UN agency seeks $1.4bn to help Palestinian refugees this year

Official fear that fallout of US peace plan will increase demands on its services

A child stands next to a sack flour as people come to receive food aid from a United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) distribution centre in the Khan Yunis camp for Palestinian refugees in the southern Gaza Strip on February 2, 2020.  / AFP / SAID KHATIB
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The United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees appealed on Monday for $1.4 billion from donors to fund its programmes this year amid fresh political threats to its survival posed by the US peace plan unveiled last week.

“We are of course concerned of the new and serious challenges the plan may well present in our operations in terms of activities in Jerusalem, West Bank and the annexation of West Bank Settlements,” Sam Rose, the UN Relief and Works Agency's director of planning, said at the launch of the appeal at its office in Amman office.

He said that increased violence could hamper UNRWA's work to support the 5.6 million registered Palestinian refugees across the Middle East.

The US peace plan unveiled by President Donald Trump gives Israelis control of West Bank land sought by Palestinians for their future state, and the disbanding of UNRWA to make way for a “Palestinian Refugee Trust Fund” to provide services to registered refugees.

UNRWA said it will allocate $803 million of its budget this year to providing health, education, infrastructure, relief and social services in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.

More than half a million Palestinian children attend UNRWA's 700 schools across the region, and the agency’s clinics receive 8.5 million patient visits each year.

An estimated $270m is set aside for food aid, rehousing and reconstruction in response to the conflicts in Syria and Gaza, and $155 million for emergency aid to the West Bank and Gaza. More than 450,000 Palestinian refugees displaced by the war in Syria rely on the agency for cash assistance, food and housing. Some 1.9 million Palestinian refugees are estimated to live in absolute poverty, and UNRWA feeds one million Gazans on a continuous basis.

The 2020 budget includes expansions that have been on hold for years due to financial crises, such as hiring more staff to improve medical services, and increasing in the number of Palestinians enrolled in UNRWA's social safety net, which has been frozen for 10 years.

The agency has weathered financial, political and existential threats since 2018, when the Trump administration abruptly ended US funding. The decision forced UNRWA to approach countries in the Gulf, East Asia, Europe and  elsewhere to make up the shortfall. The UAE emerged as a top donor over the past two years, providing more than $60m in 2019.

Politically, the US administration has adopted the stance of far-right Israeli politicians in calling for the dismantling of UNRWA and has repeatedly proposed stripping Palestinians of their refugee status.

Last year, the agency was hit by accusations of administrative corruption and ethical abuses which prompted Swiss diplomat Pierre Krahenbuhl to step down as commissioner in November.

“We faced an unprecedented crisis of confidence in the agency’s senior leadership and an unprecedented level of attention, most of it negative,” said Mohammed Abdi Adar, director of UNRWA in Jordan.

Yet UNRWA was able to maintain its essential services in 2019, a relief not only to the refugees but also to host countries such as Jordan and Lebanon which are mired in economic crisis and do not have the money or infrastructure to take over its role.

UNRWA staff say acting commissioner Christian Saunders is pushing through administrative reforms, while preliminary findings of an internal UN probe found no "fraud or misappropriation of operational funds" by Mr Krahenbuhl.

Despite US pressure, the General Assembly overwhelmingly voted to renew UNRWA's mandate for a three-year period in December.

”Our mandate continues and we will continue our mandate to provide essential services,” Mr Adar said.

The regional roll-out of the UNRWA appeal began in Geneva on Friday and continues in Jerusalem and Beirut on Tuesday.