By Dalal Yassine
On 23 November, UNRWA – the UN agency for Palestine refugees – held an extraordinary meeting of its advisory committee.
There, Philippe Lazzarini, UNRWA’s commissioner-general, informed the committee that it faced an unprecedented situation. With a budget deficit of $115 million, Lazzarini said, UNRWA would be unable to pay the full salaries of its 28,000 employees in the fourth quarter of 2020.
Thus, and just as a second wave of COVID-19 sweeps across the globe, UNRWA and the Palestinian refugees it serves face an uncertain future.
The meeting came less than three weeks after Joe Biden was elected US president. Although UNRWA’s financial crisis is mainly caused by US aid cuts, there is no guarantee that a Biden administration will reverse the policies of the last two years or the even longer period of budget cuts and reduced services that UNRWA has endured.
In August 2018, President Donald Trump announced that the US would cut all financial assistance to UNRWA – which had stood at nearly $365 million annually or more than a third of the agency’s total budget.
The US had been the agency’s largest donor and the move created a severe financial crisis as contributions from the Arab Gulf states and European countries were also reduced. To cover its expenses, the agency this year had to secure a loan of $20 million from the United Nations Central Emergency Response Fund.
Mark Lowcock, the UN’s emergency relief coordinator, stated that this is the last loan that will be made to UNRWA.
UNRWA provides services to nearly 5.7 million Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and the occupied West Bank and Gaza. The COVID-19 pandemic has amplified the impact of UNRWA’s funding crisis and left Palestinian refugees vulnerable to hunger, poverty and disease.
In addition, the antagonism of the Trump administration toward the agency and the Palestinians coupled with the high-profile normalization agreements between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan has severely limited UNRWA’s options.
As part of Trump’s “Vision for Peace,” Washington has succeeded in influencing Arab countries to reduce or end their support for UNRWA.
UNRWA’s 2020-2021 program budget forecasts funding gaps of $248 million this year and increasing to $268 million in 2021.
The Trump plan calls for ending UNRWA’s mandate and transferring its responsibilities to the governments hosting Palestinian refugees.
Trump at first encouraged Arab states to increase their support to make up for the shortfall UNRWA faced after the US cut funding two years ago. However, this was only a temporary measure as the Arab states were expected to adopt Washington’s new policy toward the agency.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE largely complied with Trump’s demands. In 2018, Saudi Arabia contributed almost $160 million to UNRWA to help with the shortfall after Trump’s decision. However, it cut its support to $49.5 million the following year, which was roughly $3.5 million less than it donated in 2017.
To date this year, Saudi Arabia has donated $26 million, including $1 million for UNRWA’s COVID-19 emergency relief fund.
Even though the UAE currently chairs UNRWA’s advisory committee, it has limited its support to $1 million so far this year. Other wealthy Arab Gulf States have only provided limited funding, including $8 million from Qatar and slightly more than $430,000 from Oman.
Kuwait has not provided any support to date this year.
Last year, the US and Israel attempted to limit the renewal of UNRWA’s mandate to only one year. They also tried to pass proposals to redefine and revoke refugee status from the children and grandchildren of Palestinian refugees from the 1948 Nakba, when a majority of Palestinians were dispossessed and displaced during the creation of Israel.
The status of refugees is clearly delineated in international law and conventions. Palestinians, like other refugees around the world in protracted situations retain their refugee status as do their descendants until there is a recognized resolution.
Therefore, the US-Israeli proposal was rejected by the United Nations General Assembly.
However, this is not Israel’s first attempt to redefine the status of Palestinian refugees. In 2012, pro-Israel members of the US Congress required the US State Department to determine the number of Palestinian refugees from 1948 still receiving UNRWA services.
Although the report was classified, the intent was to target the agency and the refugees it serves. The Trump administration has embraced these efforts with its “peace” plan.
Recently there were renewed calls to declassify the State Department report and revise UNRWA’s mandate before Trump leaves office.
UNRWA’s financial deficit will exacerbate the already reduced basic services it provides to Palestinian refugees. More than half a million children depend on UNRWA for their education.
The agency operates more than 700 schools, most of which run on a double or triple-shift system. The classes were already overcrowded before the US cut its donation to UNRWA.
Since 2018, class sizes have swelled even more. In some areas there can be 50 students per classroom and three or four students share desks intended for two children.
To accommodate the large number of children and shortage of schools, the UNRWA schools operate on shifts. While a double-shift school has roughly five hours of instruction per shift, a triple-shift one has only four hours.
UNRWA also runs nearly 150 health facilities and provides treatment for millions of refugee patients annually.
Failure to provide the agency with the necessary funding will have a direct impact on the education and health of refugee children and adults. This includes basic health care and vaccinations against diseases.
Yet even before 2018, UNRWA did not provide full services for refugees. For example, preschool and kindergarten education were not available for refugee children and UNRWA’s clinics suffered from reduced services and shortages.
The gaps in these services were filled in part by non-governmental and charitable organizations.
That will be increasingly difficult considering the economic and social reality of Palestinian refugee communities across the region today as well as the political and financial problems in their host countries. Already dependent on international assistance, these countries will not be able to fill the vacuum left by a diminished or disbanded UNRWA.
In Lebanon, Palestinian refugees face institutional racism that limits their right to work. The country’s economic and political crisis, made worse by the August port explosion and the COVID-19 pandemic, has increased the level of unemployment and poverty among Palestinian refugees.
In Gaza, nearly three-quarters of its 2 million inhabitants are refugees. All have been under an Israeli siege for over 13 years.
Palestinians in Gaza suffer from food insecurity and inadequate electricity and water supplies. Moreover, a COVID-19 outbreak threatens the already crumbling health system with total collapse.
Meanwhile in Syria, the Palestinian refugee community has yet to rebuild from the country’s civil war.
A large number of Palestinian refugees have been displaced from their homes – yet again – in the refugee camps, which were the sites of heavy fighting. Others fled to neighboring states, including Lebanon, where the conditions of the refugee camps were much worse than their pre-civil war homes in Syria.
Trump’s targeting of UNRWA established a precedent and it is unclear whether the Biden administration will continue this policy.
Joe Biden has promised to “restore economic and humanitarian assistance to the Palestinian people, consistent with US law, including assistance to refugees.”
He has also pledged to “work to address the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Gaza.”
However, Biden has not clarified whether this will apply to UNRWA and all of the Palestinian refugees it serves or only to the Palestinian Authority. And even if the Biden administration restores UNRWA’s funding and ignores Israel’s demands to eliminate the agency, it is unlikely to be able to take action before February 2021.
Meanwhile, UNRWA’s services will be desperately needed in the middle of winter and a global pandemic.
The attempts to disband UNRWA will not erase Palestinian refugees or their fundamental rights.
Nor would a disbandment magically alleviate the humanitarian crisis that will result from such an action or absolve powerful governments of responsibility for enabling another crisis.