Head of Palestinian relief agency in Lebanon defends work as US threatens to cut funding

Claudio Cordone says UNRWA already lacks sufficient resources to meet refugee needs

A picture taken on December 21, 2017 shows a view of posters showing Palestinian leaders and Fatah flags hanging in a street in the Burj al-Barajneh camp, a southern suburb of the Lebanese capital Beirut.
More than 174,000 Palestinian refugees live in Lebanon, authorities announced on December 21, in the first-ever census of its kind for a country where demographics have long been a sensitive subject.
The census was carried out by the government's Lebanese-Palestinian Dialogue Committee in 12 Palestinian camps as well as 156 informal "gatherings" across the country. / AFP PHOTO / ANWAR AMRO
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President Donald Trump's administration suggested this week that there had been no decision yet on cutting funding to the UN Relief Works Agency (UNRWA), which assists hundreds of thousands Palestinian refugees across the region. The US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, threatened last week to withhold funding until Palestinians engage in peace talks with Israel.

Claudio Cordone, UNRWA's director for Lebanon, spoke to The National about the services it provides to the approximately 175,000 Palestinian refugees in the country, many of whom live below the poverty line, despite already facing a funding shortfall.

The National: Describe how essential UNRWA is to the Palestinian refugee community in Lebanon. 

Mr Cordone: Our services impact nearly every aspect of life for Palestine refugees in Lebanon. And in many cases, for example in health, UNRWA’s services to the Palestine refugee community in Lebanon are literally life-saving. Beyond health, an UNRWA education gives young refugees a sense of dignity and the belief in a stable future; all this in the most uncertain of circumstances. Our relief services similarly offer this marginalised community some semblance of normality, in many cases making the difference between living above or below the poverty line. Of course this aid dependency is something we as an agency are working to redress, but until there is greater political and financial certainty around the issue of the Palestine refugees in Lebanon, and until current restrictions on rights such as employment remain, this looks set to continue.

What would funding cuts mean in practical terms?

We have not got to the point of discussing cuts, but our humanitarian footprint in Lebanon is vast. UNRWA in Lebanon runs 66 schools with around 37,000 students and a vocational training centre with about 1,000 students. This costs more than US$40 million (Dh147m) a year. UNRWA also runs 27 health centres providing primary health care and serving nearly 160,000 patients a year, as well as supporting secondary and tertiary healthcare. UNRWA supports more than 61,000 refugees living below the poverty line with food assistance of about US$7.5m a year. UNRWA continues to operate facing a large shortfall in its budget. UNRWA urges all donor countries to provide the funding needed in order to maintain and actually strengthen its capacity to assist and protect Palestine refugees.

There is already a funding shortfall - what should UNRWA be doing that it is not currently able to do? 

Over the years we have had to tailor our services to fit the funds we receive. So there is much that we would like to do but which we have been unable to do. We would like to have finished rebuilding Nahr Al Bared (a refugee camp in northern Lebanon badly damaged by fighting in 2007), we would like to offer Palestine refugees from Syria a fuller package of assistance. We wish we had more money for hospitalisation. And at an even more basic level we wish we had more money to have larger classrooms and proper courtyards in all our schools and provide our refugee children and staff with a more amenable environment. The list goes on.

How do you respond to assertions that UNRWA should be shut down and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (which administers other refugee crises around the world) should be put in charge of Palestinian refugees?

UNRWA’s mandate is set by the UN General Assembly, whose members give wide and strong support to the agency’s humanitarian and human development mission, while paying tribute to our indispensable contribution to peace and security, working with some of the most marginalised communities in the Middle East. What perpetuates the refugee crisis is the failure to find a solution to this crisis. This needs to be resolved by the parties to the conflict in the context of peace talks, based on UN resolutions and international law, and requires the active engagement by the international community. UNRWA is mandated by the General Assembly to continue with its services until a just and lasting solution is found for the Palestine refugees.

Has anyone from Trump administration reached out to discuss the issue directly?

Based on extensive conversations with interlocutors in the US administration, our understanding is that no decision has been made on the question of American funding to UNRWA. The United States has been our largest single donor over the past 70 years and remains an important strategic partner in our humanitarian mission.

UNRWA funding does rise and fall over time — what are the major things that affect this? Some Palestinians in Lebanon note that 'security crises' tend to result in increased pledges to UNRWA, for instance a war in Gaza or an event like the Nahr Al Bared fighting. 

Certainly at times of crisis, when UNRWA’s profile is raised, there tends to be a spike in funding, both by states and individuals. We saw this for example during the Gaza war in 2014. But we also know that this soon scales back once the crisis ends and the international spotlight moves on. We desperately need predictable, sufficient and stable funding.

It is in no one’s interests that the hard-earned human capital, the hope and opportunities that UNRWA has created should be allowed to decline. The human impact of this could be catastrophic; the implications of this on the stability of Lebanon and the wider region are potentially huge.