Middle East Eye / November 5, 2021
UNRWA boss warns of a total collapse after the funding cuts, which are hitting health and educational services to Palestinian refugees.
The United Kingdom has halved its donations to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), deepening the international agency’s financial crisis and endangering the lives and wellbeing of the estimated 5.7 million Palestinian refugees it assists.
Philippe Lazzarini, the commissioner-general of UNRWA, said the UK had more than halved its funds for UNRWA from £42.5m ($57.2m) in 2020 to £20.8m ($28m) in 2021.
He warned of a total collapse after the funding cuts, which would affect health and educational services offered to Palestinian refugees in the occupied West Bank, besieged Gaza Strip, and in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan.
“It is a direct impact of this policy decision to reduce the aid budget from the equivalent of 0.7% of gross national income to 0.5%,” Lazzarini told The Guardian.
“It has a humanitarian impact. It has a human development impact. We calculate the decrease in aid as the equivalent of more than 70,000 boys and girls in our schools.”
In April, the UK government decided to cut its foreign aid spending by 0.2 percent, from £14.5bn a year in 2020 to £11.1bn for the 2021 financial year, which ends in April 2022.
The UK was the third top donor to UNRWA in 2020, after Germany and the European Union.
Founded in 1948, UNRWA was set to provide aid programs for almost 750,000 Palestinian refugees who were expelled by Zionist militias from their villages and towns during the establishment of the state of Israel – an event known to Palestinians as the Nakba, or “catastrophe”.
The current figure for refugees registered as eligible to receive aid from UNRWA is 5.7 million.
‘Existential threat to the organization’
Larzzini, who was visiting London, urged the UK government to rethink its position over funding UNRWA, saying that donations to the agency have “become so unstable it is causing an existential threat to the organization. Year after year, we are in an ever more exacerbated situation.”
UNRWA’s biggest financial blow came in 2018, when the most significant single donor, the US, cut its yearly contribution from $360m to $60m, before cutting all funding in 2019 – leaving the organization cash-strapped.
However, in April, US President Joe Biden announced that his administration is set to provide $235m of aid to Palestinians, in a diplomatic move to engage with the Palestinian Authority and proceed to a two-state solution.
UNRWA confirmed at the time that it would receive $150m of this aid from the US, barely enough to support its 700 schools and 150 health clinics that help Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, Gaza Strip, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.
UNRWA was $100m short in its 2021 budget.
Money for education
Larzzini confirmed that UNRWA was vital to provide education for almost half a million Palestinian students in the Middle East, despite continuous Israeli criticism of its textbooks.
“By investing in the education of more than 500,000 boys and girls in the region, we are not only investing in the future but in the stability of the region,” he said.
In October, Israel’s ambassador to the UN, Gilad Erdan, claimed that textbooks used by schools run by UNRWA contained inciteful content.
The ambassador demanded that the UN agency “end the incitement and antisemitism in UNRWA schools and publicly pledge to eliminate any terrorist infrastructure in its buildings”.
Larzzini said that UNRWA has sometimes been subject to “vicious political attacks normally through the lens of the school curriculum,” adding that the agency is not responsible for prolonging the issue of Palestinian refugees.
“Refugee statehood is perpetuated by the absence of a political solution, and there is no Palestinian, I promise you, that wants to remain a refugee after such a long time,” he said.