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EXCLUSIVE U.N. Palestinian refugee agency warns it is in funding “danger zone“


The global economic crisis has pushed UNRWA, the U.N. agency that delivers basic services to millions of Palestinian refugees, into a “danger zone” that could result in it no longer being able to fulfil its mandate, the agency’s head said on Thursday.

UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini said stagnant resources as costs spiralled were pushing many of the 5.7 million registered Palestinian refugees in the Middle East – for many of whom the agency is a lifeline – to unprecedented poverty levels.

“There is an erosion of our capacity to deliver and at a given point if we continue on this trajectory we will reach a situation where we will not be able anymore to fulfil our mandate … this a danger zone,” Lazzarini told Reuters in an interview.

Multiple crises that had hit the region have been worsened by the impact of the war in Ukraine, meaning the plight of Palestinian refugees was “de-prioritised” by many donors, he added.

UNRWA provides public-like services including schools, primary health services, and aid relief in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. The renewal of the agency’s mandate for another three years will be put to a vote at the U.N. General Assembly later this year.

“The level of despair and distress is heartbreaking,” Lazzarini said. Poverty rates had gone up to 90% from 80% in some overcrowded camps in Lebanon, Syria and Gaza, he said.

The United Nations defines poverty as income of less than $2 per day.

UNRWA, which was established in 1949 in the wake of the first Arab-Israeli war under a U.N. mandate, should not be a victim of the international community’s failure to resolve the decades old Palestinian-Israeli conflict, he added.

“It is an anomaly that an agency that was supposed to be created on a temporary basis still has the same function … almost 75 years later,” he added.

The agency averted a major crisis when the U.S. reversed a decision by former President Donald Trump in 2018 to cut all funding to UNRWA, amounting to more than $344 million a year.

“It has been a critical return for the agency and I don’t know how we would have gone without this support today,” he added.

The United States was by far the biggest donor to UNRWA, an agency whose financial needs exceed $1.6 billion for this year, he added.

More cuts in essential services that refugees who already feel abandoned by the international community would only fuel more anger and create fertile ground for more instability, he added.

“In a highly volatile region donors are very much aware that if they withdraw funding from the organisation it might create a vacuum and in a region like this one the vacuum will be filled with something none of us will like,” he added.

The agency was seeking to return back to a predictable funding path by opening new avenues by a wider donor support base and multi-year budgets that steer it away from dependence on voluntary donations, he added.

“We have been in a situation where we do not know at middle of the month if by the end of the month we are able to pay salaries,” he added citing a grim outlook for next year where traditional donors were themselves heading to austerity budgets.

“I keep telling donors don’t take our ability to muddle through with resilience as a given, there will be a point where we will not be able anymore to keep the entirety of our services running if we don’t get more,” Lazzarini said.