BEIRUT – The UN agency for Palestinian refugees is experiencing a financial crisis that could force it to halt some services to an already impoverished population of more than 5 million people, the head of the agency said Wednesday.
Philippe Lazzarini also warned in an interview in Beirut that the spread of coronavirus, an economic meltdown in Lebanon and a huge deficit in UNRWA’s budget are deepening the hopelessness among Palestinian refugees, some of whom are trying to flee the Mediterranean nation on migrant boats.
UNRWA was established to aid the 700,000 Palestinians who fled or were forced from their homes during the war surrounding Israel’s establishment in 1948. It now provides education, health care, food and other services to 5.8 million refugees and their descendants in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.
UNRWA’s financial crisis was sparked by the loss of all funding from the United States, its largest donor, in 2018. The US gave $360 million to UNRWA in 2017, but only $60 million in 2018, and nothing last year or so far this year.
US President Donald Trump said in January 2018 that the Palestinians must return to peace talks with Israel to receive US aid money. He has since put forth a plan for resolving the conflict that heavily favours Israel and was rejected by the Palestinians.
“I do believe that ceasing our activity in a context where there is such a level of despair, such a level of hopelessness, can only fuel the feeling that the Palestinian refugees are abandoned by the international community,” said Lazzarini, who took office in March.
Lazzarini said supporting UNRWA “is one of the best investments in stability in the region at a time of extraordinary unpredictability and volatility.”
“We cannot let the situation get worse in a highly volatile region,” he said.
The Swiss humanitarian expert said UNRWA is facing an estimated shortfall of about $200 million between now and the end of 2020 if the agency wants to maintain all the services in its five fields of operations, including schools, health centres and social welfare.
Fallout from the coronavirus pandemic
Lazzarini said the coronavirus is having “a huge economic and financial impact also on our donor base.” He said most donor countries are in recession at a time when Palestinians need even more aid because of the pandemic and various lockdowns.
UNRWA has registered 6,876 confirmed cases among Palestinian refugees, most of them in the West Bank, where some 5,000 cases have been detected. Lebanon, which hosts tens of thousands of Palestinians, registered 430 cases in refugee camps.
“We have people being more and more in despair expecting UNRWA to deliver more services, at a time UNRWA is already experiencing financial crisis,” Lazzarini said. “It makes it much, much harder to mobilise the necessary resources.”
Gaza has reported hundreds of coronavirus infections since the first case emerged in the general population last week, and UNRWA warned that a lack of key medical items including ventilators could make it hard to treat the disease effectively.
Widely impoverished and densely populated, the Islamist-ruled Palestinian enclave has been on lockdown since authorities confirmed four infections from a single family on August 24. It was the first time the virus was detected outside quarantine zones set up for people returning from abroad.
Since then, 603 new cases have been recorded, nearly all among the general population, with four deaths since August 24, according to Gaza’s health ministry.
The Gaza Strip is home to two million Palestinians in cities, towns and refugee camps squeezed within an area of 360 square km (139 square miles), with its borders sealed off by neighbouring Israel and Egypt.
“Gaza is probably the most densely populated place on the face of the earth so measures to contain a virus as violent as COVID-19 are always extremely difficult to put in place,” said Tamara Alrifai, spokeswoman for the UNRWA devoted to Palestinian refugees.
Alrifai, in a virtual briefing for reporters streamed from Geneva, said Israel had not hindered humanitarian assistance to Gaza since the coronavirus crisis began and that whatever has been needed to fight COVID-19 “has been well facilitated.”
“The real challenge in Gaza is the unavailability of needed items such as ventilators and other medical items,” she said.
UNRWA is asking for $94 million in contributions from countries so it can continue COVID-19 containment efforts.
Talks in Lebanon
Lazzarini on Wednesday discussed conditions of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon with President Michel Aoun and outgoing Prime Minister Hassan Diab. Aoun called for the return of Palestinians who fled to Lebanon in recent years from Syria’s civil war.
The UN official said he met with Palestinians in refugee camps during his visit to Lebanon who spoke about their hardships amid the country’s worst economic and financial crisis in decades.
Lebanon’s local currency has lost 80% of its value, wiping away the life savings of Lebanese and Palestinians alike.
“There is a really deep sense of hopelessness and despair today in the Palestinian camps,” he said, adding that some families have been forced to cut back on food purchases.
“I believe that despair and hopelessness in a situation like this one can indeed lead to violence and to instability,” he said.