5.8 million Palestine refugees”, he said.
“Let me reassure you that your rights, including your right of return and compensation, are enshrined in international law and UN resolutions and have nothing to do with the UNRWA mandate”.
The agency chief acknowledged that for close to a decade, stagnating donor funding remained below the amount needed to provide quality services.
At the same time as the refugee population has continued to grow, poverty and vulnerabilities have skyrocketed.
To promote long-term funding security, Mr. Lazzarini said that the agency planned to expand its donor base, increase digital fundraising and look into innovative funding mechanisms to ensure that Palestine refugees have continued access to all services.
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