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PoliticsMiddle East

UN agency for Palestinian refugees on the verge of collapse

November 19, 2020

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) is facing insolvency. Financial aid for millions of refugees is at risk.

A Palestinian carries UNWRA aid sacks on his shoulder
Image: Abed Rahim Khatib/AA/picture alliance

Time is running out fast. Thousands of jobs could be lost if the financial situation of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) doesn't improve promptly, says Philippe Lazzarini, the organization's commissioner-general.

"Our financial resources are at their lowest level in years. We really hope the situation improves and we're doing all we can to keep UNRWA up and running. However, without the funds that we've calculated we need, we won't be able to provide our services. Obviously we're doing what we can to avoid that situation."

According to Lazzarini, a financial shortfall of $70 million (€59 million) looms for the months of November and December, which means employees' salaries could be affected and might have to be pushed back into next year. Most of them are refugees themselves.

Devastating effects

As part of its remit, UNRWA supports Palestinian refugees in the Gaza Strip, East-Jerusalem and the West Bank, as well as in Lebanon and Jordan.

The Gaza Strip is expected to be hit hardest by the impending default of payments. UNRWA is the biggest employer there with around 13,000 people on its books. The economy is already in free fall, with unemployment at over 50%. "The people here really depend on international aid," says Lazzarini.

Read moreGaza feels bite of US cuts to Palestinian aid

The situation isn't much better in Lebanon, home to some 174,000 Palestinian refugees. Access to the labor market is limited. For months now, the country has been experiencing the worst economic crisis since the civil war ended in 1990. The devastating explosion in Beirut in August has exacerbated the situation, and while the local population is struggling to make ends meet, it's even more difficult for the refugees. Around 90% of them depend on UNRWA's support. On top of that there are around 1.5 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon who are also in dire need of help.

Refugees in the Shatila camp in Beirut
Palestinian refugees (seen here in the Lebanese capital Beirut) struggle to make ends meetImage: Samih Mahmoud

Read more: Displaced Syrians look for way out of a Lebanon in conflict

Financial help for UNRWA

UNRWA relies almost exclusively on voluntary financial contributions from UN member states, as well as from the EU. However, the organization, which was been in operation since 1950 and is now one of the biggest UN agencies, says that support has not kept pace with the rising demand for UNRWA's services.

Those requirements have grown exponentially with the increasing number of registered refugees, growing poverty and the worsening crises in Syria, Lebanon and Gaza. As a result, UNRWA's budget has been chronically underfunded for years.

The organization has been through tough times recently. Last November, former Commissioner-General Pierre Krähenbühl was forced to step down following complaints about his leadership style and allegations of mismanagement.

At the time the Al Jazeera news network ran reports about internal complaints against Krähenbühl and other UNRWA executives, who allegedly exploited their positions for personal gain and suppressed dissenting views and opinions within the organization. However, an inquiry didn't reveal that Krähenbühl was involved in any scams or had embezzled funds.

Financial woes have been part and parcel of UNRWA's work for years. In 2018, President Donald Trump deferred payment of US yearly contributions of more than $300 million, taking umbrage generally with UNRWA and its mandate. Among other things, the Trump administration is at odds with the organization over the right of return for Palestinian refugees, an issue that has long been a thorn in the side  of both Israel and the White House.

Will the situation improve under Joe Biden?

All eyes and hopes are now on President-elect Joe Biden. "First indications are that there is a willingness to revive the partnership between the US and UNRWA," Lazzarini says. In the meantime, efforts are underway to urge donors to provide compensation for imminent short falls. "Currently our ability to continue our work is in jeopardy," Lazzarini added.

This article was translated from German. 

Correction: This article was amended on November 23 to further clarify aspects about the Trump administration deferring payments to UNRWA.

Is UNRWA perpetuating unsustainable dependence?

Kersten Knipp
Kersten Knipp Political editor with a focus on the Middle East