Middle East

UNRWA finds funds as Gaza ready for worst

A Palestinian woman takes a bag of flour outside an aid distribution center run by UNRWA, in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip Tuesday.

BEIRUT: The U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees said Tuesday contributions by a number of countries have covered over half of its deficit – but Gazans are not optimistic about their future amid recent U.S. cuts.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw financing for the agency, which provides social services, education and health care to 5 million registered Palestinian refugees, has left UNRWA with a shortfall of some $446 million.

UNRWA Commissioner Pierre Kraehenbuehl said donations by countries such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Turkey, India, Japan and the European Union in recent months have provided UNRWA with $238 million in extra funding.

Kraehenbuehl cautioned, however, that despite these contributions the situation remains “critical” and over $200 million is still needed this year to “sustain our operations.”

The United States had been supplying UNRWA with almost 30 percent of the agency’s $1.2 billion budget, which cover the needs of refugees across the occupied West Bank, the Gaza Strip, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria.

“Unfortunately, UNRWA was created on the basis of international donations rather than on a fixed budget, which puts us under the control of donors. Some countries pay, others pay extra and some go two years without paying,” Naeem Matta, board member at the Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights (BADIL), told The Daily Star.

Matta, himself a refugee residing in Gaza, said Trump’s actions have turned the humanitarian nature of the cause of refugees into a political issue, adding that there is a general fear that other countries might follow Washington’s lead based on their own political calculations.

“We are not willing to live in the mindset of begging. The agency was created as insurance to our rights.

“The issue goes far beyond humanitarian assistance – UNRWA’s very existence is a witness to our plight,” Matta said.

Palestinian refugees have already been feeling the brunt of Washington’s funding freeze of $300 million to UNRWA earlier this year, which has pushed the agency to considerably downsize the number of Palestinian employees, reduce salaries of those remaining on the payroll and cancel a number of social programs.

UNRWA schools across the region opened last week amid fears that they might be forced to close by the end of September due to a lack of funding.

The agency is also facing major closures to its health centers. “The effects of the cuts will be felt by the people dependent on free education, health care and food assistance.”

“What will happen when a quarter of a million Palestinians won’t have access to education because schools won’t open?” Matta said.

In July, the agency announced steps that could affect around 1,000 jobs. In Gaza, where the unemployment rate among refugees stand at 47 percent, more than a 100 UNRWA employees were told that their contracts will not be renewed, while around 580 staff are being moved to part-time work.

A 50-year-old psychological consultant, who wished to be identified as Abu Ibrahim, said that he had been working with UNRWA in Gaza for 25 years when he was unexpectedly informed of his dismissal from his position in a mental health program, which was also being terminated, with no concrete promises of being rehired.

“We were very surprised by UNWRA’s decision. We had an agreement that in the event the program was to close, the staff could go back to teaching as we were originally doing,” Abu Ibrahim said.

The program, which worked closely with schools in the strip’s refugee camps, treated children suffering from mental disorders caused by physical and sexual abuse, as well as psychological trauma resulting from exposure to war and poverty.

Abu Ibrahim said the compensation package offered to him was not enough to cover the tuition of two of his children studying abroad or the expensive medical treatment for his 15-year-old son suffering from a benign tumor in the brain stem.

“We were forced into early retirement in the middle of an economic crisis in Gaza. What am I supposed to do now? I can’t be just another number in the unemployment statistics,” Abu Ibrahim said.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 05, 2018, on page 8.

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