Covid-19 has caused poverty crisis for Palestinians, says UNRWA head James Haines-Young

UNRWA head Philippe Lazzarini (Victor Besa - The National)

The National  /  October 21, 2020

Philippe Lazzarini says investing in the UN agency boosts regional stability.

Covid-19 caused a poverty pandemic as well as a health pandemic, UN Palestinian aid agency head Philippe Lazzarini said on Tuesday as he called for long-term support for a community hit hard by the virus.

The head of the UN Relief and Works Agency, which provides support to more than five million Palestinians across the Middle East, said he was struck by the toll of the pandemic during visits to Palestinian communities as he described reports of Gazans rooting through bins to find food.

“I do believe that Covid-19 is unleashing a pandemic of abject poverty. I recently visited a camp in Beirut, for example, and I was struck by the level of despair and hopelessness,” he told The National on a visit to Abu Dhabi on Tuesday.

“Basically, while Covid-19 does not make any distinction between the people who can get the virus, when it comes to its impact, it shows all the inequalities because the most vulnerable, and among them the Palestinian refugees, are the harsher hit in terms of socio-economic impact.”

He described the reports of people picking through rubbish for food as “completely new” and said it was “an indication of how the situation is becoming desperate”.

Coupled with the pandemic, the tens of thousands of Palestinians living in Lebanon have also been hit hard by the country’s dire economic crisis.

“Lebanon has been a downfall over the last few years, and is now experiencing an unprecedented political crisis, unprecedented financial crisis, economic crisis and we had the [August 4] blast – the blast basically symbolised all the dysfunction of a system which was in place in Lebanon until now,” he said.

He said that as the level of poverty in Lebanon has gone from about 30 per cent of the population to more than 50 per cent, it has translated in Palestinian camps to 80 to 90 per cent of the community being fully dependent on UNRWA assistance.

But it is not only communities in Lebanon that face that reality. In Syria, where the majority of the 438,000 Palestinian refugees have been displaced by the country’s civil war, people are also facing the worsening economic situation. So too are people across the border in Jordan.

“We have more and more families, for example, in Syria who have gone from two meals a day to one meal a day and we even hear of families struggling to get the one meal a day.”

But Mr Lazzarini, who took over the agency in April, praised the work of the more than 28,000 staff across five countries who he said adapted to the pandemic “within days”.

He said that despite differing local situations, staff started delivering aid rather than running centralised distribution centres, teachers moved online at the hundreds of UNRWA schools and doctors at UNRWA clinics started doing video consultations.

He said their experience of working in war zones meant they were used to working at a distance, but they also faced difficulties.

One challenge was that many of the population do not have access to technology and the internet and do not live in formal housing, he said.

“[But] because most of our staff come from the community, [UNRWA] has been capable, in fact, of maintaining all its critical services,” he said.

Mr Lazzarini’s calm demeanour belies the fact he is fast becoming a man who can manage uncertainty.

“We are an organisation which has a core budget of $800 million, plus you add the emergency appeal which brings us to more than $1 billion. We have an organisation with 28,000 staff. And despite that, most of the time, we do not know if the month after we will be in a position to pay the salaries,” he said.

“This is highly unsettling for the Palestinian refugees, it’s highly unsettling for the staff and it’s is highly unsettling for the host countries.”

But he has a plan.

Mr Lazzarini is looking to change the way UNRWA appeals for funding, from perpetually chasing enough to plug gaps to adopting a multi-year strategy.

And his pitch to donors who may be fatigued by requests from a chronically cash-strapped agency? That this is an investment in stability for a region plagued by uncertainty.

“We are in a highly volatile region, there is a lot of unpredictability … and UNRWA, in reality, can be a source of predictability,” he said.

“No one wants the Palestinian refugee population in the respective countries to become a new source of instability, because despair is growing, because they do not have access any more to the basics, do not have access to their own dignity.

“I still believe that investing in UNRWA services is a good investment if we want to promote the stability of the region.”

He described the UAE as a having shown strong support to UNRWA over the years and said his visit was about discussing the future partnership during major regional developments.

He said the message he received in the UAE was that the signing of the Abraham Accord with Israel last month would not alter support for UNRWA.

“I do believe that the UAE will continue to support UNRWA and to support the Palestinian refugees,” he said.

He also made the point that countries meet to renew the mandate of UNRWA every three years and have agreed to its mission, so are responsible for providing the money.

Not everyone thinks that way. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu previously called for UNRWA to be phased out because he said it perpetuated the “Palestinian refugee problem”.

But Mr Lazzarini does not agree.

“UNRWA is not perpetrating any problem, the problem exists because it has not been politically resolved – no one today wants to be a refugee, no one wants to be a third-generation refugee,” he said.

“I do believe that UNRWA is part of a broader solution and UNRWA is definitely not the organisation perpetuating a problem. The problem is perpetuated because of the absence of a political solution.”

James Haines-Young is foreign editor at The National