Palestine refugees face service cuts due to UNRWA financial crisis

Muhammad al-Hatoum (center) with other workers outside the al-Shati refugee camp.

The United Nations agency Palestine refugees (UNRWA) faces a severe deficit that could lead to cuts of essential services to more than 4.7 million Palestinian refugees in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT), Syria, Lebanon and Jordan.

According to UNRWA, the agency’s 2009 funds are already exhausted and it faces a shortfall of US $140 million for 2010.

In the Gaza Strip, UNRWA provides education, health and job programs to more than one million. Palestinians in Gaza have become increasingly dependent on UNRWA services during the almost three years of blockade of the territory by Israel and Egypt. As a result of the blockade, unemployment has soared to almost 70 percent and the vast majority of families are reliant on UN food handouts, according to local and international estimates.

“I head a family with seven children, and as you can see, we are here cleaning the beach as part of an UNRWA job program,” Muhammad al-Hatoum, 41, said as he took a break with fellow workers at the beachfront near the al-Shati refugee camp. Prior to the second intifada which began in 2000, al-Hatoum used to work as a carpenter inside Israel.

Outside UNRWA’s headquarters in Gaza City, several university graduates lined up. Like so many others, they turned to UNRWA in the hope of finding work opportunity.

UNRWA’s sanitation office at the al-Shati refugee camp.

One of the graduates, Muhammad Jumaa, who earned a degree in mathematics last year, appealed to donor countries to support the UN agency: “UNRWA deserves to be supported so that it can help people earn a living through job creation programs.”

In October, UNRWA added 14,000 temporary job opportunities, more than 3,000 of which were dedicated to supporting the private sector which is struggling to survive amid general impoverishment of the population and shortages of raw materials due to the siege.

“The situation is unprecedented and unbearable absolutely and this is what we have conveyed to the meeting of donor and host countries in Amman in November of this year,” Adnan Abu Hasna, UNRWA’s spokesman in Gaza, said. “It is clear enough that we cannot continue providing services to more than 4.7 million Palestinian refugees in the Middle East, amidst such large-scale deterioration.”

UNRWA — which marked its 60th anniversary this month — is mandated with providing education, primary health, vocational training and other essential services to Palestinian refugees “pending a just and lasting solution to their plight.” UNRWA has often had to provide emergency assistance to reconstruct homes and infrastructure following Israel’s attacks in the OPT.

Unlike the UN High Commission for Refugees, which cares for all other refugees in the world, it was not given a mandate to advocate for and ensure their return home, as required by international law and UN General Assembly resolution 194.

UNRWA is funded almost entirely by voluntary contributions from UN member states and it has a core budget for 2010 and 2011 of about $1.23 billion or just more than $260 per refugee.

In light of growing need, UNRWA has often been forced to launch emergency appeals. In response to the crisis this week, 19 donor states pledged more than $90 million, but UNRWA officials still expect a large shortfall and warn about cuts to programs and services. The agency currently has no money in its reserves.

All images by Rami Almeghari.

Rami Almeghari is a journalist and university lecturer based in the Gaza Strip.