UN agency for aid to Palestinian refugees faces funding gap during coronavirus crisis

UN agency for aid to Palestinian refugees faces funding gap during coronavirus crisis
Credit: UNRWA

The new Commissioner-General of United Nations aid agency for the Palestinian refugees warns that the organisation faces a funding gap of $ 130 million to cover it current expenditure until the end of 2020.

Philippe Lazzarini took up his function as Commissioner-General of UNRWA on 1 April. UNRWA is providing humanitarian and development assistance to 5.7 million registered Palestinian refugees across Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Gaza, pending a ”just and lasting solution to their plight”.

He has a background in humanitarian assistance and international coordination for the UN and the Red Cross in conflict and post-conflict areas, among others in Lebanon and Somalia.

His predecessor Pierre Krähenbühl was forced to resign after a management scandal. Like him, he is also from neutral Switzerland and had to deal with the financial crisis that the UN agency is facing since the Trump administration cut its funding to it in 2018.

When Lazzarini assumed his post, UNRWA was in the middle of responding to the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic and the organisation had just launched an appeal for $14 million in response to the outbreak. The aid was intended to cover the immediate requirements for health and other services related to the pandemic in its areas of operation in the region.

“The agility and ability of UNRWA to adjust the way it operates in response to COVID-19 almost overnight truly impressed me,” he said in a statement at a UN General Assembly Fourth Committee last week. “UNRWA staff shifted to telemedicine, to home delivery of emergency food and medicine, and to distance learning.”

Today, his priority is still to prevent the spread of COVID-19 while ensuring that all critical services continue uninterrupted. In his first European visit since his appointment, he recently visited Berlin to strengthen UNRWA’s partnership with Germany.

Asked by The Brussels Times if he also intends to visit Brussels in the near future, he replied that his team was already planning a mission there on 9 - 11 November for talks with the European External Action Service (EEAS), the Commission, the Council and the Parliament.

“The EU is our largest donor and a very consistent and reliable supporter to the rights and wellbeing of Palestine refugees. It’s important for UNRWA to have a regular discussion and engagement with the EU that is forward looking and strategic.”

In fact, the EU is a key provider of assistance to UNRWA.  Together with the EU member states, the total amount provided to UNRWA in 2019 was €520 million, representing around 60 % of the total core budget of the organisation. In 2020, the EU has so far pledged and disbursed € 97.7 million for UNRWA, according to a Commission spokesperson.

The amount includes its annual 82 million contribution to the programme budget of the agency, €7.2 million to help address the pandemic under a project funded via the EU Regional Trust Fund in response to the Syrian crisis, another €4 million to the UNRWA emergency appeal, focusing on Gaza and the West Bank, and € 4.5 million in humanitarian assistance.

High Representative Josep Borrell confirmed recently (15 October) EU’s “continued strong and predictable support to UNRWA, both politically and financially”. He added that this support is all the more important in light of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Germany was the largest bilateral donor in 2019, contributing more than €152 million, and has pledged €161 million in funds so far in 2020. Does this imply that the financial aid from EU member states has become more important than direct EU aid?

“Germany’s support is exceptional, but we have also a number of other generous and solid contributors within the EU,” Lazzarini replied.  “The EU remains a huge supporter to UNRWA with a mix of humanitarian funding, development aid, and emergency assistance, resulting in a very generous cumulative figure at the end. Both EU and its member states are huge donors.”

Weak infrastructure, increase in infections

At a pledging conference last June, hosted by Sweden and Jordan, commitments for $130 million were made. Has all the money been paid by now?

“Some of the pledged funds have been disbursed while we are still waiting for some. With all the funds that we have received, UNRWA still needs 130 million US dollars until the end of this year in order to keep all is services running and all its staff on its payroll.

The Commissioner-General explains that the reason behind UNRWA’s cash crisis is that, at the onset, it receives a mandate from the UN General Assembly without the matching financial resources. While the political support for UNRWA is global and almost unanimous, the financial support is not up to standard, especially with increasing needs and the socio-economic impact of COVID-19 this year.

In recent years, UN experts have warned that the Gaza strip will become unliveable in 2020. We are now in 2020 and the situation has worsened because of the corona crisis. What should have the highest priority in Gaza right now and post-COVID?

“If you ask people in Gaza, they will tell you it has become unliveable,” he replied. “The frequent power cuts, lack of regular internet connectivity, scarcity of safe drinking water, the high unemployment, the blockade and its effects have all left Gaza infrastructure very fragile, the economy much weakened and people demoralized and lacking prospects.”

Gaza had remained sheltered from COVID-19 for a long time but has recently witnessed an alarming surge in local transmissions of the virus. He is worried about Gaza precisely because of its weak infrastructure which affects everyone in Gaza. However, the passage of humanitarian goods in coordination with Israel are unchanged, he confirms.

Overall, the situation of the Palestinian refugees has deteriorated in all countries. “The refugees are usually amongst the most vulnerable in any host country, and their situation becomes worse when there is an additional compelling factor like the war in Syria. Most refugees in Syria were displaced during the conflict, some internally and some to Jordan and Lebanon.”

The devastating conflict in Syria has not ended, Lebanon is plunged in its worst crisis in decades and Jordan is slipping into an acute economic crisis, he summarized. Jordan is the only country which granted citizenship to a large number of Palestinian refugees but even there some 400,000 of the refugees, out of 2.3 million registered refugees, live in camps and are relying on UNRWA’s services.

A small spark of hope is that UNRWA has a recovered after the management scandal last year and is better equipped to deal with the crisis. The report by UN´s Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) has not been disclosed but Commissioner-General Lazzarini assures that UNRWA has learned the lessons.

“UNRWA has put in place a number of very strict measures to help improve its transparency, governance and accountability. We have, among other things, strengthened our Ethics Office, created an ombudsman position, and tightened our recruitment process,” he said. “It’s worth noting that the investigation ruled out misuse and misappropriation of funds.”

Note:  The figures on EU’s contributions to UNRWA in 2020 have been corrected since the article was first published.


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