UNRWA suffers $200 million budget shortfall without US funding

Despite donor countries and institutions attempting to fill the gap, the Palestinian aid agency is facing a shortage of funding

Commissioner of UNRWA, Pierre Krahenbuhl, says his agency is struggling to find the funds to continue all of its work following the US decision to cease donations. EPA
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The United Nations Relief and Works Agency, responsible for the welfare of Palestine refugees, announced on Monday it is facing a US$211 million (Dh775m) budget shortfall following the US’s decision to cut six decades of funding.

On the sidelines of UNRWA’s biannual advisory commission meeting, a gathering of 28 donors and host countries supporting Palestinian refugees, Commissioner Pierre Krähenbühl said the agency is still struggling to plug the funding gap after the US, its largest single donor, cut over US$300m in funding last year.

President Donald Trump's administration had pledged an initial $60 million in funds before entirely cutting its aid in September.

Despite efforts to encourage the 42 donor countries and institutions who stepped in to attempt to make up the funds, a $211m deficit is projected in the agency's $1.2 billion budget for 2019. But that is less than half of last year's $446m budget gap, which nearly forced the agency to close its 700 schools and health centres.

Currently, the European Union is UNRWA’s largest single donor, followed by Germany, Saudi Arabia, the UK, Sweden and the UAE.

“Of course, the problems that we faced last year have not ended – the US is not engaging with UNRWA,” Mr Krähenbühl said at the conference, held on the shores of the Dead Sea in Jordan.

Further compounding the difficulties, UNRWA has already exceeded the $350m it secured for the first five months of the year, running a deficit as of this month. It is lobbying donors who have already pledged money to bring their payments forward, in some cases by several months, to avoid delaying emergency relief services to the Gaza Strip and Syria.

The agency will also hold a funding conference in New York on June 25 in a bid to raise funds.

“It is a battle,” said Mr Krähenbühl.

Responding to a question from the media, the UNRWA commissioner rebuked recent statements by President Donald Trump’s administration and Jason Greenblatt, the US envoy to the Middle East, claiming the agency’s existence “perpetuates” the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“Let me be very clear about this: it is politician inaction, not the action of humanitarian organisations, that perpetuates wars, suffering and injustice,” said Mr Krähenbühl.

“Any attempt to somehow blame a humanitarian organisation for the prolonged refugee status of the Palestinians is an attempt to deflect attention away from where responsibility lies – with political actors.”

Mr Krähenbühl also shrugged off rumours that the US is looking to use next week’s economic workshop in Bahrain to lay the groundwork to dismantle the UNRWA, noting that a decision to alter or end the agency’s mandate lies with the UN General Assembly and will not be “the decision of one or two countries”.

UNRWA runs schools for half a million Palestinian children and health services for 3.1 million refugees at 124 health centres in the West Bank, Gaza, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan.