BEIRUT: After raising only a fifth of its $500 million emergency appeal to the international community Thursday evening, the future for the struggling United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees looks bleak. Egypt, Jordan and Sweden co-organized a conference in Rome in an attempt to persuade donors to contribute to UNRWA’s global “Dignity is Priceless” campaign.
Leaders of the three countries discussed UNRWA’s ongoing financial crisis, with U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in attendance.
According to UNRWA officials, the agency is currently dealing with a $446 million cumulative deficit.
“Palestine refugees cannot live without the education, the health services, the community support services provided by UNRWA. The emergencies in Gaza, in Syria, need UNRWA to go on being active, providing the kind of relief that is absolutely indispensable to rescue lives,” Guterres said.
Guterres added that the security of the region would be “severely undermined” if the agency ceased to exist.
The fundraising campaign aimed to preserve the services offered to Palestinian refugees at reduced or no cost, but UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krahenbuhl announced Thursday evening that just $100 million had been donated by the international community – including a $30 million from the U.N. Central Emergency Response Fund in exceptional combined rapid response grants and loan allocations.
The aid will be used to provide services and assistance to Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, the Gaza Strip and the occupied West Bank including East Jerusalem.
“UNRWA will now develop further actions and initiatives to close the rest of the shortfall. Everyone will have to work hard until the end of the year in order to achieve the result that we are seeking,” UNRWA spokesperson Fadi El-Tayyar said.
“The new donations will be a step forward in ensuring that services are not interrupted,” he adeed.
Before the announcement, a diplomatic source told The Daily Star that the ongoing deficit could lead to interruptions as early as June.
“If we continue this way with the budget deficit, then in June, when the academic year ends for 525,000 children in schools in Gaza, the West Bank, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon, we will simply have to stop paying our teachers and there are grave question marks over the rest of our service.”
Jalal al-Husseini, from the Amman-based French Institute for the Near East, said that he thought the amount of funding raised Thursday was probably not surprising to the U.N agency, which has long struggled to fight donor fatigue, as the 70th anniversary of the establishment of the state of Israel approaches, and especially following the Syrian crisis.
“This is not the first time UNRWA has been faced with such financial issues,” he said.
“UNRWA already threatened to close down its schools in Jordan due to financial crises in the past. But Thursday’s announcement from the international community is certainly serious because UNRWA’s most reliable donors are starting to phase out,” he added.
For nearly a decade, the United States provided the U.N. agency with the majority of their finances. But under the Donald Trump administration, relations took a dramatic turn when the U.S. president announced in January that only $60 million would be provided in 2018 – $300 million less than the previous year.
“We’re at a point where either [host] states really need to step up and change the way they are dealing with Palestinian refugees, or we need to put pressure on wealthy Arab countries in the Gulf to participate more in funding UNRWA’s core budget,” Husseini said.
However, he noted that the former option was not yet realistic in countries such as Lebanon, which have refused to grant Palestinian refugees nationality and the civil rights that accompany it.
“So, at this point we can only really wait, or see what the U.S. administration’s peace process is,” he laughed, lamenting the unreliability of the U.S. administration.
“Still, perhaps because they are so unpredictable, something could be negotiated in the favor of Palestinians, he added.
“All we can do as of now is wait and see.”