EU and UNRWA sign political declaration on support to Palestinian refugees amid financial crisis

EU and UNRWA sign political declaration on support to Palestinian refugees amid financial crisis
Swedish Foreign Minister Anne Linde co-chaired the International Conference on UNRWA in Brussels with Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi (right). UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini (left). © 2021 UNRWA

The EU and the United Nations aid agency for the Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) signed this week a new joint declaration on continued EU political and financial support to the agency for 2021 - 2024.

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”. The number has increased eightfold since the 1948 war because the descendants of the refugees, who fled or were expelled from Israel, are also accorded refugee status.

In particular, UNRWA plays an important role in Gaza where the majority of the population or about 1.3 million people are UNRWA-registered refugees.

The joint declaration marks 50 years of partnership between the EU and UNRWA and was supposed to be have been signed a few months ago. It was finally signed on Wednesday (17 November) in Brussels by EU’s foreign policy chief, High Representative Josep Borrell, and Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi, responsible for Neighbourhood and Enlargement, and Philippe Lazzarini, Commissioner-General of UNRWA.

“UNRWA has played an essential role in providing vital services to millions of Palestine refugees within its five fields of operation,” said Josep Borrell, referring to health, education, social protection and other services provided by the agency.

“The EU is determined to continue supporting the agency both politically and financially, including by providing long-term reliability. Our support to UNRWA is a key element in our strategy of contributing to the promotion of security, stability and development in the region, which also helps to keep alive the prospects of sustainable peace between Israelis and Palestinians.”

UNRWA’s mandate has been renewed by the UN General Assembly until 2023. In the declaration, EU expresses strong support for UNRWA as a key partner in its strategy for the region. It calls for “an agreed, just and fair solution to the refugee question” and commits to “remaining a strong, reliable and predictable supporter of the organisation”.

According to the declaration, EU supports UNRWA’s core mandate, including by addressing misrepresentation and politicisation of its mandate and operations. The UN mandate has been questioned by Israel for perpetuating the Palestinian refugee problem and preventing the integration of the refugees in the host countries.

The refugees keep the keys to their original homes in former Palestine. According to Israeli journalist Ohad Hemo, who last year published a book on his travels and meetings with Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, including the refugee camps (“Different territories”), they still dream of returning to them and believe that UNRWA will implement what they claim to be their right of return.

UNRWA on its side committed to continue to step up its reform in several areas of management, governance, accountability and governance.

On the brink of financial collapse

A dozen of countries came also together this week to pledge political and financial support for UNRWA at a conference hosted by the foreign ministers of Jordan and Sweden. During the conference, UNRWA leadership discussed the plans for modernizing the agency, as well as measures that will be adopted tomaintain the commitment of UNRWA to UN humanitarian principles, with a focus on neutrality”.

The funding of UNRWA’s activities and emergency calls have been a recurrent issue in recent years. UNRWA needs extra funding, after a reduction in US aid, to cover its expenditure during 2021 because of the coronavirus crisis and the need to rebuild its facilities after the Gaza war in May.

The EU is the biggest donor of aid to UNRWA. Aid is also provided by EU member states.  In October, the European Commission announced that it had disbursed an essential payment of €92 million to the agency. The funding constitutes the annual EU financial assistance to UNRWA for maintaining basic living conditions, including schools and medical clinics, in support of the Palestinian refugees.

However, repeated funding cuts from donor nations and slow delivery on financial promises over the past few years have left the agency on the brink of collapse. UNRWA is still in need of US$ 60 million for 2021. At the conference, eight countries announced a cumulative/total of over US$ 614 million in new or renewed multi-year agreements with durations from two to five years.

The combination of these and existing multi-year pledges, if all fully realized at expected levels, would only equate to 40 % of the agency’s core budget needs for 2022. The Commissioner-General said that contributions from the Gulf States have significantly decreased and much more can be done.

The refugee camps

According to Hemo, the Israeli journalist, the refugee camps are the pulsing heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict although the majority of them or 72 % do not live in one of the 59 refugee camps. In for example the West Bank, there are 19 refugee camps (including a small camp in East Jerusalem), with an estimated population of 900,000.

The Palestinian refugees live under different and difficult conditions in the countries in the Middle East although they might be citizens of the host country, as is the case in Jordan where there still are tens of refugee camps. The solution of the refugee problem is one of the outstanding final issues which have to be solved in the framework of a comprehensive and lasting solution to the conflict.

Is it feasible for UNRWA to raise the issue of abolishing the camps, in particular in Jordan, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, to improve the living conditions of the refugees and integrate them in the surrounding society, pending a just and agreed solution to the Palestinian refugee problem?

“UNRWA does not run refugee camps,” Commissioner-General Lazzarini replied. “Instead, UNRWA operates facilities; schools, health clinics, food distribution centers, many of them in refugee camps”.

“It’s really not for UNRWA to conduct such discussions with host countries,” he added. “Many Palestine refugees don’t live in camps but this does not alter their eligibility for support by UNRWA if they need it. The issue of where they live is very distinct from the issue of giving them citizenship or integrating them, which is purely a decision by hosts in which UNRWA doesn’t interfere.”

UNRWA’s mandate (unlike UNHCR’s) does not provide options for return, integration or resettlement, he explained.

In Lebanon, the situation of the estimated 400,000 Palestinian refugees is considered to be worse than in other countries. How would you describe their current situation in Lebanon, which is hit by a serious political and economic crisis?

“Palestine refugees in Lebanon live under extremely dire conditions,” he replied. “Not only have they been historically marginalized and discriminated against (unable to own property, prevented from a large number of work sectors), they have been amongst the most vulnerable communities in Lebanon. Today, and with the near collapse of the country, their situation is extremely precarious.”

The Swedish minister of foreign affairs, Ann Linde, who co-chaired the UNRWA conference, did not respond in time of press to a request for comment.

M. Apelblat

The Brussels Times

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