UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres calls on world to do more for Palestinian refugees

He said the agency’s work, which has been damaged by US cuts, is crucial to ‘regional stability’

United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres visits a United nations Relief and Works Agency's (UNRWA, UN agency for Palestinian refugees) school, in the Baqa'a Palestinian refugee camp, near Amman on April 6, 2019. / AFP / Khalil MAZRAAWI
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United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres called on the international community and private sector on Saturday to rally to help the global body’s agency for Palestinian refugees and continue services for millions in need, highlighting its work as key to “regional stability”.

During a visit to Baqaa refugee camp north of Amman, Jordan, Mr Guterres highlighted the impact of any disruption or loss of services provided by UNRWA, which faces a $900 million budget shortfall for 2019.

“Can you imagine if here in Jordan UNRWA would not be able to continue its education and health services?” Mr Guterres commented in a press conference following a visit to a primary school in Baqaa camp, home to 120,000 people and the largest Palestinian refugee camp in the world.

“It would have a devastating impact on a country such as Jordan.”

Mr Guterres indicated that the UN, along with Jordan and Sweden, are preparing to launch new initiatives to secure future funding for UNRWA, which has been in a budgetary crisis since mid-2018 when the US, its largest single donor, abruptly cut $300 million in pledged funds and ended its support of the agency.

“My appeal is also to citizens, to companies, to different civil society organisations: UNRWA needs to be able to sustain its activity not only through the support of governments, but the support of people, institutions and companies,” Mr. Guterres said.

UNRWA has so far secured around $300 million of the $1.2 billion 2019 budget needed to provide healthcare for 4 million Palestinian refugees, education for 535,000 children and to feed 1 million people in Gaza.

If UNRWA fails to secure further funds soon, the agency says it will not be able to continue services beyond May.

During his visit to the UNRWA school, the UN secretary general met with Baqaa community leaders, attended a human rights class, and visited a class of sixth-graders who were conducting experiments on the properties of water on various elements.

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” the UN chief asked a row of girl students, who each answered “engineer”.

“Good choice. I’m an engineer,” Mr Guterres responded.

"We love school, it is what we look forward to the most each day," Marwa, an 11-year-old student, told The National, as Mr Guterres visited her classroom. She, along with her other classmates, said they were concerned of news from their parents last fall that UNRWA schools may shutter their doors due to a lack of funds.

“We want school to stay open so we can plan for high school, university and our futures,” the 11-year-old added.

“Maintaining the education in our schools is akin to giving these young men and women a passport that makes them global citizens,” said UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krahenbuhl, who accompanied Mr Guterres on the visit. “We will not compromise on that.”

UNRWA’s services are particularly essential for Jordan, where the UN agency provides healthcare for 1.1 million refugees and education for 122,000 students in camps and cities across the kingdom.

Jordan itself is battling a debt crisis and has already cut subsidies and raised taxes in a bid to control government spending in line with conditions of a $723 million loan from the International Monetary Fund.

Jordan’s education ministry relies on international aid to renovate its own schools across the country, many overcrowded by more than 120,000 Syrian students, and the government continues to rent several makeshift spaces, unable to secure funds to build permanent schools in many towns and villages.

Also on Saturday, Mr Guterres met with Jordan’s King Abdullah on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum Mena at the Dead Sea, during which the monarch stressed the importance of stopping Israeli provocations in Jerusalem, violations at Al Aqsa mosque, and retaining the Golan Height’s status as occupied Syrian territory.

In addition to education, UNRWA runs 147 health care clinics, provides cash assistance to 400,000 persons in Syria, garbage collection and shelter repairs in 58 refugee camps, many of which were disrupted momentarily last year due to the US funding withdrawal.